Competitive swimmers develop specialties, that is, particular strokes and distances in which they excel. In my early teens I discovered that I could swim a stroke called butterfly. Like most swimmers I found it difficult at first, but then I got the hang of the rhythm and found that i was winning races more than losing them, so I figured I might be getting pretty good at it.
In junior high school I swam winter and summer, and in both leagues my age group swam the 50 yard or 50 meter butterfly. As I approached high school I was nervous about this, because in that age group the race was 100 yards or meters (4 lengths of the pool). Whenever I finished two laps I always wondered how I would have the strength to go four.
My First 100 Meter Race
I got into high school and our first meet was against Cherry Hill East, the school that had been state champions something like 8 of the previous 10 years. We knew we were going to lose the meet, so our coach wanted us to do our best and go for times over winning.
I got on the block feeling like a dork. Next to me was a buff kid, taller than myself who clearly had the support of his team. "You got this", "No problem" they yelled. He smiled and waved to them. I felt like I didn't belong there.
Setting the Bar Low
I decided just to finish. If I could conserve my energy and just finish with some respect I'd be happy. I did my first lap at a relaxed pace and hit the wall dead even with the other guy. The second lap was much the same, slow relaxed and even. On my second turn I knew that this is where the real race started as he'd want to position himself to win. I kept the slow stroke rate and stayed relaxed and calm. As I approached the last turn I could hear the noise in the pool increasing and I looked over to see myself slightly ahead. He was really playing with me now. Feeling the burn in my arms and legs I knew that I did not have enough energy for a sprint, so I just hung on to my slow pace, waiting for the inevitable burst of speed that would take him past me to the joyous shouts of the Cherry Hill East bench.
It never came.
I hit the wall a stoke ahead of him. He threw his goggles on the deck and slapped the water in anger. Clearly, he had not expected to lose. I looked over at my coach who kept looking at me and looking at the stopwatch in his hand, so I looked at the time being posted on the wall: 1:01:06. "That couldn't be right" I thought. "That's faster than our high school record." It was our new high school record.
After this race I figured I must be pretty good, and if that was how well I did holding back then how fast could I go if I really tried? For the next three years that's what I tried to do. I pushed. I trained. I raced. No matter what I tried though I could never seem to get below a 1:05. I began to wonder if it had been a fluke like Bob Beeman's 29' long jump record that nobody could break for decades afterward.
Racing While Ill
Then one day my junior year I had the flu. The problem was that I also had a swim meet and we were in contention for the conference title that year and every meet counted. I felt that I could not miss the meet as my team needed me, but I felt awful. I just needed to finish so that we'd get some points. I didn't care about winning.
I was in the 100 Fly of course, and ignored the guy next to me, just focusing on keeping moving forward. The race was a blur and I just focused on keeping my body moving slowly and watching the black line on the bottom of the pool so that I would know when to turn without crashing into the wall. I limped across the line with a throbbing headache and looked back to see the rest of the swimmers still coming down the pool. I looked up to see my time. 1:02. That was the closest I had come to my freshman year record in the last 3 years. Once again, I thought that it couldn't be right.
I don't know why it took me so long to realize it, but for me, the secret to swimming butterfly fast turned out to be NOT trying too hard. The stroke was about finesse and relaxation. Working with the water and not against it. I had been trying so hard that I had missed this essential fact.
For the remainder of my high school career I focused on being calm and relaxed, eventually getting my time down around 58 seconds, but that was less the point than the lesson it taught me about pushing sometimes it does nothing other than slow you down.
A Question of Efficiency
Complex interactions have an 'efficiency' to them: for the amount of energy you put into them a certain amount of value (whatever that is to you in the situation) comes out. In terms of swimming I found that putting more energy into my stroke only reduced my efficiency in terms of speed. Anything beyond a certain point was not only wasted, but was actively slowing me down.
This realization has come in handy many times since, when events that required finesse reacted better to easing back than pushing harder.