Want to Swim Faster? Terry Laughlin Says Relax

Terry Laughlin doesn’t coach any elite athletes or teams. And he doesn't have a case full of medals. But he did write one of the best-selling books on swimming. And, if that's not enough, he promises to lead clients to "a personal nirvana."
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(ILLUSTRATION: MAGOZ)

(ILLUSTRATION: MAGOZ)

The Total Immersion Swim Studio where Terry Laughlin teaches people he calls “adult-onset swimmers” how to flow through the water with grace occupies the basement of his house in New Paltz, New York, and is furnished with one of those Endless Pools—basically a treadmill for swimmers. Water rushes back from a metal box that looks like a submerged air conditioner; the current allows a person to stroke yet stay in place. In the chlorinated chest-deep water, one day in September, were: a three-by-five-foot mirror, an underwater video camera, Laughlin (who is 62 years old), and a hospital vice president roughly Laughlin’s age who had just driven two hours for his monthly one-hour lesson. In February 2012 the VP could not swim at all. This year he plans to swim 2.4 miles in a full Ironman race. Laughlin plans to get him there by training his mind.

Laughlin fiddled with a remote control in a Ziploc bag on the edge of the pool, projecting a video of the VP’s freestyle onto a large wall-mounted screen. “See how your hand flattens out like this?” he said, straightening his wrist, shifting his fingers to be parallel to the surface. “That’s a sign that your balance is off. You’re using your hand as a brace when you breathe.”

A common misconception about swimming is that it’s similar to running and cycling, based on aerobic capacity, endurance, and muscular strength. But swimming is more like gymnastics, a technique sport.

Laughlin is an unlikely sporting master. He doesn’t have an outsize ego or a case full of medals. He coaches no elite athletes or teams. Gray, intellectually curious, with three grown daughters, he just reads, writes, swims, and teaches people the art of moving through water. His book, Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster, and Easier, published in 1996, is one of the best-selling books on swimming. It promises to lead people to “a personal nirvana where every lap ... feels blissful.”

To demonstrate Total Immersion, Laughlin lowered his goggles and swam, arms loping, unhurried, shifting weight from side to side, like a man on Nordic skis. Laughlin believes swimming is an excellent tool for finding a “flow state,” which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines in his seminal book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

“Did you see the quality of leisure in how I just did that?” Laughlin said, standing up. He asked the VP to swim without making a sound.

“How did that feel?” Laughlin asked when the VP finished.

“It felt different,” the VP said. “How so?”

“Less?”

Laughlin liked this answer. “Less is more! You want to identify all the moments of even slightly abrupt movement and take them out.”

IN MASTERY: THE KEYS to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, the story of a man becoming an aikido master in middle age and another of Laughlin’s favorite books, George Leonard writes, “To see the teacher clearly, look at the students. They are his work of art.” Laughlin’s work of art is a 48-year-old Japanese engineer who lives in San Ramon, California, named Shinji Takeuchi. Takeuchi started swimming at age 37 to lose weight. He knew some breaststroke from his childhood in Japan, so he ordered Laughlin’s breaststroke DVD. He had never heard of Total Immersion, but Laughlin’s breaststroke video also offered instruction in butterfly. “I like a bargain,” Takeuchi told me. “I figure two for the price of one!”

Takeuchi followed the Total Immersion breaststroke technique, first just undulating up and down in place. Then he learned butterfly. He lost 18 pounds. When the tech bubble burst in 2004, Takeuchi, a communications engineer, went back to Japan where he constructed a building in front of his parents’ apartment and installed an Endless Pool in it. He mounted six video cameras and hung a 60-inch plasma screen. Takeuchi practiced Total Immersion swimming from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. each night, swimming a minute or two, then stopping and analyzing the videos frame by frame, looking to weed out flaws. “I am a very hard worker, workaholic,” Takeuchi says, as if this explains. In 2007, after three years of practice, Takeuchi felt satisfied with his stroke. In 2008, he uploaded a video of himself to YouTube. That video is now the most watched swimming clip on the Web, with more than 3.9 million hits, more than Michael Phelps.

