What I Learned this Summer at Mexican Swim Camp
Prioritize your passions, Social media isn’t all bad & Community comes in unexpected packages
I arrived at the San Luis Potosí airport in Mexico where an adorable but overly eager security canine took too much of an interest in a protein bar wrapper — sending me to the special line for additional screening. After being cleared of no suspicious items, I emerged from the customs declarations area where a trim, pleasant looking woman was standing holding a sign: “William Bietsch.” It was 9pm and this trip had started 9 hours earlier that day in the same time zone in a taxi heading to Chicago’s O’Hare airport.
Like all my half-baked schemes that sound interesting or fun months prior, the doubt and apprehension surrounding this latest judgement call of time and money was starting to creep in. I was taken out to a van where an American couple from San Jose was waiting — Michael and Rebecca. They were very warm and welcoming. This is saying a lot because they had been waiting a few hours for me to be collected so we could head out to the La Loma — the athletic complex that would be our home for the next 7 days. The van door slid shut and we sped away into the dark night away from the airport. But this trip had really started a year before.
Finally tackling a childhood fear of drowning and a new years goal that kept being pushed into the following year, 2018 was the year to cross this off the goals list. Through a mix of private lessons with a variety of coaches and some splashing around in the water on my own, I eventually made it out of the 4 ft exercise pool into the adult swim lanes at the local health club. Like evolution in reverse, I made my way off dry land back into the primordial soup. The only problem was I didn’t have gills or webbed feet — making this whole leap a lot more difficult.
After plateauing (in interest not skill!) in early 2019, I needed a new goal: The Butterfly. The most technically difficult and often-times avoided stroke. I could barely float but was going to tackle this swim stroke. Thanks to YouTube, I managed to watch members of the Russian national team perform perfect dolphin kicks and exquisite butterfly strokes. Realizing I needed a bit more realistic instruction I found a few other YouTube channels that were helpful. I kept remembering the studies where injured athletes actually improved after laying bedridden but visualizing their practice every day while in the hospital. I could only hope that watching enough videos would translate into learning to swim. As it turns out, you have to actually practice and have some skill before visualization helps you!
One day I stumbled onto the Skills NT Swimming channel and devoured their videos on butterfly. The biggest benefit was motivation, as anyone can tell you — butterfly likely takes someone watching and correcting you. You should probably have the basics of swim under your belt as well. The channel is run by two brothers from Mexico, Raul and Mauri, and thru a mix of humor and careful instruction, they make swimming very accessible to all levels. Their mantra of “technique first and always” was one that I took to heart.
After checking out their website, I discovered they were hosting swim camps in Mexico and Thailand. My new goal was set — much to the surprise, smirk and raised eyebrows of friends, colleagues and current swim coach. All well-meaning, but all biting their lips out of politeness. So my pre-goal was to be able to swim a continuous 50 meters or more, have a flip turn, decent dolphin kick and the basics of freestyle with breathing. My backstroke had fallen more quickly into place because it doesn’t require breathing and I felt pretty good about it. My breast stroke — which I had initial high hopes for — I abandoned quickly as awkward, unsightly and a waste of time. My butterfly suffered a serious setback when my young butterfly coach was summarily released from his position at the club for reasons that remain a bit unclear. I was really unfortunate because the three lessons with Jack were some of the biggest gains I had made overall.
Back in San Luis Potosí, it was July 4th, and I was leaving behind national independence day for an independence day of my own. The van made its way thru the night, heading to La Loma with my swim fins, Speedo and googles packed and ready for something I was clearly not ready for.
Just Who Shows up to Mexican Swim Camp?
The next morning and over the course of the next 7 days, a small group of strangers from around the world formed a small, supportive cohort under the watchful eye of Mauri and Raul at the professionally-equipped athletic complex of La Loma altitude training center. Did I mention I had no idea we would also have the added challenge of being higher than Denver while training? The flags of Turkey, Mexico, USA and Argentina would fly figuratively over the pool as well as Guatemala and Puerto Rico. Morning and late afternoon swim sessions, individual tapings and reviews, demonstrations, “dry land” drills, technique corrections and added skills such as dives and turns occupied our time. The sessions and the days flew by.
