Braille Monitor                                                    June 2008

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Swimming in the Zone
A Mile in My Backyard

by Robert Leslie Newman

From the Editor: Summer is here, and many blind people would be interested in getting exercise in the pool if they had access and know-how. Two articles in this issue should offer encouragement to those who love the water. The first is by Robert Leslie Newman, who is one of our most dedicated advocates for exercise. This is what he says:

Robert Leslie Newman swims laps in his backyard pool.Swimming has always been one of my favorite physical activities. As a kid I saw it as fun and physically refreshing on a hot day and a time to be with my friends. Now that I am older, less than a year away from completing my sixth decade, though I still love swimming for those early reasons, I realize that swimming fulfills an additional set of personal needs. In this article I intend to explore how a blind person swims independently and how this exercise benefits me physically and mentally and boosts my self-confidence. Finally, I will describe how this exercise can get you into the zone.

I am lucky to be at a stage of life and career in which my wife and I have been able to make one of our dreams come true: to have our own backyard swimming pool. It is an aboveground oval pool measuring twelve feet by twenty-four feet and is four feet deep. Its sides are steel, its thick plastic liner is aqua blue, and it has an electric pump and filtering system. We had a deck built that wraps around both ends and one long side and joins an existing deck--house to pool without getting your feet dirty.

Swimming as a totally blind person demands the same basic travel skills as traveling on dry land: a combination of hearing, touch, and common sense. As I describe my personal technique, note that, just as not all blind travelers use basic travel skills in the same way, each blind swimmer finds his or her own style of making it work. When swimming on the surface, my preference is always to have my ears out of the water so I can use my hearing to keep oriented; this would also help to avoid collisions with other swimmers. In this ears-up style I am able, not only to keep track of where I am relative to the length and width of the pool, but more important, to detect where the side walls are, helping me avoid running into them and, when swimming laps, to know precisely where they are in order to stay within touching distance of them.

This hearing the walls, detecting where they are, is more than just listening for the sound of splashing water as it encounters the pool’s sides and hearing background sounds coming over the top of the wall. This ability is more a result of the very real phenomenon that many blind people speak of as “blind sonar” or echolocation (before it was better understood, it was called “facial vision”). When I am asked to explain this “detecting the walls,” I usually explain that objects make their presence known both by the quality of their echo feedback, which can be either highly reflective or sound absorbing, and also by the pressure that their mass projects, which we usually feel on the face. Once you detect it, you can use the amount of pressure to judge your distance and angle from the object--in this case the pool wall. (Sailors speak of sailing on a moonless and starless night and feeling the loom of a nearby towering rock or an on-coming island.)

Swimming as exercise is one of my new enthusiasms. I love physical exercise. At every stage of my life I have found time for it. I presently do some sort of exercise six days a week: lifting weights, running, and muscle crunches. Now I mix in swimming during the warm months. Not only does swimming tax your respiratory and circulatory systems, it also involves all your muscles and is a low-impact activity. I love the feeling I have after a good workout in the water, overall fatigue yet a sense of accomplishment for having given my body a good workout. Knowing I am better inside and out gives me a glow of virtue. Like most people I pride myself on knowing that I am taking good care of my body, my health, and my general appearance.

If I don't watch it, I can get bored when I swim. So, as part of pool maintenance, I make a game of finding leaves and other debris that have fallen in the water. This is not just walking around feeling for stuff with my toes, I'm on a hunt. I make it a test of how quickly I can get to the bottom and conduct a search over a reasonably large area. I really get to work on my ability to hold a breath.

I have also made up several great underwater games. I drop and lie prone on the floor of the pool. As I sink, I expel all the air in my lungs, eliminating buoyancy. The object is to sink and not have to fight to stay on the bottom. With some of my body touching the spongy plastic flooring and stretched out with arms extended, I propel myself by finger and toe movements only. The object is to see how far and fast I can go.

Another favorite underwater game is to visualize myself as a bird in flight; the medium in which I am propelling myself, a body of water, is not very different from a bird flying through the air. The real thrill that comes with this second exercise is planning and executing course changes, sometimes radical ones; this is as close to soaring as we humans can get. If I am swimming in a straight line, I perform a tilting sharp right or left turn or do a figure eight. The resulting position of my body is much like a bird’s motion during a banking turn. You can really surprise yourself by coming up from the bottom on a steep angle as fast as you can and pop out of the water. This is called broaching when a whale does it.

