I love swim class. Really.
When I walk into class and see “100 easy, 300 kick/pull/swim, 50 scull, 50 seated breast pull” scrawled on the board, I cheer. I’ll do dolphin kick for days. I’m totally content practicing breast stroke all class. I’ll earnestly work on my back stroke for an hour.
There’s only one activity in swim class that I dread. Drills. Drills are when you purposely swim in such a way to focus on just one aspect of a stroke in order to tighten it up. Backstroke is my favorite stroke but I hate its associated drills. When I try the version where you move both arms in sync, my head dunks under the water as soon as I raise my arms aloft, gifting me with a face full of pool on each stroke. When I try left arm-only, my dominant left arm heads me right into the lane divider every few strokes. Right-arm only is a tedious bore, I slowly drift into my classmate’s half of the lane and make little to no forward progress.
Drills are no better in free-style. Swimming with my hands balled in fists gets me nowhere fast. I can’t seem to get the hang of the drill where we drag our fingertips across the surface of the water each stroke to practice holding elbows high. When I try fists-over-paddle, I catch the water between my paddle and hand every time, slowing myself to a crawl.
Luckily, swim class isn’t all drills. Mostly, it’s been a victory for me!
I’ve come so far in the three semesters I’ve been enrolled. I’ve gone from constantly breathing pool, sputtering and coughing my way through my freestyle, to smoothly rotating through each stroke to come up for air. A length of the pool, 25 yards, used to leave me out of breath. Now I can (slowly, yes but) steadily swim a mile over the course of an hour.
My biggest swim triumph came the day of the kick races. All the class lines up on one side of the pool, clutching foam kick-boards of vibrant primary colors, and sporting fins. The instructor calls out, 3-2-1-Go! and we shoot off from the wall, propelled only by our legs, kicking furiously. First one across wins the heat, and we all rest a few seconds before repeating the entire procedure.
Once across the pool and I was first! First! I’ve never won a race of any kind in my life. It had to be a fluke. Second time across, I hit that wall first again. Then the third and the fourth time, the same thing happened. We did six kicking sprints across the pool that day and I won the first four. Me! Not the two Master’s swimmers, not the two ultra-marathoners, nor any of the women half my weight. My swim instructor was cheering for me and I was triumphant to the point of tears.
When the other students congratulated me though, I shrugged it off, “I’ve got strong legs. They have to haul a lot of mama around.”
And it’s true, ya’ll. My legs are powerful. Flexed, my calves form chiseled grapefruits. My thighs are thick as tree-trunks and just as firm. They have to be. I hit 200 pounds at 13 years old, and have hovered between 230 and 270 my entire adult life. Despite my weight, I worked for many years as a baker, then an executive chef, frequently pulling 12 to 15 hour shifts running around a kitchen. At the bakery, I used to haul two 50-pound bags of flour at a time, one on each shoulder, from the loading dock down a flight of stairs into the back of my bakery where I’d rotate them into stock and go back for the next two. Then the next two. Up and down those stairs, until I’d hauled 40-50 bags. Twice a week for years. My favorite physical activity is hiking. These legs of mine have hoisted me up many a mountain. O yeah, my legs are amazing.
My arms though, my arms are pitiful. I have flabby, saggy, soft upper arms. I’m a hand-raising charismatic in church when the music starts ya’ll…that is, unless I’m in a tank top. Then I keep ’em pressed to my side in shame. I sprouted bingo wings at 20. And their appearance isn’t deceptive; I really am a wimp when it comes to upper body strength. I’m not pressing anything. My hand weights are five pounds and they start my biceps to burning in a few curls! I can’t even open my own pickle jars. I have to beg my husband to crack the ice trays. In my lifetime, I have managed exactly 0 push-ups.
And that has got to be why, in every other race in swim class, I come in dead last. As soon as my arms get going, no amount of power in my legs can compensate. It’s not only the ultra-marathoners and semi-pro swimmers beating me then. I find myself getting lapped again and again by the girl with down syndrome and a handful of 70-something retirees enrolled for the low-impact workout.
You would think that adding arms into my routine, a stroke to my kick, would speed me up, no matter how minutely, give me a little extra boost and push. But since that day I won the kick races, I’ve been wondering, am I actually slower swimming normally than just kicking?! Turns out, the answer to that is yes.
It was my swim instructor who caught it the other day. She had a word with me as soon as my head popped out of the water on a 200 yard pull. She noticed that instead of smoothly slicing my hand into the water at the top of each stroke, catching a handful of water and pulling down to propel me along, my hands are dropping into the water early, before my arms are fully extended. From there I’m pushing forward, against the water, against my momentum, before starting the pull back. I am my own drag weight.
