Get Swimming, Week 8: When breast isn’t best and you forget your Speedos

For Malachy Clerkin, every session follows a familiar pattern – "do it, nearly drown, do it again, get annoyed, do it again”

Orna (crawling) Mulcahy

A date has been set and it's galloping towards me. April 7th is when our group will face the mile challenge, and Peter, our ever-encouraging coach from Swim Ireland, is saying it will all be grand.

“Look how far you have come in just a few weeks,” he says, and it’s true. We’re swimming straight, fast and in a focused way, or at least the others are. I’ve missed a couple of lessons and have to keep checking ahead and behind me to make sure I’m keeping pace, while still struggling to master the crawl, still taking in water. Still gasping after two lengths of the 25m pool. And falling back on the breast stroke for comfort.

The breast stroke makes sense: you can look ahead, dip down and exhale, come up and breathe in, and keep going for, well, ages. It feels good, almost meditative, and it’s doing wonders for my wonky shoulder that has defied weeks of physiotherapy. Now the pain has gone and I don’t have to do a full 180-degree turn to catch my seat belt.

Consequently I love the breast stroke but Peter is insisting that there’ll be none of that. We’re in this to learn the crawl and learn it properly. Maybe a bit of backstroke when a rest is needed but that’s it. No breast.


I Google “breast stroke vs crawl” and I find that the breast stroke ranks higher for cardio fitness and improves lung function. The crawl is the quickest way to a taut upper body, but that the breast stroke will deliver more or less the same result, though it burns fewer calories. So what’s the big deal?

The crawl is faster and harder, but it’s what we’re here to master, and so, enough of your breast stroke, Peter says. It’s back to trying to get the arms going, and the hips, and the head, the elbows, the hands, and the feet. “You have to remember only about nine things at the same time,” says Peter cheerfully. I’ve seen others in the group have their “aha” moment, and power ahead.

I need to conquer the crawl.

Malachy (Speedo-less) Clerkin

You get a better class of chatter in the Trinity pool changing rooms. After a lesson, I walked out of the shower to find Peter The Coach (PTC) being quizzed by one of the professors. "I would imagine Newton's laws would be the key touchstones for swimming," ventured the professor. To which PTC replied, "Newton, yes. But also Bernoulli."

Ah lads. I’m no advocate for towel-snapping or dressingroom banter of any kind, but at least let me find a level. I’m a sports journalist. I can hold my own in most environments. But Newton and Bernoulli? Unless they’re potential United signings, I’m holding my whisht.

As the old saying goes, better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Anyway, PTC has already done me a huge favour. I arrived for my lesson late and togless. I didn’t stride out onto the pool deck in all my glory, it’s just that I realised upon unfurling my towel in the changing room that I was, sadly, Speedoily embarrassed. So I had to roll up the bottom of my jeans and pad out poolside to ask PTC if he had a spare pair.

Rachel, one of my co-Swim-A- Milers, was tickled pink by the whole situation. “I have a spare swimsuit,” she chortled. “I’ll pay a month of your mortgage if you wear it.” Which put three thoughts immediately in my head: 1. The Irish Times is paying Rachel too much money. 2. I’d have done it for €20. 3. The Irish Times isn’t paying me anywhere near enough money.

Thankfully, PTC had a spare pair so we all escape with our dignity intact.

In the water, things are coming along. PTC is the most positive man in the world and I am choosing to believe him when he says swimming a mile is going to be no problem.

Every session brings a small tweak to my stroke. And so every session follows a familiar pattern – do it, nearly drown, do it again, get annoyed, do it again, do it better.

I’m having a problem with keeping my right arm extended as I breathe to the left so he makes me swim two lengths using only my left arm. Halfway down the pool, I feel like half the pool is down me. Cough, splutter, stand up, go again.

“How was that?” PTC asks at the end of the length, smiling like he knows exactly how it was. “Go stick your head in a blender,” I think. “Grand,” I say.

Yes, choosing to believe him is where I’m at. I mean, the man knows his Newton from his Bernoulli. Who am I to doubt him?

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