Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Monday, February 7, 2011

Kathy Rakel, the Davison D1 family, & Why Swimming Is Like Pool

Do you remember your first swim? For some, having been knee high to a starter block, it's difficult to remember. For others, who began full-sized or even with a few gray hairs, the memory is more vivid. There you are, choking on a cocktail of lake water and motor oil with your goggles kicked halfway off your face, thrashing around in what looks and behaves just like a slow pack of blind, panicked salamanders. And when you do manage to finally make it through the course and stumble onto shore, the only thing stopping you from kissing terra firma is the guy taking race photos.

The sad thing is, that scenario doesn't just describe the first, or even second, third, or tenth, race for many triathletes. Some age groupers who take themselves fairly seriously at the sport will run 60 miles a week and bike ten hours every weekend, but they won't swim more than five times a year. And technique? Forget about it. They'd sooner spend 50 bucks on an aerodynamic water bottle than an hour of coaching.

But why?

Misconception #1: If you don't learn to swim when you're young, you never will.

Kathy Rakel

When someone comes right out and tells you she's going to win gold at the Olympics in 2016 (in a tone without an ounce of bravado), you start to listen a little closer. Pro triathlete Kathy Rakel, 26, grew up in San Antonio, but currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and works full-time as an F-16 Intelligence Officer for the Air Force. (That's right, she's pretty much the chick from Top Gun, except not a lesser civilian.) She's also a member of the Air Force's Triathlon Team, which means she can train full-time roughly a quarter of the year. Since turning pro in January 2010, she's been driving out to California to train with Siri Lindley, who coaches other top triathletes like Mirinda Carfrae, Hayley Peirsol, and Leanda Cave. That's where Kathy was headed on Friday, kindly consenting to what I'd promised would be a "brief" phone interview. Interviews and word counts have one very important thing in common, however – it's hard to stick to a number when the story is good.

Last June Kathy became the first woman in the Air Force to ever win the Armed Forces Triathlon Championship. The best part? She won the race by seven minutes. She would have gone on to the international competition a few months later, but the host country cancelled at the last minute, so her current goal is to become the first American to win a gold medal at this year's World Military Championships, which will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in July. Rio de Janeiro also happens to be where the Olympics will be held in 2016. With her military background, Kathy says one simple thing fuels her passion for winning gold: a deep desire to hear the American National Anthem.

But why 2016 and not the upcoming 2012 Olympics in London? Kathy has decided she's not (quite) ready. With a full-time job, training is difficult, and she wants to focus more on her swim technique in the meantime. Kathy falls in the "non-swimmer" category - that is, unless you consider fourth-grade summer camp a solid background.

Kathy played basketball and golf in high school. She discovered triathlon in 2005 at 20 when she was at the Air Force Academy. During the spring semester, a friend encouraged her to do the sprint-distance time trials that qualified top finishers for the team that would represent the AFA at the National Collegiate Championships. Kathy took second place overall, though she'd had zero tri-specific training beforehand. "I knew enough about swimming not to drown," she says, "but actual swim workouts were completely foreign to me." Cycling was something new, as well. When she heard the Collegiate Championships would be an Olympic distance race, she politely turned down the spot on the team.

But the damage had been done - triathlon had caught her interest. She was a decent runner and a quick study at cycling, and in the fall of 2005 during an exchange program to West Point, went from complete newbie to holding the fastest bike split of the tri team by the end of a single semester. In 2006, she signed up for 2007 Ironman Arizona on a whim...finishing at 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 42 seconds, and unexpectedly set the fastest female Ironman-distance time for the Air Force Academy – a record that still stands today. That's when she started hearing "you really should try to make a go of this," and a few months later, she did.

Kathy finished that first Ironman swim at 1 hour and 8 minutes, which may sound fast to us flailers and really is quite good for a non-swimmer, but is a slow split for a would-be pro. In 2008 while getting her Masters at the University of Arizona, Kathy got really serious about her swim training, putting in five to six days a week at the pool. I asked her if in the process she had learned to love swimming, and Kathy laughed. "I love the combination of the three sports, and would absolutely not enjoy doing any of them as a single sport," she says. "I love it, but in the context of also cycling and running."

The hardest part about her swim training, she says, was the mental aspect. "I was very hard on myself, and I always expected my times to get faster, and to see personal bests at any workout." Fourteen months ago, she was feeling discouraged with her swims, often getting out of the water early, and sometimes in tears. "Having a positive approach might actually be more important than the technique work," Kathy says. "You have to be in the right frame of mind for everything else to even matter." Lindley helped her adjust her mental game as well as her training plan; now Kathy focuses on shorter distances than she used to, doing more 25-meter and 50-meter repeats.