Her answer to that? Drills. Lots and lots of drills where I focus on just my stroke. And in order to guarantee that I’m not compensating for my sorry stroke with my mighty kick, she handed me a little “toy”, a hydrofoil ankle float. This little device not only traps both of my ankles, forcing them together and preventing me from kicking, it also drags against the water the entire time, forcing my arms to work even harder to haul my body across the pool.
I shoved the device onto both ankles and set off. First my legs kept popping out, desperate to assist as usual. Then, after I caught on to that, I found myself thrashing and rolling all over the lane, bound legs swinging like a pendulum. Finally, after a quarter of an hour of awkward floundering, I began to get the hang of the hydrofoil. Stroke after stroke, lap after lap, 100 yards freestyle, 100 backstroke, 100 freestyle, over and over for a class period. On each stroke, that buoy ’round my ankles dragged, forcing my arms to work harder, more efficiently, and more powerfully than they ever have before. By the end of class, my arms were quivering with exhaustion. I wasn’t able to lift my arm shoulder height throughout the following weekend.
Monday morning brought swim class again. Even though I was still sore, five days later, I requested a hydrofoil right off the bat. Like it or not, some focused arm work is exactly what I need. I spent the whole class doing modified drill versions of the assigned exercises, legs clamped together at the ankle and, as I had the hang of it now, my mind was free to wander as I swam.
I thought about how, no matter how much I hate them and feel like a clumsy beast doing them, drills make me a better swimmer. They remove my strengths and force me to focus on my weaknesses. They hone the areas I might otherwise be able to compensate for. They get right to the heart of a deficiency and force my attention to correcting it.
I thought about how a lot of Christian life was just like a drill.
Do you ever feel like, just when you’re getting the hang of something, God pulls your resources out from under you, and you’re left floundering again? Do you ever feel like walking with the Holy Spirit is more like a bunny hop, three steps forward and two steps back? Do you wonder when you’re ever going to get in your holiness groove?
I know I do. Every. Single. Day.
Let’s take the matter of food. I’ve been convicted that the way I eat is an idolatry issue for at least 13 years. I have given it up to God again and again and again. I’ve experienced victories over food that are immense! I can’t tell you the last time I raided the fridge at midnight, or binge ate until I was sick, or made myself vomit in order to stave off weight gain. O, we’ve seen triumph in this area, the Lord and I!
But, in so many ways, my progress is painstakingly slow. A lot of the time, as soon as I hit my stride, eating well and exhibiting self-control, some major hurdle appears in the road that sets me right back to square one. I quit the restaurant business in order to go back to school and found myself at home more, without work as a constant distraction, in easy reach of the fridge and mindless eating. I got a handle on that, but then my stepfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I comforted myself with warm and gooey quesadillas. A year after he passed away, my mom and I buckled down again, supporting each other in diet and exercise, and I started feeling strong and losing weight. But then, I quit smoking and Reeses’ Peanut Butter Cups became my lifeline as I gained back everything I had lost and more. I developed depression and anxiety that only eating seemed to quiet. It’s been five years of that, and I finally have a reign back on my emotions but I still feel susceptible to every one of life’s little tempests, from money problems to strained relationships. Before you know it, I’ll find myself sitting on the kitchen counter, polishing off a log of salami and a pound of pepper-jack in response to another stressful situation.
Perhaps the most difficult thing in all this starting and stopping has been imagining the Lord’s reaction. I’m fairly certain He is sick of my crap. I can just imagine him up in heaven tut-tutting, “Are you helping yourself to a third slice of bread again, Kate? When are you ever going to learn?”
But maybe I’ve got the Lord all wrong. Perhaps He, like my patient swim teacher, has me doing drills.
By taking away coping mechanisms, strengths, and letting me experience stressful situations, it has forced me to hone in on weaknesses- past hurts, unforgiveness, self-indulgence, lack of self-control- that contribute to my food-idolatry problem. In different periods of my walk, circumstances has revealed the unhealthy roles of food in my life: an addiction, then a distraction, then my great comforter, and then as a shield.
Eating has been like my powerful legs, the fire that fueled me and compensated for so many areas of my life that I was lacking. Abandoned by my father? Cheeseburgers were always there for me. Invisible to my stepfather? Bacon didn’t look through me. The other kids in school tormented me? Sourdough bread was soft and kind and delicious.
As the Lord leads me through these drills in life, my first reaction is always to fall back on my old stand-bye, dinner. But every time, as, through prayer and healing, we’ve reigned that back in, I’ve had to learn to rely on a new muscle, so to speak, and develop healthier mechanisms.
What a freeing idea.
Perhaps the Lord isn’t disappointed in me at all. On the contrary, He’s a good teacher, who, when he sees a vulnerability will perfectly design a drill that enables me to grow in that area. He’s not standing at the edge of the pool shaking his head at my muscle building; He’s celebrating each new accomplishment and training me for the day I swim unfettered.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. ~1 Corinthians 9:24-27, ESV