Getting There One Stroke at a Time
by Laura S. Jones, Staff Writer
Learning to swim as an adult is hard. Really hard. Most people don’t do it. But Sharon Bloch is doing it and hopes her tale will inspire others.
Bloch, 47 and a veteran of three running marathons, swims with the CSP Tideriders in St. Louis. Hap Gentry, 52, is their coach. Bloch originally approached him for private swim lessons after realizing that the only thing left to her in marathons was to try and get faster, and she didn’t think she could. “Swimming just seemed like a good challenge. I would hear a lot of runners say they wanted to do a triathlon but couldn’t swim. So I decided to try and do a triathlon.” Not for a minute did she think she would ever join a Masters team. But one thing led to another, and she joined USMS and the CSP Tideriders in November 2010.
It didn’t start well. “Something is wrong,” she thought. “How can I run 26 miles and not be able to swim 25 yards? I found out it is a lot harder to move through water than air. There is not a lot of margin for error in form.”
Here is Bloch’s story in her own words:
“Walking into the first practice was intimidating. Two swimmers in the ‘slow lane’ were wearing Ironman swim caps, and I could barely make it down the pool with fins on. Swimming without fins wasn't even on my radar at that point. All I could think was ‘What am I doing here?’
But, the people were friendly and welcomed me. The first few workouts I tried hard to stay out of everyone’s way, but when I did bump into people they were nice about it. By December I was frustrated at the slow progress I was making and finding it harder and harder to drag myself out of bed at 4:45 a.m. in the cold and dark to do something I was so bad at. If not for the encouragement of the other swimmers I would have quit. One [fellow] swimmer likes to remind me that the slowest swimmer in the pool is doing more than the fastest swimmer not in the pool.
I am happy to report that I am now easily swimming 10 x 50s with my fins and can even manage a lap without them. It might not sound like much, but to me it is monumental. The other swimmers have cheered me on and celebrated every baby step I've taken. No one has ever disparaged my lack of ability or made me feel like I was in the way. I now look forward to going to workouts (instead of dreading them) and can’t believe how quickly the time goes (they used to seem interminable). I still have a long way to go to reach my goal, but I'm starting to think that it's achievable.”
Bloch gives a lot of credit to her coach. “My coach is awesome. He gives me one thing to think about at a time and he gives me the confidence that I can do it.” Gentry, an ASCA Level 5 Masters coach who has been coaching Masters swimmers for 20 years, pays back the compliment and says that Bloch “is learning a little bit each day, and she’ll get there. I don’t know when, but she will. Sharon is very persistent.”
Gentry believes that anyone can learn to swim at any age. “As long as they understand what they are trying to do—intellectually and they can feel it—they will be successful. I’m only the facilitator. I just add information. I give all credit to the swimmers who get into the pool at such crazy hours.”
Bloch knows that the victories are sweeter when they take time. “Once I can do 500 yards without fins, I’ll enter a triathlon,” she says. “My dream is to do a half-ironman the year I turn 50, which is three years away.” At practice, she now likes swimming with the faster people “because it pushes me. I just try and keep up the best I can.”
When not swimming or running, Bloch works as a molecular biologist, knits, plays the harp and accordion, and enjoys being a mother to her 16-year-old son.