Pools apart

Inside a building two pools side by side separated by glass. But looking is not the same as seeing. There is a sense of separation and a dissolution of barriers. It is a beautiful contradiction hidden to most but the curving corners of my mouth betray the fluid intensity before me and the surge of joy and appreciation at witnessing so many bodies in various states of motion and becoming.

Young bodies expand and explore the depths of movement with eagerness and energy while larger bodies next door also move with purpose and focus. Technique and a desire to improve and become a better swimmer the shared experience. Feedback from coaches refining the co-ordination of limbs in various combinations, careful additions, subtractions correcting strokes of a body with spokes. Goggles on, prosthetics off and time running the same for everyone. Standing in the shallow water those beginning to appreciate and assemble the skills to move through this alien medium peer through to the other side with a mix of awe and respect. No, it is ‘not over their heads’, they know intuitively the work and effort that is perhaps the only thing that might represent a distinction between them. Perhaps from the others side, there is an awareness, a sense of the mirror and recognising the journey taken. The simple act of a smile, a wave crossing time and space to reach through illusions of separation rendering a fluidity of now and exacting a perfect moment of immanence.

Like superheroes without capes casting aside previous limits and rescuing role model images from the clutches of neurotic gendered stereotypes that prevail through more traditional sports. Not a body hair in sight yet no masculinity was in question or of concern to these guys in tight fitting body wear. Women as broad and powerful with their physicality and proudly sporting body art displaying achievements. But none were immune to goggle eyes and cap hair. These finely tuned biological machines and machines within machines, metallic eyes and cybernetic limbs assembled together as aquatic mammals.

A place where butterflies exist without a chrysalis. Although there might just be a hint of caterpillar at times.

[Written after watching the New Zealand Open Swimming Champs from the confines of the learn to swim pool next door – best free sports viewing ever, although it is rather steamy and hot…the air temperature!]


Sink or Swim? It’s a current affair

It’s tragic. Another life lost in the waters off the coast of NZ, it’s almost a daily occurrence at the moment. Kiwis have an affinity with water that runs deep. It represents so much of our identity as a nation. It feeds us, we play in it, compete on it and in it, enjoy it’s sounds and being an island nation, there is quite a lot of access to it. Do we respect it? Do we have a collective arrogance or sense of entitlement around our water ways?

The few times I have ditched my preferred agnostic spiritualist beliefs and fully embraced Jesus have been in the sea, usually the west coast. I’ve had a couple of ‘OMG I’m going to (or someone I know is going to) die – moments’. Panic is perhaps one of the biggest risk factors, that and a lack of ability and competency in the water. Personally, I believe we have a tendency to confuse water ‘confidence’ with ‘competence’. I think being a ‘strong swimmer’ is a very lose definition that can range from ‘I can doggy paddle across a pool so long as I can touch the bottom’ to ‘I can swim a couple of km while carrying a sack of bricks’.

But what about the organisations charged with providing the information to help people understand the risks? Well I checked out the Water Safety New Zealand site and I have to say it’s a bit wet. The Water safety code gives 4 guidelines that are in my opinion pretty weak and non specific.

1: Be prepared – simply learn to swim, survive, set rules, use correct equipment and know conditions
2: Look after yourself and others – play ‘close’ attention to children, swim with others and between flags if patrolled. We could do better NZ supervising children in the water.
3: Be aware of dangers – enter water feet first and obey signs, don’t swim if drinking alcohol– that’s it?
4: Know your limits – probably the most subjective and problematic guideline

So what is it exactly that people just don’t ‘get’? Well I have a hunch that many people rarely consider the hydrodynamics (beyond rips) of water to be lethal. A lot of the worry and fear about swimming in the sea is about sharks or sting rays, when realistically the chances of death by shark pale in comparison to drowning. We should just break water safety down into pure science. Here are my personal choices for addition info:

1Litre of water weighs a Kg (roughly…there are a few variables to consider). Extrapolate that to 1cubic meter we get 1000kg or a metric tonne. So when water moves it has momentum – mass x velocity. I think Tsunami are perhaps the best example of the concept of inertia to devastating effect. I’ve struggled to keep my footing in water below my knees at Piha, and I am not lacking mass, imagine how a small body would fare. Now if you are struggling to visualise that you could think of the ocean as a sea of vehicles. Some have heavy traffic-heavy trucks for example, some light-cars, motorbikes, some just bikes and skate boards. If you heard someone telling kids to go play in front of the trucks or on the train tracks, I’d hope most people would find a way to politely suggest it isn’t safe. Unfortunately it’s not always easy to tell from just looking.

