Bodysurfing Kahuna Blog
The impetus to start a blog came when Coach Marsh, the 2016 US Olympic swim team’s coach asked me to give a fifteen minute talk to his Team Elite in La Jolla, California on bodysurfing when he heard I had written the only non fiction bodysurfing book in print (and ebook , links below). He said he liked to use bodysurfing as a cross training option with his team .
I had arrived in La Jolla less than a week before , and had been given a free trial week at the Jewish Community Center ,which turned into a years scholarship. I needed a gym that had both a pool,and a gym for cross training with a rowing machine, as a base to start.I had also been a lap swimmer for many years before and after my sixteen years of living and bodysurfing Maui, Kauai, Big Island and North Shore Oahu, Hawaii.
When I saw the JCC Olympic size outdoor pool it reminded me of the Olympic size pool we had in the backyard of my apartment building Atlantic Towers, in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn, though my childhood pool was open only 3 months out of the year.
My mother had arranged swim lessons for me when I was six years old in that pool which I saw every evening of the 9 years we lived there from my bedroom window . I can’t remember how long I took lessons,but I learned the crawl, the sidestroke, the breast stroke, backstroke and frog, which I still use today. I won races and got trophies for the Australian crawl at that pool , and I also won medals at Madison High school swim races, where I swam during the months the backyard pool was closed.My teachers apparently thought I was Olympic material at some point ,and encouraged my mother to help me pursue that route, but my own disability ( I was born with club feet, and the doctors broke my arches to fix my feet , and my hips and feet turn in from time to time suddenly) plus my fathers severe diabetes, made it impossible to train for the games.
I wasn’t all that disappointed as I had started to bodysurf at Bay 21 Brighton Beach , which became more exciting to me. I still prefer the ocean, when it is warm, to the pool, as I like being in a natural, and wild environment . We as Bodysurfers, love the challenge of mastering the waves , which you can’t get in a pool, unless it’s a riff or two from another swimmer’s wake.
Anywhohow ….it was a huge excitement and honor to be asked,though Coach Marsh had qualified it with a disclaimer that he would have to fit it in with other presentations he had planned for their training sessions, as the Olympic qualifying games were less than 9 months away, a month before the 2020 Summer games in Japan.
What this blog is about today, is how swim training is not only an essential base for bodysurfing,( if you can’t swim you shouldn’t be in the ocean in the first place) and how bodysurfing can be a great cross training exercise for a more relaxed and fluid way of engaging with the water elements or body of water.
First, Swimmers and Bodysurfers are amphibious creatures who practice the only sport where they are completely immersed in an element , i.e. water. No other sport comes close to reliance on the elements, earth, water, fire, air, save for skiing .Unless there is an earthquake or Avalanche, you are engaging in a solid non moving physical environment ,whereas swimmers and Bodysurfers are playing and practicing in moving water.
In Hawaii there is a tradition about surfing and swimming in the ocean water, called hui wai. That means the intention to cleanse oneself in the water, in turn cleanses the ocean . It also denotes the intention of change. I used to use the moniker ” Navigate the Waves of Change” when I advertised my psychotherapy practice in West Seattle, and many years later used it as a starting point to write my book, detailing all the kinds of ways the ocean teaches us about changes.
So, swimmers and Bodysurfers are agents of change,though not always consciously. In many cultures water represents the unconscious, and in sport training, the unconscious is responsible for body memory . Using our muscles in a largely repetitive way, our mind programs the unconscious to go on autopilot through these repetitive movements of the muscles. Swimmers have both the unconscious and unconscious memories working together ,engaged in moving through waters. Whether it be a simple pool wave for lap swimmers and Olympic hopeful training teams or the complex patterns of wave movements in the ocean for Bodysurfers, both sports take into account another element which is dynamic and fluid, in their sport and training programs.
Now for the specifics of transferring one sport to another.
Each type of swimming stroke transfers to bodysurfing moves.
The crawl stretches out the arms in front and carves around in a way that mimics the main “use your body as a plane ” with outstretched arms to glide through the wave , and vice versa.
The sidestroke is a way to parallel the wave when rip currents are in play , but most importantly you can get inside the tube easier when you are moving in the same way across the beach, it’s just not that fast so many Bodysurfers don’t use it, but I like it as part of my repertoire. The breast stroke works when both swimmers and Bodysurfers get muscle fatigue from overuse using the Australian crawl as their main stroke. Also I observed the change in Michael Phelps hand movements when swimming the breaststroke in the 2016 Olympics. He used his hands to ” carve space” a term dancers use when moving and sculpting the air.( I learned this in a Laban Movement Institute class at On the Boards Seattle , part of my ten years of modern and African dance training ) . Phelp’s hands moved in front of him, half in the water and half out, with the thumbs extended in front of him parting the waters ,much like Bodysurfers use to gain momentum to catch a wave . In fact that move can replace the need for a handplanes, if used regularly your hand gets strong enough to do the work of parting the waters , and can aid the elite swimmer in pushing forward faster.
I like doing both sports without accoutrements. Due to my aforementioned disability fins are not an option as they crunch my toes, and after @ 20 some odd years of swimming laps , my feet muscles developed into flippers which I believe is ultimately better for overall streamlined fitness . Same goes for hand planes and floaters, I personally tend to hit myself or injure myself when using equipment. I like the beauty of just flying through the water and rolling around freely like a monk seal or dolphin, whom I have shared the waves with over the years in Hawaii.
The other strokes, backstroke and the frog, must be used carefully in the ocean because the general rule is that one should never turn their back on the ocean. However, I have found just floating on my back and using my legs with the frog kick has helped conserve energy while waiting out a strong undercurrent or riptide. I similarly use the backstroke when I know the beach break well, otherwise not recommended .
Duck diving also transfers to the pool in avoiding a mini whirlpool created by aggressive other swimmers , just duck down and into the turbulence to come out the other side.
One great thing about bodysurfing for a professional swimmer is the 5,000 negative ions released at an ocean beach and the salt water. The negative ions are rechargers , and the salt gives buoyancy for those with bulky muscles, particularly the men .it makes it nice to just float into the waves with less effort when the water is salt based, and is easier on the skin.
There is a certain amount of trust and intuition in the flow of the water involved for both sports and athletes, that gives a competitive edge without pushing for one. Over time athletes come to know how to just let go and let the water do the work when the muscles tire or the motivation wanes, and allow for factors beyond your control to carry you to the finish line or the shore.
The 15 minutes of poolside fame may not happen given that the San Diego ocean beaches may not get warm enough before the Olympic trials, but with this blog the information is here for next year , and the techniques can be shared for all until then in this blog for anyone wanting to don a wetsuit and hoodie and brave the cold Pacific. I personally am not crazy about putting a wetsuit on so I understand the bodysurfing talk and training may be delayed.Perhaps one day the team elite will take a collective warm water bodysurfing training vacation to practice on a different beach ,especially where there is no continental shelf and tides to limit the flow in the water .
The free flow of water in the ocean is the key to the joy of bodysurfing, and can also give a different kind of edge to coach Marsh’s team elite . It’s a great addition to the swim team protocol , and maybe someday soon bodysurfing will be added to the Olympics ( hint hint LA 2024) where we might see a former swim team champ or two competing in a second event.
Eileen Shavelson (aka Lani Lowell for some books )
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