Saturday, February 27, 2010


Have you ever looked at swimmers or any athlete for that matter, and said, “I wish I could do that.”  They don’t need to be a top athlete, but just a average Joe on a team, or not on a team, doing what they do, working their way through their sport, not at the bottom, but also not at the top.  You might see some small technical thing they do that you recognize only because you’ve tried to do that very same thing unsuccessfully – a particular arm swing during a high jump, the angle of a wrist during a pitch, a catch on the run, or a flip turn.  That happens to me a lot – Man, I wish I could do that!  And often it comes down to breath. 

Last year I was at the gym sitting in the hot tub – I LOVE hot tubs – and I was watching an older gentleman also in the hot tub as he watched a young man swimming laps in the pool just a few feet away.  The older gentleman was probably in his late 60’s, was rather thin and wearing a Speedo.  I’ve noticed that older guys don’t wear Speedos unless they wore them for a legit reason when they were young.  And they wear them now whether they’re in the same shape they were in 30 years before or not.  Gut – what gut?  Sometimes that Speedo of today has an awning it didn’t have during their younger athletic days. 

The younger man doing laps was in his 20’s and was chugging along freestyling at pretty good clip, doing fast open turns at the walls and an occasional flip turn – lap, after lap, after lap.  The older man stared at him with a fascinated look and I wanted to know why. 

When the younger man stopped, the older man said, “Hey, so are you a triathlete?”  “Yeah, how’d you know?” the younger guy asked.  “You’re breathing.”  “Oh yeah, on both sides?  It really helps,” said the younger guy.

The older I get, the more I see how much of life comes down to breath. I knew of that thing the younger guy was doing – bilateral breathing.  I read about it.  But man I wish I could do that.  My regular right hand breathing seemed so comfortable.  Why should I learn another way to breath?

When I first learned to use a mask and snorkel, I found the whole practice was mostly about breath.  If you’re in the ocean, you can distract yourself with cool things to see, but when I’m in the ocean or pool, my mind is focused on my breath.  What it sounds like while I’m forcing air in and out of a plastic tube, how I continue breathing even with the occasional intake of salt or chlorinated water, what it feels like to hold my breath when I dive below the surface, how much force I need to blow water out of the snorkel when I resurface.  Snorkeling is not about swimming, it’s about breath.

When I learned SCUBA, I had to relearn to breath and control my breathing no matter what.  “Never hold your breath – always breath,” my instructors would say.  Completely surrounded by water, exploring a strange new world that you are just visiting at best, SCUBA claims to be about fun and safety.  But when you’re down there with your life strapped to your back, everything you see is silent and the only thing you hear is the rhythm of your own breathing.  Be calm – in and out.  SCUBA offers a level of inward focus that would be helpful on dry land.  Because down there, when you get excited, you hear your life rhythm change and it engulfs you.  Be calm – breath.

During WSI training the instructor said, “OK, now I’d like to see you breath every third arm stroke.  Bilateral breathing.  It makes you swim balanced.”  He said it as if to say, of course you know how to do this and have been doing it for years.  So go do it.  With the image of the young man at the pool in my head, I just did it.  I did it!  Another hurdle of WSI overtaken.  I can breath balanced!

One might say, So what? Everybody does it. What’s the big deal about breath?  The most common thing is also the most precious.  Perhaps it’s for more than the obvious reason that if we don’t breath we die.  We are made of breath.  When we don’t breath, we reject who we really are. There is that bible verse in Genesis that says, “…the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

We are more than flesh, we are made of sacred breath.  Being in water helps remind us how important that is.

copyright 2010 Kevin Brooks