Then there is the density of water. There is a curious thing about water, when it is full of bubbles (aerated) it loses it’s ability to keep things afloat like bodies. So when the surf is pumping and there is lots of white water – it is bubbles and so you sink due to the temporary lower density! Those not wearing a wetsuit or using a board of some kind will definitely find themselves struggling to keep on the surface. This little piece of info is sorely lacking and probably explains why those who are generally ‘strong swimmers’ come to grief especially if alcohol is added in.

Alcohol and swimming do not mix at all. But I need to put my hand up and say ‘I’ve done it’. Aside from the decision making impairment, alcohol does interesting things to blood, but specifically it reduces its ability to carry oxygen efficiently. This is kind of important if you need to do some serious swimming.

More explicit information needs to be available in many languages…including drunken westie. Ok enough making waves for today.

Swimming lessons for life

Swimming has been a big part of my life since I was a kid. I grew up beside a river and could bomb above my weight receiving much mana from the locals. I’d like to see a push for it’s inclusion in the Olympic or Commonwealth games – fit right in with the diving schedule but maybe speedos could be optional. I’ve been hanging out at the pools for the last two weeks watching children learning to swim and observing tenacious, creative and patient instructors guide each one toward another level of skill acquisition. It is a beautiful thing to see goggled faces smiling and truly enjoying the process – and that was the instructors!

We are a small nation surrounded by a heck of a lot of water just ask Scott Donaldson. Not everyone likes swimming but what I’ve been particularly impressed with is the emphasis on survival and safety that has come through. Creating the next Olympic medallist isn’t the aim and nor should it be – these are 6-9 year olds. Even the great Michael Phelps who probably owns half the worlds gold by now, didn’t start swimming until he was 7.  I have a teaching background (there I said it – I’ve outed myself – stolen Ian Thorpe’s thunder) and with a passion in this area. Watching others explain concepts of biomechanics and physics is sometimes like watching reality TV, it’s cringe worthy but things work out in the end (usually). Which got me thinking about what good teaching really is at the end of the day. Because while I was muttering internally, correcting this brilliant young instructor (ego alert) with her explanation of gravity and body position – I observed absolute understanding and complete and utter ‘ahaaa’ moments wash over small faces. More important it translated into action – it was embodied – it worked! So did it matter that the explanation was inaccurate according to Newtons Laws of motion? Seeing the joy and sense of accomplishment radiate from the pool I’d say no. It might matter if those ideas are carried through to another context, sometimes simplifying can come at a cost. But one worth paying because knowledge is only valuable if it can be applied. And children get used to adults telling ‘half-truths’ they find ways to inform us of our gaps as they grow. I’d be interested to listen in on another lesson with older children to see what concepts might be adjusted, reworded or if any young minds find a way to question the instructors about there being ‘no gravity’ in the pool.

Perhaps that is why I feel strongly about the Maori concept of Ako and how it reflects what I believe to be a more authentic and balanced approach to teaching and learning;

“where the educator is also learning from the student and where educators’ practices are informed by the latest research and are both deliberate and reflective. Ako is grounded in the principle of reciprocity and also recognises that the learner and whānau cannot be separated.

Ka Hikitia, 2008, p.20

Learning from each other requires a significant shift but one I see technology will necessitate – to borrow from Darwin (just this once) adaptation is the key to survival. But there is another possibility in here and I would like to go back to Ian Thorpe. How might Ako relate here? Well I would suggest it might come in with supporting concepts such as Whanaungatanga , Awhi and Aroha. Some will know the literal translations of these into English but many wont – however it is not the literal meaning that is important it is the quality of connection that is invoked in these terms – an energetic and deeply spiritual honouring of being. Tamariki is frequently translated as ‘children’ – that is accurate, but in Maori Tamariki is the combination of two concepts – the central sun (Divine Spark) and a being of senior or sophisticated status in a small form – let that sit over your mind for a second or two to allow the significance to filter through. Growing up wrestling with his sexuality I suppose I wonder about the emphasis on his swimming performance at the cost of nurturing, supporting, encouraging and acknowledging his emerging identity as a gay man, no doubt coaches, mentors and others will have been aware. His Divine Spark was suffocated but thankfully not stuffed out.

So I’ll finish by throwing out a challenge. Let’s ensure that learning to swim isn’t simply about addressing our appalling drowning statistics because there are many other ways to sink below the surface of life.