My favorite swimming exercise is distance swimming, and I love to watch people’s reaction when I say, “I swam a mile in my backyard.” This is of course an aerobic activity intended to work on the respiratory, circulatory, and musculature systems. The equation calculating a mile of swimming goes like this--a mile, 5,280 feet, divided by the perimeter of my pool, 56.5 feet, equals about ninety-three laps. Because I am swimming just inside the pool’s wall, using good old blind sonar to keep within touching distance of the side at all times, I add five laps to bring the distance traveled of about fifty-four feet a lap up to 5,292 feet. On average I make one circuit every thirty-five seconds, so one mile takes about fifty-seven minutes to complete.

I have been asked how I track when I have completed a full circuit of the pool. I first thought that I would just keep track of the two turns and the two straight-aways and raise my count that way. But, when you get into long-distance swimming and hit the zone that I will speak of in the next paragraphs, your mind begins floating free. You focus on thoughts that do not lend themselves to counting turns and straight-aways or the shifting of the sun or the sound of the neighbor’s lawnmower. So I increase my lap count by one each time I come abreast of the sound of the skimmer box, a cut-out hole in the pool’s wall at the waterline that serves as an overflow port and allows floating debris to be skimmed off the surface.

Swimming a mile is not something I do every day; I don’t always have the time to devote to it. Yet on average in the summer I do it two to three times a week. I am going to describe swimming a mile because of what happens, not only the physical glow and healthy fatigue, but, even more intriguing, achieving the zone, the mental state that comes as my body adjusts to the strong and continuous physical strain.

Starting a long swim, I am excited to begin but nervous that I may not make it. I plunge in, either pushing off the ladder or diving off the deck, not touching bottom then or when I finish. Until I hoist myself out again onto the hard, dry planks of the deck, water will be my only medium. My swims have pretty much developed a pattern of both physical and mental stages: the warm-up, the struggle, the second wind and the zone, then the hard work, and the final push to the finish.

I warm up during the first ten or so laps, stretching muscles and joints, working the breathing, finding the right stroke, slowly building up speed. A modified breast stroke works best for me. Visualize my head up, ears and nose out of the water, my back and shoulders rhythmically bobbing above and below the surface of the water, my body rocking as I first stretch out, legs kicking back while simultaneously my arms reach ahead. Then my body contracts as my arms stroke back and my legs come forward. This quick one-two action is repeated again and again. I call this swimming style my sea gallop.

I first feel fatigue somewhere in the twenties. I just push through this feeling and refuse to give in. Sometimes, to boost my willpower, I give myself a fantasy goal, visualizing that I am swimming away from the mainland toward an island a mile offshore.

Somewhere in the thirties I reach and pass through a physical barrier and settle into my most economical stroke. I have my second wind and find that pushing my speed up to about two-thirds of my best is a pace that I can hold for the next twenty to thirty laps. It is here that I am no longer giving full attention to what my body is doing. I experience a separation of physical and mental awareness. I have reached the zone. My body is working on something like autopilot, where I am fully aware of all that it is doing and I am in full control, but I suddenly find my thoughts expanding, sometimes cascading. When I focus on one thought, the images come fast and full, and I find that I can take them places that I ordinarily would not be capable of--working out problems in relationships, building story-lines for articles such as this one, examining the secrets of life, and more. During this period I have the hardest time keeping track of laps. When in doubt of the count, I always repeat the lap.

The later fifties and early sixties can be a time to slow down and shift the strain from one set of muscles to another, giving parts of my body a rest. Then in the later sixties and lower seventies I can again push on strong, up to about two-thirds power, and I'm again in the zone. By the later mid eighties and nineties I am again swimming at about one-third speed, working at it to stay steady and concentrating on having a good finish.

At this writing my longest distance has been two miles. My goal for this summer is five miles. I have run five miles many times in the past, and swimming them will indeed be a challenge. (The zone in running is called “runner’s high.”) But challenge in life is what we all need, and as blind people in this day and age, when others often doubt our abilities, we need to be ready to tackle any and all challenges that come our way. Success with a physical challenge can be one way of building belief and confidence in ourselves and can help us to meet and overcome life’s challenges.

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