I was brought up in places far from lakes and rivers. The non-availability of swimming facilities in my high school and college led to my inability to learn to swim until I joined MIT as a graduate student. Here at MIT, however, the presence of Charles River right next to the campus inspired me to learn to swim.
I began to learn by going to the teaching pool at the Z-center by the end of my first year of graduate studies. I continued going to swim in a highly inconsistent way (either due to lack of motivation or due to a busy schedule) for almost a year with no improvement whatsoever. I wanted to join paid swimming classes offered at the Z-center, but the poor grad student in me kept discouraging me from attending them.
One day, a friend told me about the free half-semester Physical Education (PE) classes offered by MIT, which are open to both undergraduate and graduate students. Note that, unlike many universities, MIT has a swimming requirement for the completion of an undergraduate degree. Thus, technically, every undergraduate from MIT is a swimmer by the end of college. Other PE classes include squash, fencing, shooting, and even golf, with most of them at no additional cost. Pretty cool, huh?
I decided to join one of the many beginner’s swimming classes suiting my schedule. The classes were taught by Larry Anderson, a swim instructor and longtime member of the MIT community. The total number of scheduled classes was just 12, and initially, I thought the number was too small to learn something which I had been trying to learn for a year. But I gave it a try!
We were a batch of 12 people with 8 undergrads, 2 grad-students and 2 staff members from MIT. In the first few classes, we learned about the basics of swimming. This process included activities that greatly improved our understanding of swimming and approached it from a technical perspective. These activities made us realize how swimming is different than walking, how opening or closing the palms and bending your body can greatly reduce the body-drag while moving through the water, and how holding your breath can make your body float in water. It was during these classes only that free-float and egg-float activities made me realize the fundamental issue behind my inability to swim so far. The issue was that, while it is essential to hold breath in your lungs to get your body to float, I had been trying to not breathe at all instead of holding in the breath. Upon this realization, I was able to see quite a bit of improvement in my swimming within days.
In the following classes, we covered many other exercises, including calibration of breathing with diving, underwater swimming using fins, and many others. By the end of the 12th class (spread over 6 weeks), I was able to see an appreciable change in my swimming abilities. I continued practicing on my own in the teaching pool even after completion of the classes. Finally, in the month of January 2019, I convinced myself to risk swimming in the 8-feet pool and am proud to announce that I am still alive writing this blog. (OK, fine, it wasn’t really a risk—there are lifeguards around at all times—but still, I think it was a daring move).
I have heard from many people that it’s tough to learn to swim as an adult. But after my MIT experience, I can confidently say that it isn’t. By the end of these classes I also realized that often, when it comes to physical activities, we (the nerds) keep justifying our laziness with the lack of time. I agree—being a graduate student means a lot of work and it’s tough to take out free time—but spending 3-4 hours a week on physical exercise is not that difficult. I can say with great confidence that such activities are unlikely to hurt your research and will, in fact, improve your work efficiency. To keep yourself disciplined (which, I know, is the biggest bottleneck), joining a P.E. class is a great idea (whether inside or outside MIT). My next plan is to learn ice skating. Let’s see how it goes.