Learning to Swim, Again

I come up out of the pool at the Whakatane Aquatics Center sputtering and breathing hard at the end of a 400-meter sprint, the last of three for my workout that day.

Gripping on to the pool deck for support, I look to my left and notice an elderly man with a New Zealand Masters Swim cap mouthing words at me. I’m disoriented from the lack of oxygen and I can’t hear anything because my earplugs are in so I pop them out, take a few deep breaths and ask the man to repeat himself.

“Are you training for something?” he says with a thick Kiwi accent. “Because your stroke is all wrong, if you are.” Yes, I’m training for a swim on the Waikato River, I tell the gentleman. “Come over in this lane,” he growls and I obediently duck under the lane divider and come up out of the water to meet an extended hand, “I’m Eddie Vowles and I teach people to swim.”

Over the course of the next few months I see Eddie in the pool two or three times a week and he works me through a series of techniques and drills that significantly improve strokes and my times.

Before I met Eddie my fastest 400-meter freestyle was about 8:10. Two months after I met Eddie I’m breezing through a 400-meter freestyle in 7:35. That’s a big improvement.

I knew that I was working too hard with my shoulders and that my “catch” wasn’t quite right. In fact, I had spent the better part of the month before I met Eddie trying to correct those problems by reading swimming technique books and watching YouTube videos on swim strokes. When Eddie learns I’ve been watching YouTube swim videos and reading swim instruction books he scowls, “You can’t learn anything from a YouTube video.”

On terra firma, Eddie just looks like an average-sized, ordinary bloke. The first time I ran into him in town I hardly recognized him. In the pool, with his black New Zealand Masters swim cap pulled tightly over his head, his tinted goggles perched above his aquiline nose, Eddie looks like a king surveying his court. He just turned 80 a few weeks ago and it’s both humbling and inspiring to swim next to him. I’d never break any Master’s records in my age group, but I’m a decent swimmer for my age and even though I’m a full 30 years young than Eddie, he overpowers me when we are swimming side by side.

Eddie posing in front of his vanity license plate

Before he retired in the late 1980s, Eddie was a serious swimmer, but since his retirement, swimming has taken on a primary role in his everyday life. Eddie holds four New Zealand Master’s records, one Australian Pan Pacific Games record, one gold and one silver medal from the 2005 World Masters Games in Montreal and one silver medal from the 2009 World Masters Games in Sydney. These are major accomplishments that don’t just come from natural talent. It takes hard work, dedication and hours in the pool to get to that level, at any age.

A small selection of Eddie’s swimming medals
Looking through his vast collection of swimming literature

Beyond his swimming honors, Eddie is a kind of aquatic Leonardo di Vinci. He approaches swimming with a joyful curiosity as well as a science and a mathematical problem to be solved. I’ll frequently get emails and texts from Eddie encouraging me to stick with it and reminding me of certain mathematical principles related to swimming, and whenever I see him he’s quick with a tip or a theory for a more efficient swimming stroke.

A typically encouraging text message

Eddie brings a colorful assortment of swim accouterments to his lap swims and he piles them up at the end of his lane. On a small white board propped up against the dive pedestal, Eddie writes out his daily workout, target heart rates for each set and masters world record times in the freestyle, back stroke and butterfly to aspire to.


There’s also a raft of homemade swim accouterments including hand paddles made of plastics and rubber he got at the hardware store here in town and a weird-looking contraption, called a Pool Buoy that consists of a bright-orange bucket tied to a bicycle tube. You have to wrap the tube in a figure eight around your ankles, put the paddles on and go. I nearly drowned the first time I used it.


One day I am swimming in the lane next to Eddie and I’ve just finished a 200- meter freestyle set. I stop at the end of the lane to catch my breath and Eddie comes chugging up alongside me, pops his head out of the water and says, “You are lifting your hand too high after your release. Keep your elbow at an obtuse angle and keep it higher than your hand. I know I’m picking at you, but I just want you to look beautiful.”

I must admit, I want to look beautiful in the water as well, so I do what he says and I think of a line in Welcome to the Monkey House where Kurt Vonnegut (one of a long line of literary swimmers) writes “I am six feet two and weigh nearly two hundred pounds and am badly coordinated, except when I swim. . . . In the water I am beautiful. ”

No matter their skill level, though, swimmers do look beautiful in the water and Vonnegut is correct: sometimes the most awkward people on land are the most graceful in the water. This was certainly the case for the English poet, Lord Byron, who  suffered from a club foot, took up swimming and became a legendary and magnificent swimmer.

Many times after I swim, I’ll sit quietly by the pool and watch my fellow swimmers freestyling, back- and breaststroking and butterflying across the pool. I love to watch all those elbows, hands and forearms exploding from the water, slicing back in again and then the bottoms of the swimmer’s feet fluttering and kicking up small waves as their heads rhythmically move from side to side. As I watch from the sidelines, I’m relaxed and at ease and I relish what Byron, called a “languid laziness,” that I feel after a long swim.