Kathy says she's also seen an incredible improvement in her stroke from a half-day swim clinic with Sheila Taormina, an Olympic gold medalist who competed for the US as a swimmer, triathlete, and pentathlete in three different Olympiads. "Her approach completely clicked with me, and my results show that," Kathy says, admitting that she also studied and highlighted a great deal of Taormina's recent book, Call the Suit.

The swim matters more for Kathy than it does for most. Not only does she compete as a pro, but her military competitions (and, of course, the Olympics) are ITU, draft-legal races. The swim leg may not necessarily win a race in that context, but it can certainly lose it. Kathy admits she has a long way to go before she's first out of the water, but progress has been good, which keeps her motivated.

Sometimes it's easy to put the cart before the horse, or the medal before the five years of training, and so on, so I liked Kathy's final piece of advice most of all. "It's not just about being passionate about the sport," she says, "but about being passionate about particular goals you can work toward." So fellow flailers, take it one stroke at a time.

Fortunately for the non-swimming population, Kathy's not the only pro to start from scratch and work her way up. Another classic example (thank you Slowtwitch!) is pro cyclist John Howard, who at the Hawaii Ironman in 1980 swam a 1:51 and came in third overall, then with a year of practice and coaching, swam a 1:11 in '81 and won it. (Click here to add to the thread.)

Kathy races as an ambassador of Team Red White and Blue, which seeks an active role in assisting wounded veterans as they reintegrate into society upon returning from combat and leaving their position in the Active Duty force or National Guard. She is also sponsored by RTS bikes, Champion System, Ultimate Cycles, Clean Bottle, Doctor Hoy's Natural Pain Relief Gel, GU, Profile Design, PowerCranks, and Team FCA Endurance. For more information, visit her blog.

Misconception #2: You can teach yourself how to swim well.

(Ok, that's a lie. You can, but it takes a lot longer... Do you really want to learn from scratch what previous generations have already perfected? It's kind of like re-engineering the banana instead of buying it at the grocery store.)

The Davison D1 family

Put three life-long swimmers under one roof and what do you get? A lot of heated, hours-long arguments about two-second differences...and an empty pantry.

James Davison, his wife Bree, and his two younger brothers, Scott and Cole, live in a big, noisy house in South Austin, a house where if you knock you're given a reprimand - the door's always open, they'll say. Each of the three brothers, originally from Mission Viejo, California, has swam about as long as he's walked. James was a scholarship athlete at University of California, Berkeley, and Scott at the University of Cincinnati. Cole currently works as a swim coach at Life Time Fitness in South Austin.

James, a world-ranked swimmer, competed in everything from the 200-meter to the mile through high school and college, winning one high school national championship race and making top 5 in several others. He did his first sprint triathlon in 2004, at the age of 25, and it went down about as you'd expect. He was first out of the water, then got passed...and passed...and passed on the bike and run. He soon learned that he could never set foot in the pool for six months and still come in with the lead pack on the swim, but he had to train hard in everything else.

While getting his MBA at the University of Arizona, James was the swim coach for the university's club triathlon team, the Tricats. Bree helped, as well, both of them teaching - as is the Davison way - always from the water and never from the deck. Here in Austin, James works full-time for IBM, but he still dabbles in a little swim instruction. Probably for the sheer entertainment value. (Everyone needs a laugh now and again, right?)

According to James, there's nothing special about triathletes. Or in other words, it's not that they're inherently bad swimmers. The way he sees it, there are "swimmers" and "non-swimmers," and triathletes fall in the latter category, mostly because they haven't spent enough time in the water to feel at ease with the idea of putting their face (far enough) under the drink. "It's not necessarily something you need to start at four, or at any specific age," he says. "It's more that if you spend a certain amount of time doing something, you get comfortable with it." It's not a revolutionary concept, just a hard-to-follow one: practice makes perfect.

That said, practicing the wrong thing won't help you as much as practicing the right thing. "Most non-swimmers try too hard," James says. "They try to do things that the water would do for them for free." The first thing he works to make beginning swimmers understand is that their speed, or lack of, is not a fitness problem. And he asks them to take what they know and throw it out the window. Learning to swim - the right way - is learning a completely new skill. The good thing is, getting a handle on a brand new skill is much faster than fine-tuning an old one, or so says James.

James often breaks it down to the simplest element, and then goes from there. "Swimming is floating faster," is his mantra. "Where your arms are and what they're doing is really one of the less important things in swimming," he says. "There's 20 different ways to move your arms that are just as good as any other way. If you're doing the fundamental things wrong, then how your arms move isn't going to help you." Often he'll start you on floating and rotation drills.

"Hardcore runners are always the hardest to teach, because they try to run in the water," James says. "The hip motions of swimming and the hip motions of running are fundamentally opposite of each other - in running your hips don't move, your shoulders and arms move. In swimming, your hips move and your shoulders and arms move in the same direction at the same time, instead of opposite of each other."

