Thursday, June 28, 2007

In memoriam

The memorial service today for my amazing swimming teacher Doug Stern was very moving and very, very sad.

(This is going to be a long and rambling swimming-related post. Consider yourself warned.)

I went over to the Columbia pool this evening and as I got in (usually I swim at the funny little Teachers College one because it's better for working on drills, plus the Columbia one gives me pool rage because of crowdedness and bad lane etiquette, but the TC one closes at 8 whereas the Columbia one's open till 9, and I didn't make it back out of the house till about 8:10) I thought "well, if I can swing it I am going to swim a mile without stopping"--it has been my swimming goal at the back of my head, I haven't really been keeping track because if you're using fins and hand paddles for some of the laps and doing tons of right arm-left arm drills it doesn't count anyway, and I've been at the stage where technique is more to the point than volume, but really swimming a mile is an important marker. And I have certainly never done it before--we do timed 500-yard swims quite often in Doug's class, but I haven't had the chance to go longer while really counting.

I was thinking very much of Doug and for some reason this evening my swimming was just very strong and comfortable. I started in the medium-speed lane only the two other guys there were super-slow--I was laughing inwardly because when I for the second time met up with one of them at the wall and politely said "Will you go ahead?," he motioned to me to go ahead and said "You're really good!" (?!?)--and so I switched for the first time ever into the fast lane and kept on swimming (not very fast, by the way, it is just that the pool is such a mess, you have to find a refuge in the fast lane).

And I sort of couldn't quite remember whether the pool was meters or yards and exactly how many of them count for this whole swimming mile thing anyway, and I got kicked out of the pool right at 9 o'clock closing time as I finished lap 64 (around lap 59 I realized that the guy who was now in this new lane telling me to go ahead of him was my friend and former student Dizzyhead Gautam!), and the pool really is 25 yards rather than 25 meters so that's 1600 yards which is not a full mile (the swimmer's mile is 1650 yards or 1500 meters), but I would have to say that I met the spirit of the challenge. I can pretty much swim a mile now (minus two laps), and it was easy! (Not sure how long it took, forgot to check the clock at the beginning-thirty-five minutes, maybe a little longer?)

The really good part is thinking about what this means for the whole cycling business (I still have not gone out on the bike, there have been various weather-related and post-injury/don't-over-exercise-type obstacles, but I will get out at least once this weekend). I was an enthusiastic but quite poor swimmer in January. I hadn't swum, really, since I was a kid, I had never swum laps and I could barely do more than a couple lengths of the pool without stopping to rest. After reading various internet-type material, I resolved that I would swim at least four times a week (actually I initially said five, but this proved impractical) until I was a good swimmer.

I bounced through a couple teachers who were helpful but with always with one drawback or another, but as soon as I realized that Doug taught swimming as well as deep-water running (that was the class I started taking with him at the beginning of January) I thought, "I have found exactly the right teacher!," and the first swimming class confirmed this belief (the other teachers who work with Doug are all fantastic also).

So over about five months and a very steady sustained effort (and, I must confess, a rather large amount of money...) I am now in possession of a slowish but very steady and enjoyable front crawl stroke.

What I think this means: if I ride my bike, say, 3 times a week, twice for forty minutes and once for an hour and a half, and if I keep this up very steadily for five or six months (adding in complications one at a time--I really am mentally gearing up for the clipless pedals, I live right next to a park with totally no cars, lots of talk today about Doug really being afraid of heights but making himself jump off a 30-foot cliff into the ocean so I think the least I could do is ride with shoes stuck onto the pedals--and gradually working on traffic-related skills, and the finer nuances of gearing and interval training and stuff, and making the long ride longer every couple of weeks), there is every reason to think I will be a perfectly respectable cyclist by the end of 2007. I think most people would say that riding a bike is on the whole easier than swimming, though it's daunting in different ways.

