…or, How I Became Both a Swimmer AND an Open Water Swimmer in My Late 50s
A friend recently asked me how I got started as a swimmer. She probably really meant, as an old person swimmer. She also asked a number of questions I thought other beginning swimmers might want answered.
FIRST HURDLE—The Suit
It all started last August (2019) when I began attending a three-times-per-week Arthritis Foundation water workout with a couple of friends from church. (Technically I started five years ago with the same two friends in the same class, but I dropped out after a couple of months. I started up again after dislocating some of my ribs in July 2019.) These two friends were more advanced in age than I, as was everyone else in the class. Even though I dreaded being seen in a swimsuit it turned out that I looked pretty good compared to everyone else in the class (mainly because I was twenty to thirty years younger than the rest of them). Even though it’s vain and ridiculous getting over Public Swimsuit Dread was my first hurdle.
Here’s my favorite swimsuit: Maxine of Hollywood. This suit suits me because of its very modest leg holes; it also covers my extremely long torso, and the shirring camouflages old-lady-body belly bulge (especially the textured or print fabrics).
Here are couple of links for other suits I’ve purchased:
Karrack “Boy leg” suit. This one has really good sizing info, especially if you need to cover a long torso. Its back is seamless, so it doesn’t hug the inward curve of your back. This can leave you rather shapeless looking. It has good upper body padding, providing warmth and modest coverage.
Baleaf conservative racer back suit. I want to love this suit more than I do. Its leg holes are really conservative on the front, but not on the back. If you don’t like any of your rear end exposed, you might not like this suit. It has good (and flattering) coverage on the top, but won’t disguise old lady belly like the Maxine suit will.
I really like purchasing suits from Amazon because they usually let you return them if they don’t fit. MAKE SURE YOU CAN RETURN THE SUIT before you buy it. Different fabrics and sizes are often sold by different sellers, and some shops won’t do returns. You can often find a great price in these various shops, so keep checking your size in the different fabrics. (I’m pretty sure most brick-and-mortar stores won’t even let you try on suits right now in the COVID-19 craze, let alone return them.) Also, be aware that chlorine fades swim suits as soon as three or four wearings. You can still wear the suit for a long time; it just won’t be as brightly colored.
Once I decided to swim laps (versus messing around in the pool like I did as a kid) I quickly discovered the need for goggles and the dreaded bathing cap. We always had to wear swim caps in the pool when I was a young girl (the issue of long hair in the pool filter) and though they used to make some pretty fancy ones, they really weren’t flattering (unless you had a lovely face like Esther Williams). Sad news: they still aren’t. Get over it—because goggles are really going to sink your look. But you need them too.
Swim caps—there are three types: Silicone, Latex, and Lycra. I haven’t used a Latex one. Heat-holding-wise, they fall between silicone and Lycra. I’ve heard they don’t last as long as the others. I wasn’t interested in them. My first cap was essentially a silicone helmet; it covered most of my head, didn’t keep my hair dry (none of them do—don’t believe ads that say they do) and didn’t keep water out of my ears (ditto about ads). It was a fine cap for starters. Since I usually swam after my Silver Sneakers class, wherein I really built up a head of steam, I didn’t like the cap because it was holding heat in my already hot head.
Then I found out about Lycra caps. Overheated head problem solved. In fact, the first time I wore it (in an indoor pool) I was in for a shock. The water felt really cold! I’m used to it now though and I find that during a vigorous indoor swim my face still gets very warm even with the Lycra cap. (I’ve included two links because I like both the Tyr and Sporti Lycra caps. I also use a Sporti silicone cap for open water swimming.)
Goggles—the mind boggles at the variety of goggles, so I’ll just cover the ones I’ve had experience with: non-adjustable nose piece (socket or non-socket) and adjustable nose piece (socket or non-socket). I first bought non-socket, non-adjustable nose piece Speedo goggles. I didn’t know what I was doing and these had good reviews. (Since going to the store and trying them on wasn’t practicable, I had to rely on reviews.) Luckily goggles are fairly cheap so you can try a few different pairs.
I recommend goggles with an adjustable nose piece. I don’t like the socket kind. Goggles need to fit really close (to prevent leakage), but I don’t like them inside my eye sockets. The non-socket variety hugs the eye socket bones, but a little more to the outer edge than the inner. Either way, goggles are a bit uncomfortable, they can leave marks around your eyes, and even cause a bit of puffiness the morning after. But they are so, so, so, so necessary and great when they work properly. Sporti is my favorite brand. The only place I could find them (other than the Provo Rec Center) is Swim Outlet. If you’re only going to swim indoors clear lenses are fine. Clear lenses are also good outdoors if the sun is behind the mountains.
If you belong to a gym with a pool, such as Vasa, they probably won’t provide access to a coach or swimming instructor. But it might have some type of water aerobics classes (probably still suspended due to COVID-19). If you can find a place to take an aqua aerobics class, take it. In my experience, most of the people in those classes aren’t worried about how anyone else looks in a suit. They’re just there to have fun and get a workout.
Hopefully your city has a rec center with aqua aerobics classes. They should also have swimming lessons available. Sign up. It’s so worth it. Also, you can watch YouTube videos and learn just about everything you want to know. There’s no substitute for personal instruction though. (Caution: if you’re going to swim breaststroke you need to pay attention to correct form on the kick; if you do the old-style frog kick you may end up with painful-to-injured knees.)
If you survived putting on a swimsuit in public and wearing a cap and goggles, you can handle taking swimming lessons. I took two courses (of ten and eight lessons, I think—second session cut short by COVID-19) and learned, practiced, and reviewed just about everything I need to know to have a GREAT TIME swimming for life.
OPEN WATER SWIMMING
After reading Lynne Cox’s book Swimming to Antarctica, I knew I wanted to attempt open water swimming (OWS). When the rec centers and gyms closed mid-March I became really focused on this goal. I’d already discovered the magical—seriously, it’s like magic—cure that swimming is for anxiety and depression. I was loathe to forsake it for a week, month, season. Lucky for me our pools opened back up at the beginning of May. It was probably still too cold to swim outdoors here in northern Utah even in May. (Probably. This remains to be seen. I haven’t purchased my first wet suit yet.)
If you want to attempt OWS, please do some research first. (I recommend Lynne Cox’s books Swimming to Antarctica, Swimming in the Kitchen Sink, and Open Water Swimming Manual.) There are some important tips you need to be aware of. First, wear a silicone cap if your water is chilly. (I wear one in water that’s 65-68° F. I found it too warm in 72°, but you may not.) Wear a bright-colored cap, such as neon yellow (reportedly the easiest color to spot). YOU WANT TO BE SEEN.
Second, don’t sit around in wet clothes. I’m OK for the 20-minute drive home from Deer Creek Reservoir, but should have changed before we drove the hour home from Strawberry Reservoir. (I was still OK, but would have warmed up properly had I changed first.)
Third, it can be really freaky swimming through plants, seeing fish, and stepping in gushy, gross mud. Be aware that these things can happen.
And NEVER SWIM ALONE.
There are lots of good videos on YouTube. I liked this one, but watch some others too.