As a classically trained ballerina, I am programmed not to listen to my body. I am trained to ignore, despite the torture. Excruciating pain from burst blisters on my toes while dancing for hours on point, the show must go on. And it did. Dutifully, I was able to switch off that pain mechanism in my brain, completely oblivious to what I was really experiencing: pain. A lot of pain. Today, memories of extracting my blood-soaked feet from my point shoes still linger. That trained ability to switch off my body's signals served me well. I danced until the age of 17 when I sat my final Royal Academy of Dancing exam, qualifying me to teach.
Fast forward a few years, 6.5 years ago, and this "gift" was not so well-serving. After a freak fall, I was initially unaware of just how dire my situation was and treatment was subsequently delayed. It took a total loss of consciousness many hours later to trigger a visit to the ER. Post-emergency surgery, I learned I was 30 minutes from losing my leg from the knee down. And although the surgeons saved my leg, the blood flow to the nerves was so severely compromised that I was resigned to a life as disabled.
Having proved all the doctors and surgeons wrong, I am now relishing my new life as a swimmer post-trauma. 2013 has been an especially wonderful year filled with new adventures, pushing my limits buoyed by a profound appreciation for the ability of my body to keep up with the expectations of my mind. Last weekend I enjoyed swimming a rather long pool set with my masters team. 100 sets of 100 yards for a total of 3 hours continuous swimming, a distance I had completed many times throughout my training this year. And my body felt terrific. As I progressed through the sets, I discovered my body and my swim stroke became stronger. This was a good sign and I loved it.
The next day was a pre-planned (enforced) day of rest. (I am very slowly learning the importance of rest, which has been a critical component in my training this year). On Monday I woke up energized and ready to swim again with my Masters team. There was no question: I am swimming today. No sore muscles. A great sign, I was sure! Off to practice I went. My only complaint was that the water temperature seemed especially warm. A little IM thrown into the set by my coach and I was delighted to show off my new and improved butterfly stroke. As a fairly new swimmer, I am working on perfecting the other strokes. Butterfly – when done correctly – is a wonderfully elegant and powerful display of human strength. When I swam the English Channel in September, I met Sylvain Estadieu, who just a few weeks later became the first man in the world to swim the English Channel butterfly. Simply amazing!
While I highly doubt I am destined for a butterfly swim of that magnitude, I want to learn how to perfect the stroke. So I've been practicing. "Wow, your butterfly is looking really strong" exclaimed my coach. FINALLY! My butterfly is less interpretative dance and more, well, butterfly. Beaming with pride I decided at the end of the 75 minute workout that it would be a good idea to time myself swimming 25 yards of butterfly. "No – you've got to go for a timed 50 yard butterfly!" yelled my coach enthusiastically. "Alright!" I yelled back confidently all the while reminding myself that I hadn't before even timed 25 yards of butterfly.
As the clock hit the top of the minute my hands left the wall. In an ideal world, I am supposed to dive off the block, swim 15 yards underwater with a dolphin kick, and emerge onto the surface to swim butterfly. In my world, all of this is still a work in progress, so I chose to omit these finer details to my timed event. Leaving the wall, I immediately break into my most beautiful and effortless butterfly to date. Reaching the end of the lane I touch the wall with both hands and turn to swim the remaining 25 yards back to the wall. It seemed so far away. But I was committed. I wanted to see what I could do. The last few yards were distinctly less effortless, and accompanied with heavy breathing. Suddenly I felt my right shoulder twinge. And it didn't feel so good. This is not happening I told myself. Finish the 50!!! Hardly Olympic speed, I finished my first timed 50 yard butterfly in 40 seconds.
Very soon after leaving the pool, I realized I had injured myself. Fearing worst-case scenario, I worried my swimming plans for 2014 were immediately derailed. It was clear that my body needed more rest than I had allowed for. Two weeks after returning from my English Channel swim I returned to the pool. I did so because it made me feel good. But in hindsight I am realizing that I have not granted my body the rest it needs.
My body knows me, even if I don't always know me. It's clear that for this ballerina, the only way for my body to ensure I listen to its signals, hints and needs, is to immobilize me. Thankfully my shoulder is already on the mend, and I look forward to a well-earned break with my family in New Zealand over the holidays.