The first thing, he says, is to break the person's concept of timing. "Some people aren't willing to put in the time it would take to get good at it or to learn, but the important thing is to show them the right timing and then make them practice that timing enough that they can walk away and come back two days later and do it right again."

It worked for my husband, who with three lessons went from 40th in his age group to fourth. (We won't talk about my swim times.) When I forced an estimate out of him, James said four to eight hours of real technique coaching (often hard to find, he says), spread out over six weeks, is what it might take for most beginners to see a significant improvement. Now, while the swim may not be the longest portion of a race or the most important (particularly in sprint or Ironman distances), it does seem like even an hour or two of learning and practice would benefit a triathlete more than an aerodynamic water bottle or skinnier brake levers.

Philosophies differ widely, so take 'em or leave 'em, but here's some Davison swim tips:
  1. "Swimming is floating faster."
  2. Swim the straightest line possible. In a pack start, pick the shortest line between you and the buoy - don't follow the herd and just line up in the middle, as one side or the other is likely to be closer.
  3. Never sight the buoy in rough water. Always sight the tallest object in the distance behind it. Also, sight as part of your breathing motion.
  4. On race day, don't warm up in the water if it's cold. It lowers your core body temperature and forces your body to work hard to stay warm.
  5. If you can, wear a wetsuit for competition. The worse a swimmer you are, the more worthwhile it will be. A wetsuit helps you float.
  6. The best place to draft is directly behind another swimmer. The second best place to draft is alongside the person, with your shoulders roughly at his or her hips.
  7. In training, flip turns are always worth it. It just means you're getting more actual swim-time in.
  8. If you're a new swimmer, breathe every other stroke and switch sides during training. That said, if you're talented enough to swim in a straight line without breathing on both sides, have at it.
  9. Do kick, but mainly to rotate. Your feet are powerful tools for rotation, and rotation is where most of your power should come from.
  10. Get your head farther down in the water. If the water hits somewhere around your hairline, you're not low enough. Most of your head should be under the water.
  11. Don't worry about your hands and arms until you're swimming 1:20s. Arm movements, technique, and kicking, are all secondary to floating. The right head and body position will get you to 1:20s per 100. Once you're there, then you can start worrying about what to do with your hands and arms.
  12. If your shoulders are hurting, nine times out of ten it's a technique problem, not just muscle soreness from working hard.

As Kathy said, the biggest hurdle to becoming a faster swimmer is probably the one in your head. The best thing to do when you're feeling down about your swimming - like when your coach offers to "race" you to the other end of the pool with his hands behind his back while wiggling his left big toe and whistling Howdy Doody (and still wins) - is to challenge him to a little time trial (oh, how we shall miss thee RunFAR TTs) and then put those air foils and mad bike training to good use.

For coaching inquiries, email

Misconception #3: All training, swim or otherwise, is work.

Patricia Murphy, and why swimming is like pool

Age grouper Tricia Murphy, 40, is another lifelong swimmer, but you can always depend on her to take a slightly different approach. "I like swimming, but nowhere near as much as running and biking," she says. "I love to talk and it's hard to carry on a conversation during a swim work out."

Tricia has more energy than anyone I know. And I'm talking sheer force of personality, not just her lung-busting swim power. I met her last summer after she'd raced and finished as first overall female three weekends in a row. She had also, after 15 years of competing (and often winning her age group) in triathlons, just quit smoking. I'm truly glad that I met her when I did, and not before. Legend tells of Tricia lighting up right after the finish line - something that might have broken my spirit, had I just seen her come in ahead of me.

Tricia is often first out of the water on the swim. Her current goal (and she has come close) is to break an hour in an Ironman-distance swim. She's lived in Austin 18 years. Originally from Rhode Island, she started swimming young, at a local YMCA. As soon as she'd completed the classes - tadpoles, starfish, sharks, and all other aquatic stepping stones - she joined the YMCA swim team. One of nine children, she says she guesses it was something to keep her busy, or in other words, a variety of free child care.

"I'm really glad that my parents made me learn to swim as a child," Tricia says. "Even if you're not going to do triathlon as an adult, it's a good thing to know how to do." She smiles and adds, "I think everyone should know how to play pool, too." As good as she is, Tricia has always maintained that for her, triathlon is, first and foremost, what she does for fun.

Not to contradict myself here, but I think Tricia's philosophy is solid, and often under-represented on this space. For some, the danger of triathlon training is taking it too seriously. You can look at swimming as a life skill, a challenge, or an occasional venture into the unknown, but unless it is your job, you shouldn't look at it as work. After all, you're not getting paid for it, and "work" that you're not getting paid for is simply not going to get done.

So for heaven's sake, don't foster a new nicotine addiction, but give swimming a real chance, and keep your love for all three pieces of triathlon alive...even if that love is not entirely equal.

Copyright 2011 Kathryn Hunter
Contact Kat at with questions, concerns, corrections, or ideas.

No comments:

Post a Comment