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Sandie Friedman: A Lesson in Unlearning

Friedman contemplates the rigors of the flip turn, in the swimming pool and beyond @ The Nervous Breakdown. A young playwright named Dan taught me to do flip turns.  It was 1993, and he was teaching a swim class at NYU, where we were both graduate students.

Once, we met on Mercer Street, and I startled him when I said hello.  “I didn’t recognize you in your clothes,” he said.  I rather liked that Playwright Dan only saw me in my swimsuit, but I was hurt when I learned that he didn’t think I was a very good swimmer.   After watching me swim, he asked what kind of exercise I did.  Just swimming, I told him.  Couldn’t he see that?  I’d taught myself to breathe on alternate sides, and I’d built up my stamina so that I could swim 40 lengths—twice what I could do in college.   But I’d never been on a team, and no one had helped me with technique.  Dan helped me improve my freestyle stroke, taught me to practice with a pull buoy, and finally, got me to try doing flip turns.  But it was quite some time before I actually mastered them.

Watch Michael Phelps approach the wall with a strong stroke, somersault in a tight tuck, push off and glide forward with hands together like the prow of a ship. Competitive swimmers often do a couple of dolphin kicks before they surface and resume freestyle kicking.  The turn happens quickly, and good swimmers take advantage of the push off the wall to glide a long way.  Seen from above, a flip turn happens with a minimum of fuss: the feet barely come out the water and there’s just a discreet splash.

It’s pleasing to watch, and it feels even better to do.  Maybe it’s the brief exhilaration of being upside down (people who practice yoga know the appeal of this), or the sweet challenge involved in the timing of the somersault, the pull of the hands, the kick, and the exhale (if you don’t blow out, you’ll get that nasty stinging sensation of pool water up your nose).  I admit that when you only swim with other recreational swimmers—not on a team or in a master’s club—there’s satisfaction in showing off this skill.  I particularly loved doing flip-turns in Germany, where I felt physically inferior in other ways, scrawny and short.  Every time I executed a perfect flip turn and glided past the slow-moving German breast-strokers, I thought: hah!

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