In between swimming sessions, during some introductory small talk, we discovered that many of us were water signs — Cancer (3 of us!), Aquarius (air but associated with water) and Scorpio. Many in this cohort were water signs returning to water! In my case, it took decades to return, but clearly I couldn’t resist the call. I barely have a passing interest in astrology or the Zodiac, but have found over the years an interesting connection with other Cancers that goes beyond the superficial. We seem to share similar hard-wiring and a quick understanding of each other. (More here on my other unexpected Cancer connections in Mexico this trip.)
Age, Life and Prioritizing your Passion
Fellow swim-campers ranged in age. There were the expected younger swimmers who were driven by their own skills, desire and parent’s support to pursue their swim goals and dreams. In some cases this was at the highest levels — world competition and even Olympic tracks. This is the archetypal “do it while you’re young and still competitive” mindset prevalent in much of the world and for sure the U.S. More interesting and less typical were those of us in our 30s to 60s, especially the few women who chose to prioritize their passion for swimming with family obligations. Taking the time, money and preparation required to pursue this personal commitment is impressive and difficult. How many times do we say things like: Next year… After the kids are gone… When finances are better… When work is slower? All completely legitimate concerns. But I am sure not one of us regrets our week of swim technique improvement, friendship, and returning home with a deeper understanding of the world and ourselves. One benefit to our family and friends, is that hopefully we return as a better version of ourselves. This is the type of growth that comes from putting yourself in new situations in new places with new people. Throw yourself in the deep end.
Personal Tech & Social Media: Double-edged Swords
During one of our many impromptu conversations after swimming or dinner, invariably the role of social media and personal technology came up. Who has Facebook? Are you on Instagram? What about your kids? Peers? Etc. Are you glued to your phone? For the next seven days, it was like a silent pact to enjoy our time at La Loma and be present. Phone time was typically reserved for evenings or afternoon breaks from swimming and scheduled activities. It turns out that most of us used technology to stay connected with people or groups: WeChat, WhatsApp, etc. We immediately formed a WhatsApp group so we could be in touch and share pictures and information throughout the week, set plans, and remind and encourage each other.
I found one of our conversations to be particularly insightful and give me a new way to think about social media. We recognized that for the few people who ran businesses, it was smart to be on Instagram and use it as an inexpensive and easily scaled selling and marketing platform, but no one was using it to broadcast the “highlights” of their lives. We discussed their various sons and daughters use of technology and eventually started down the path of demonizing the effects of social media.
Then, I believe Ana spoke up and said — yes, but without the YouTube channel of Mauri and Raul, we would not have all been sitting there together— at least not this version of us. Pre-internet, to be sure, things like this could have happened, but it would be more localized or expensive or commercial or specialized. Maybe a flyer at a local swimming club would have gathered people from surrounding neighborhoods in a city or town — but would it really be realistic for two scrappy, smart brothers from Mexico to have an idea to share their passion of swimming globally? How likely would it be to host a swim camp in Mexico, put out the call and have a global cohort of swimmers show up and enjoy this unique and somewhat spontaneous experience?
This was truly unique in its genesis of two men sharing their passion for swimming with anyone in the world that would listen. They wondered, would anyone show up? Would the U.S., Mexico, Turkey, Argentina, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico come to La Loma? To harness the power of our globally connected age and not be harnessed by it, is the balance and the trick. The genie is already out of the bottle, but how do we quickly move from hiding behind our screens virtually and shift the experience to IRL (In Real Life). This is the real benefit of our hyper-connectivity— the kick-off and the connectivity after. Our WhatsApp group has continued to be a source of sharing support, pictures, inspiration, and accomplishments.
