There are, of course, many unique advantages offered by working out in the pool, some of which are not so obvious. The freedom of movement is a huge element, as even for the muscles in which I do not yet have voluntary contraction, those joints are brought through some range-of-motion passively by the movement of the water. For the muscles I can contract on my own, my buoyancy can allow for more sustained activity in the quad or glute, for example. Whereas, at all other times, there is pressure on some area of my skin (the least damaging time is obviously when I’m standing with the support of a trainer, or my father), I think of the pool time as my weekly pressure reset-switch, especially for my underside. (Given how debilitating pressure sores can be and that, if I got one, I would be laid low for weeks, away from recovery, I am always cautious.)
Perhaps the most important reasons for doing pool work have to do with my relevant history, which is how comfortable and familiar my body is with, and in, that environment. This works both ways, however, because for a few months earlier this year, I dreaded going to the pool. Originally, I had such excitement about being back in the water after such a scarring time in the ICU, but after I returned home, that quality faded into an overwhelming feeling of loss. There had always been a sense of imprisonment, but it was coupled with relief and a notion of variety and familiarity such that I still looked forward to getting in the pool. For those many weeks, though, as I labored through a choppy stroke that couldn’t be mine, I could not rid myself of the sick, depressed feeling that came from such unfamiliar incapability in such a familiar place––like someone singing a song or reciting a poem that you wrote and completely and unapologetically butchering the words and delivery. I swam each week because I felt like I should, and because I knew it was good for my body, but it was not at all a positive experience.
At one point at the end of May, when I had a small but noticeable improvement at the gym with hip-flexion while walking, I was talking with my trainers about the importance of core-strength in taking steps. One could argue that postural stability in the muscles of the back, sides and front is as crucial for walking as the legs are. A lack in either will have a dramatic effect on balance and control. This is perhaps not so surprising when one considers that some of the hip flexor muscles (ones that bring the knee forward and up) have an attachment in the abdomen. Anyway, one trainer made a comment to me about swimmers having strong core muscles, and I realized then that I could, in fact, use my pool sessions to work on those muscles, because my walking had shown that evidently I had some strength there.
Since then, I have been working on my rotation in backstroke and freestyle because it is a complete, focused motion that incorporates many of those important postural muscles. More importantly––and here is the other part of that ‘relevant history' mentioned above––is that the movement of rotation, which is so crucial to freestyle and backstroke, is a pattern that I practiced a couple million times in high school (if one complete ‘rotation’ happens every two strokes). This means that, by way of the literal configuration of my muscles and connective tissue (the 'myofascia'), my body “knows” how to rotate, despite my current lack of muscle-firing in some necessary areas. This is hugely exciting because I believe I can use that innate muscle memory as a way to work toward a functioning core from both sides: from the physical structure of my body, which "wants" to complete a pattern it knows, and from my brain, which sends signals to those muscles to come alive.
Just to reiterate: my future ability to walk is completely dependent on the strength of my core, and I can use swimming to make those muscles reconnect.
The best part? I think it’s working! During my most recent swim, I suddenly felt a much greater connection to the rhythm of the stroke. You can see that, while I am still using my arms somewhat to complete the rolling motion, I am able to do more with my core than before. The idea is to get in a rhythm, using my arms if I must, and then allow the body’s reflex to kick-in to continue the motion.
This is a big step, and will be big in my journey to taking steps. See for yourself:
The reference at the end: to “negative-split” is to go all-out, completing the second half
of the race in less time than the first half.