Eddie working on his butterfly

Eddie teaches me to perform my freestyle stroke in three phases: first you spear the fish, then you pull it out and empty the bucket. Before Eddie started mentoring me, my freestyle stroke was way too long. I was reaching too far ahead of myself in the water and as a result I wasn’t getting enough of what swimmers call “the catch.” Eddie tells me to shorten my stroke and to have my hand enter at an angle with my thumb turned toward the pool floor. That’s ‘spearing the fish.’ The arm extends out as far as it can go under the water and then there’s a quick move with the hand where the thumb moves to the top and the pinky on the bottom. As that’s happening, the hand is moving toward the belly as if it’s pushing the water in an “S” shape. The elbow stays high and at an obtuse angle. It looks easy when he does it but when I try initially, I flounder around.

After Eddie shows me the “spear the fish method,” I feel awkward in the water, I have to think about every movement both my arms are accomplishing and even the seemingly simple movement of rolling my wrist so that I can “catch” the water and push it across my torso causes me no end of thinking and frustration. I think for a second that I can’t do it and that I’ll just go back to the old way of doing freestyle. I keep trying, suffer the same level of frustration and threaten to just give up swimming altogether.

I’m a late bloomer, though, and I’ve learned enough things later in my life that I know that as soon as I get to that position, as soon as I’m so low and frustrated and angry with myself for my incompetence and ineptitude that that’s the exact moment that I’m really learning, developing and reaching a new performance level.

I’ve been doing the front stroke crawl basically incorrectly for my whole life so it takes a lot of time and mental energy to reeducate myself. Finally, I get. I start to glide through the water and I cut the number of strokes across the pool from 20 to 17.

I find myself practicing the stroke when I’m sitting on the couch or walking down the street and I am reminded of the story of how swimming helped the great English poet, Samuel Coleridge, secure his first library pass rather than a jail sentence:

Coleridge was infatuated with the Greek myth of Hero and Leander. Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, lived in an isolated tower on the European side of the Dardanelles and Leander, a commoner, lived on the Asian side. They fell in love and every night Leander would swim four miles across the Dardanelles in order to be with Hero. One night, though a strom comes up and Leander drowns in his attempt to reach his love and from there, Leander’s nightly swim to Hero across the Dardanelles has become a touchstone story for literary swimmers like Coleridge and, later, Lord Byron, who swam Leander’s crossing and subsequently penned the satiric poem, “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos,” about his adventure.

One of many visual interpretations of Hero and Leander, this one by Jean-Joseph Taillasson, 1789

Anyway, Coleridge is thinking about Leander one day and he begins to imitate Leander’s stroke as he’s walking down the street. As he’s bringing his hands away from his body to push an imaginary handful of water (Coleridge, like all pre-twentieth-century swimmers, did the breast stroke), Coleridge’s hand inadvertently falls into the pocket of a wealth gentleman who’s walking beside him. The gentleman stops and accuses Coleridge of trying to pickpocket him but Coleridge speaks up and tells the guy all about Hero and Leander and that he was just imitating Leander’s stroke. We have no reason to disbelieve Coleridge, but the rich old guy certainly did! Either way, he took pity on Coleridge, a poor boy with a rich imagination, gave him money to buy a library card and thereby set Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the path to becoming a great poet.

Eddie likes to say that he “collects swimmers,” and it’s true. If there’s a fledgling swimmer anywhere near him he is at the ready to help them improve their stroke. A few weeks ago, my wife and I were having a beer at the local Irish pub in Whakatane and we fell into conversation with a father and daughter who were sitting at the table next to us. The father recently retired to Ohope, where we live, and the daughter comes over from Hamilton, a land-locked city on the north island about three hours from us. The daughter mentioned that she swam in a long-distance open water swim the previous week and when I said that’s quite an accomplishment, she told me that just a couple of months ago she could hardly swim across a 25-meter pool. She was struggling through some laps at the Whakatane Aquatic Center when “this guy came up to me and asked me if I wanted to learn to swim so he gave me a couple of lessons, for free, and I just kept at it.”   I looked at my wife and then back at the daughter, “Eddie? Eddie Vowles?” “Yeah, she said, that was his name.”

I’ve know Eddie for upwards of four months now and he’s spent well over twenty hours in the water with me, teaching me the broad principles and finer points of swimming. I’ve seen him working with other folks in the water and I’ve heard people tell me stories about how Eddie has helped them with their swimming life and me, well, I’m happy to be just one of the raft of swimmers that Eddie has collected here at the Whakatane Aquatics Center.

Eddie and me at the Whakatane Aquatics Center