Why I Love Being a Super-Beginner

I may only get a hundred chances to be one.

Danni Michaeli, MD
Change Becomes You
5 min readSep 19, 2023

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Photo by Yogendra Singh on Unsplash

In a few weeks, I’ll be doing my first triathlon. I’m starting to get a little nervous about it, especially the swim portion. I can swim, but in the 40 years before this summer, I’ve probably swum about 5 times. As a kid, I enjoyed swimming at summer camp; having not been very athletic (at least that’s how I knew myself), it was one of the few things I could do without feeling completely embarrassed. Once I became a teenager though, I gave it up. By high school I related to it as something extremely fit guys on the swim team did.

But my friend asked me to do a triathlon with him this year, and I’ve learned to say yes to things like this, especially to this particular friend who I enjoy training with and spending with. It’s a great way to stay in shape, and I’m surprised how much adding the swimming to my routines of running and biking has gotten me into better shape than I’ve been in for many years. In fact, I’m surprised to say that the training has become my favorite thing each week.

A few weeks ago we went swimming together, having not swum together for about a month because of life things. I did a fair amount of swimming while I was away, but this time he was really smoking me in the pool. After we got out, told me he thought there was something wrong with my technique. We’re only a few weeks away from the race now, so I got very nervous.

We signed up for an open water swim class in Coney Island. Yes, for those of you who don’t live around here, it may be hard to imagine, but Coney Island is a real place in New York City that still exists, a long beach with a beautiful carnival of a boardwalk with a full-on amusement park, but a kind of old-fashioned weird one.

So there we were, about a hundred of us on the beach, very early Sunday morning, the sun shining low on the horizon, lighting up the Cyclone roller coaster beside us. They asked us to separate into super-beginners, beginners, intermediate and advanced swimmers. My friend went with the beginners and I went with the super-beginners.

That choice was one of the best things I could have done.

The coaches were super supportive and encouraging, but also gave a lot of pointers about how to breathe, how to keep moving in the right direction, what to do if you get tired and how to deal with the crowds swimming on top of you, knocking off your goggles and kicking you in the face. My favorite was “plan to have four things which will freak you out, so when they happen just count each one and keep going.”

They put us through some drills which stressed us out, and because we were also the smallest group (unlike the beginners, who were the largest), we got a fair amount of personal attention. I learned that my technique is good; I just need some tweaking, but it’s nothing to fear for the coming race. I left feeling confident and at ease, part of a community of learners and strivers. In some way, we’re all doing this together and we’ll be OK.

I am no longer a super-beginner, which is really sad. When you’re a super-beginner, the only thing you can do is improve. And often, that improvement happens quickly, because we’re not as incapable as we think we are. Or maybe I should say, we’re more capable than we realize. Hence, the coaches told us that none of us were really super-beginners, we just thought we were.

I do another sport called Capoeira. It’s a fast paced, highly acrobatic, musical Brazilian martial art form often likened to break dancing. I’m now one of the most advanced students in my group, which I’m proud of, but it also kind of sucks.

I need to step up now, to master areas of my technique that I’ve been weak at. I have to take my training more seriously in between classes and become more efficient. I have to show up for classes and events more consistently and I feel the pressure to get things right, to do a good job, mentor novices and meet my instructors expectations. And I can’t help but compare myself to my peers.

I feel good that I’ve stuck with it and I’m grateful and sometimes shocked at what my body can still do, but there’s pressure there, and understandably, some judgment. When you’re a super-beginner, no one’s expecting too much of you, only that you keep coming back and trying your best. That’s a gift.

How often have you heard people say something is impossible before they’ve even tried it? How many times have you said it yourself? Let’s be honest: if you’re saying something is too hard before you’ve even tried it once, you’re definitely lying. 100% lying.

Someone told me a great story the other day. He had another friend who trained for a triathlon once, the same one I’m about to do. That guy was totally out of shape and realized he needed to take some serious action. So he signed up for the triathlon and trained.

On the race day, my friend went to cheer him at the finish line. He waited for hours as the remaining athletes started tapering out. A guy with one arm and no legs pushing himself on a skateboard crossed the finish line and not too long after, he saw his friend heaving himself to the end. “Wshoo! That was hard!” he said when he met them.

He told it as a funny story, but also to say, “relax, you’ll be fine.”

The wisdom I’m deriving from all this is to choose to be a super-beginner often. In 100 years of life, maybe we can become super-beginners of a hundred things. For most of those things, we’ll never become proficient, because they actually will be too hard. Or they won’t be fun, or the learning environment will turn us off, or something will embarrass us, or life will get in the way. That said, maybe we will become proficient at 10 things. But in a lifetime, if we only choose to be super-beginners at 10 things, we may only become proficient at 1.

I’m almost 60 years old now, and it took me 40 years to get back in the pool. That’s because I told myself I wouldn’t like it and it would be too hard.

I learned a difficult but important lesson about saying no after my husband died. There were many things he asked me to try with him which I said no to. One of those things was this exact same triathlon which he did 20 years ago. He’s passed away now; I can’t say yes to him anymore. I could have done this with him, but it seemed unimaginable. And that’s all it was, unimaginable. I couldn’t imagine it.

I was lying to myself.

That day in Coney Island, maybe we really were super beginners and the coaches were just trying to make us feel better about ourselves. It worked. I think I’ll spend the next 40 years looking for those kinds of coaches to super-begin more cool things.

I figure I can probably still get good at four more things in my life.

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Danni Michaeli, MD
Change Becomes You

A psychiatrist and a dreamer, I'm always listening for the magic and wondering what we're all doing here.....