Ideas of Community Redefined
The WhatsApp group is a great example of how the idea of community has shifted or rather, expanded. What once may have resulted in a few shared postcards or letters after the fact, has become the potential to remain connected. We have the ability to seamlessly share ideas, support and accomplishments well after an intense time of shared experience. Pre-internet, we experienced intense times in our lives such as overnight camp, summer trips, our high school or college years. These moments we shared so intensely with others that when it all ended, we were left with tearful goodbyes, solemn oaths to remain in touch or even separation anxiety. This separation anxiety was the most complicated of all. We are capable of diminishing the people and experiences, often by picking a fight, to protect ourselves emotionally from the pain of leaving (or separation).
In the case of Swim Camp — we were able to come together, a self-elected group from all over the world, to be sure, there are personality markers that suggested a few common threads beyond swimming that gathered us (love of travel, independence, resourcefulness). But in this case, a group of individuals showed up, quickly formed an offline community of support, humor and exchange of ideas about politics, life, and swimming. After our 7 days the intensity of being together has diminished, but the connectivity remains and takes its proper place in our overall lives. From the WhatsApp channel, I can see the first place each person went back to for their first swim. Some of them were exotic locations in Mexico and Latin America or beautiful club pools back in their hometowns. I know that Fulya swam the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim (1:14:46) again and she had us all cheering her on.
As I think about it, the trick is to be thoughtful and intentional, recognizing there are only so many hours in the day and time for friends, family and self. The difference in our case, is we understand each other better as people and not as an Instagram feed. Being together, we knew who had a great swim day or when someone was feeling frustrated or disappointed — this is social with the depth and dimension of life, not a social media feed. And, so far, no one has picked a fight to make being apart easier!
Of all the images shared, the one that means the most, is the one I packed in my suitcase. Erick surprised us all with a large group photo nicely mounted on a wood frame that he also insisted we all sign. There is something nice about the physicality of it. It represents an actual slice of time that has been preserved and doesn’t just disappear in a digital folder with thousands of other photos (we have those too!) But this is another marker of community. A totem or object of initiation and membership — something to help set aside the specialness of this time and honor this community.
An added dimension of this community of swimmers was our support for the dream and passion of Raul and Mauri. From the very beginning everyone was all-in supporting this business venture. Photos, social media feeds, solicited and unsolicited feedback about how to make things better — all in a spirit of generosity and support for the best possible outcome. This added layer of support I think was mostly due to the older age of the cohort, as a result, this “meta” community was possible. People were immediately thinking bigger than themselves. It was very quickly more about their dream than our daily logistics (in most cases!)
A Last Taste
The morning is beautiful, sunny and crisp. A solitary groundskeeper steers the riding mower along hidden parallel paths creating green stripes as it hums gently, preparing the field for the day’s activities. I take a final stroll across this fútbol field that separates the hotel from the La Loma sports complex with its accompanying running track, large tractor tires quietly waiting for their partners, and Russian sleds parked expectantly. I follow the stone path through the well-manicured grounds past the solemn cypress trees reaching towards the sky, sentinels guarding the pathways in formal straight lines. The sun is intense but the air is refreshing and cool. I reach the pool to find the lane dividers floating calmly as the water’s surface reflects back the blue Mexican sky. I take a seat at a table on the side.
The quiet of the morning poolside is about to be disrupted by an explosion of unbridled energy. A mix of shouts and squeals of excitement, brightly colored foam noodles moving in all directions and staff shouting commands to organize the unruly multitude of children that eagerly await their first jump in the pool today. In many ways, and without the pool noodles and unbridled squealing, we were the excited children 7 days ago about to jump into the pool for our first-ever Mexican Swim camp.
Finally, I close my laptop, take a final sip of cafe con leche, and pause. I am dressed for the airport and trying to freeze a last few moments in memory to take with me. Impressions, tastes, sounds and smells to pack and unpack when this experience all sinks in. Like all intense experiences, the end comes with a mix of relief of having accomplished something new and different but also melancholy, as new friendships move in different directions. Freshly made memories not yet dry but already fading a little. Life is calling us back to our respective corners. But there is always next year…SWIM FAST!