And then in 2008 I am going to do four or five triathlons (mostly Olympic distance) over the summer and run the New York marathon in the fall, injury permitting and providing I can snag a place. And then in 2009 I will do a half-Ironman triathlon and keep working on half- and full marathon speed so that the year I turn forty I will bring my marathon time down low enough to qualify for Boston. (And then after that I will do a full-length Ironman race!) This all can be done, if the stars are in alignment; but it is my job to make them be in alignment, and one way of ensuring that this all happens is to keep working on my swimming in the playful and serious and self-examining and altogether compelling spirit of Doug Stern.

It is the strict truth rather than any kind of exaggeration when I say that for the rest of my life I'm pretty much going to remember Doug every time I get in a pool. And other times besides, of course, but I like the regularity of remembering by swimming.

One of the last classes I saw him at was the final meeting of the level I swim clinic. He'd already had this major neck surgery and he was just in pain and feeling totally awful. For some reason my form was particularly dire that day, and as he watched me swim my sort of "test" length for form and I looked over at him he was just throwing his hands up in the air in comical despair; it was hopeless....

(I remembering him saying to me another time, a couple weeks later and in genuine perplexity rather than sarcasm, with regard to the question of opening the hip properly, "It's funny, you're getting it right some of the time!" It is one of the great mysteries of life and particularly of swimming why our grasp on these things is so tenuous!)

But then we did the timed ten-minute swim (to see how many laps you can swim in ten minutes as opposed to the first class six weeks earlier), and even though my left arm was still hanging down in some incredibly pointless and inefficient way I really swam to the utmost of my ability, strongly and steadily and working really hard and not pausing at the wall for a moment. I had religiously swum at least three times every week outside of class (and obviously I do all this other exercise also, running and yoga and strength training including a million pushups and jumping rope and stuff) and this was where it kind of showed, in conditioning and steadiness and speed.

And as I sped up in the final few seconds and raced towards the wall, I looked over and he was holding up his hand in that A-OK gesture and just beaming at me, and I could see that with his X-ray coach eyes he had watched my swimming and seen that in spite of my pretty bad form and general forgetfulness of many important half-learned things I was swimming in a way one could be proud of, a way that showed I was reaping the rewards of hard work and mindfulness about what I was doing.

To earn the approval of a magically good teacher by hard work rather than by talent is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world.


  1. That's a wonderful tribute.

    I wish I had your energy! Your training/competing plans sound great.

  2. Some people are incorporated into our lives; as you say, you will remember him often and well.

  3. Remembering well, and swimming well. Ideal tributes.

  4. You sound like you're remembering him just as he'd wish to be remembered -- by swimming happily!

    I used to swim in that Columbia pool with my friend Melissa Knox (she did at least a mile a day). I was one of the slow swimmers that people kept passing -- it was very embarrassing. Now that I swim in a pool where there's always a lane free, I enjoy my laps a lot more!

  5. Doug was also my swim coach for many years. He TAUGHT me how to swim when I was the ripe old age of 39! I wouldn't drown in a small pool, but never really went in water over my head voluntarily!

    I went to Curacao with Doug twice, and then completed the full ironman 3 years later (age 42). (I had already run many marathons by the time I met Doug).

    I hadn't seen Doung in many years, as I moved to FL in 2000. I did call him in 2001 when I was learning to be a coach. He always had the best advice. He told me that I certainly knew about running, but I should learn EVERYONE's name and call it out often!

    He was the best, and I will m iss him, and think of him often.

    I'll swim a mile in the pool in his memory this week. (Haven;t done that in many years)

    Marty Chalfin

  6. Good coaching advice!

    Thanks to everyone for their comments.

  7. I had the pleasure of swimming for Doug at Evander Childs High School from 1980-1985. I was not a great student when I first met Doug, I was held back my freshman year, but Doug took me under his wing and taught me so much about life and swimming. As a result, I went on to compete at the NCAA level, won a couple of National Championships, and have led a productive military life. He was a great friend, mentor, and father figure to me. Even though he was sick, he remained positive and always had the best advice. He will be greatly missed.

  8. Thanks for leaving those words, Alvin.

  9. It's Cleo (Doug's daughter). It was so funny googling (haha-to google-a verb?) my dad and finding this. i actually need to email you back, sorry its been forever. I remember Marty Chalfin. Weird.