The Art of Swimming, or how Ben Franklin helps me train

Posted on May 18, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Any time I think of Ben Franklin—and yes, oddly, I think of him a lot—it’s never as a swimmer.  Yet there I was in the pool this week working on my stroke when who should I think of but Franklin.

Franklin has been one of my heroes, I suppose you could say, since I first read his Autobiography in high school.  (I know. I was an odd kid.) What appealed to me about Franklin then appealed to me throughout college and well into now.  Franklin was all about self-improvement.  He was a planner, a list-maker, an organizer of days and details, who believed that hard work, patience, and discipline lead to progress.

He went so far as to devise a character development project—The Art of Virtue—in the hope of attaining “moral perfection.”  To this end, he listed 13 virtues or qualities of character he felt most important, with an explanation or precept beneath each one.  He made a chart listing the 13 virtues down the side and the 7 days of the week across the top.  Each week, he focused on one virtue.

He carried his chart with him everywhere he went, and each time he failed to live up to that week’s precept, he’d make a mark on the chart.  The fewer the marks on the chart, the closer he came to meeting his idea of moral perfection.  The next week, he’d focus on the next virtue, and then the next, until he worked his way through all 13.  Then he’d start over again.

He kept his chart for 50 years.  He never quite reached moral perfection (I highly doubt he ever thought he would), but he became a better man by marking himself through life.

So why was I thinking about moral perfection while swimming this week?  I wasn’t.  I was thinking about my elbows.  Was I lifting them high enough out of the water?  Were they coming up in the shape of a pyramid?  Or maybe a chicken wing wrapped tightly to the body strapped on a rotisserie, turning maybe 75°, but not quite all the way around, just enough to twist my body up and around to take a deep breath of air?  (I know.  I am an odd adult too.  Sometimes I get hungry while I swim.  Usually, I think of oranges.  This time, it was rotisserie chicken.)

My elbows.  That was my focus, just for this week.  Last week it was my kick.  Next week it will be something else.  Each time I get in the pool I try to practice proper form, but I realized this week that I focus on only one thing.  Enter Franklin.

I won’t go so far as to make a list of 13 swimming components I need to improve, but I have one in my mind.  In all other endeavors I have undertaken that involve self-improvement, I have made a plan—created a list, kept a calendar, somehow marked my progress and lack thereof. I have done this, in part, to keep from being overwhelmed.  A project is always easier to undertake if I break it down into smaller parts.

Triathlon training is easier to undertake if I break it down into smaller parts.

I don’t have to master the art of swimming in just one week.  Not even in one month.  There are too many components to take into account, at least for me.  But if I focus on just one thing at a time—just one week at a time—I will at least get better.  And all I ask for is improvement.

So thank you, Ben, for once again reminding me that improvement comes in small measures, over the course of time.

I said that before this week, I had never thought about Franklin as a swimmer. Heck, I never thought of him as athletic at all.  Come to find out, he not only taught himself how to swim in a time when almost no one went swimming, but he invented fins.  He is, in fact, the only founding father to be in the Swimming Hall of Fame.  I wonder what his training log looked like.


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2 Responses to “The Art of Swimming, or how Ben Franklin helps me train”

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My swim instructor once said the hands should brush through the hip slightly so as to get a full extension. I still haven’t gotten it :). I enjoyed this post, I really hope I can do a triathlon before I die…but I can’t ride a bicycle( shame). I hope to learn this summer.


I hope you learn too! Riding a bike is so much fun–especially going downhill. 🙂


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