Takeuchi’s stroke is mesmerizing not for its physicality but for its ease, the vision it offers of complete flow and the possibility that you might attain it. Tim Ferriss, author of the best-selling 4-Hour Body, found the YouTube video of Shinji, as everybody calls him, and posted it on his blog alongside his so-called body hacks for 15-minute orgasms and perfect sleep, under the headline “Total Immersion: How I Learned to Swim Effortlessly in 10 Days and You Can Too.”

After Takeuchi gave me a lesson at the ClubSport pool in nearby Fremont, we sat in the lobby of the gym, talking about how he became the embodiment of Laughlin’s ideas. “I’m Japanese!” he said, laughing at himself. “We can’t invent, but we can modify anything. Like the Walkman. We find the Tao. This means the road to pursue perfection. Some people like me can enjoy the road.”

AT A TOTAL IMMERSION workshop, videos of Shinji played in a loop alongside those of Sun Yang, the Chinese swimmer who set a world record in the 1,500-meter freestyle at the 2012 Olympics while taking fewer strokes and moving his arms more slowly than anyone else in the pool. “Let go of everything and figure out who you are in the water,” a Total Immersion coach told the dozen students assembled. “Play! Explore! In the water you’re one year old!”

In some ways Total Immersion barely teaches swimming. It teaches, first, how to balance in the water, then how to streamline. Propulsion—moving forward—is only the third concern. Laughlin has been trying to crack the code of the sport of swimming since he was a child in Williston Park, New York. Laughlin’s father was so controlling that he picked out his son’s clothes through high school. To escape, Laughlin joined all teams. Swimming was not a strength. In high school, he never advanced out of the team’s slow lane, yet swimming captured his imagination. He checked the 301-page 1948 classic Competitive Swimming and Diving out of the library and read every word. In college he asked the coach to meet him for morning swim practices even though the rest of the team only worked out in the afternoons. Junior year Laughlin raced well, clocking 18.02 minutes in the 1,650-yard freestyle, but he had to work too hard for the time and he knew it. After leaving college, in 1972, Laughlin began coaching at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. On the pool deck he had an epiphany: The fast swimmers looked calm and graceful, while the slow swimmers looked frantic. So Laughlin decided to coach based on aesthetics, trying to get his slow swimmers to look like his fast ones.

A common misconception about swimming is that it’s similar to running and cycling, based on aerobic capacity, endurance, and muscular strength. But swimming is more like gymnastics, a technique sport. A super-fit person can spend huge amounts of energy moving slowly and fighting drag while a less fit person can swim much faster if his head is low, his hips and legs are high, and his body is extended, giving the water a point to flow around. Coaching for beauty, Laughlin, who later went on to coach in Richmond, Virginia, led his swimmers to win the state’s age-group and senior team championships. Then he got sick of what he calls the “high-pressure, low-perspective parents” and started freelance writing and offering swim workshops to adults on the side. He figured, “If I taught adults, at least the swimmers’ parents would not be a pain.”

In more entrepreneurial hands, Total Immersion might have grown into Bikram Yoga or Zumba, a copyrighted and franchised sports empire. But creating a business is not Laughlin’s strength, nor is it his interest. In fact, for several months, every Tuesday he drove to Woodland Pond, a senior living center, and gave a free lesson to Paul Lurie, age 95.

One warm morning in September, Lurie sat waiting in the lobby at 7 a.m. wearing a robe, a swim cap, and goggles.

“Good morning!” Laughlin said. “What are we going to do today?”

“I’m going to swim silently!” said Lurie.

At the Woodland Pond pool, Lurie stripped down to a black Speedo. “Here’s what you’re doing right,” said Laughlin. “When your hand gets to the water your fingertips are down and your palm is back.” Thirty minutes later Lurie toweled off.

“I’m not the least bit tired!” he said. “I feel energized!”

Later that morning Laughlin drove home and faced a tougher student, a very fit young man who wore his heart-rate monitor in the Endless Pool. Laughlin started with the basics: Lengthen your body. Press on your lungs.

The man swam a few powerful but jerky strokes.

“Now do the same thing but relax,” Laughlin said.

The man snapped his goggles onto his forehead. “Relax?”

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