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Follow the Flow

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Written by Lauren Hunsberger

Photography by Taryn Emerick

Swimming is one of the greatest pleasures of Jill Hummelstein’s life. But a few years ago injury set in to her shoulders. “It was because of poor technique,” she says. She taught herself to swim at a very young age, and over the years shoulder pain crept in and impacted her enjoyment of long, open-water swims in the oceans of Greece, Turkey, Italy and the Puget Sound near Whidbey Island, where she lives.

In pursuit of a fix, Hummelstein, now 58, found Total Immersion swimming, a technique developed for open water by the highly decorated U.S. swimmer Terry Laughlin. The technique emphasizes using the hips and core to drive the stroke and allowing the arms and legs to act as secondary propulsion mechanisms.

The outcome is a streamlined, efficient movement that produces very little drag or splash. It’s meant to mimic the way fish move through water, and many swimmers find they are less exhausted and can swim further and faster.

“It took me a long time to undo all the bad habits,” Hummelstein says. “I had to completely deconstruct my stroke and put it back together.”

Hummelstein says one of the main things that sets Total Immersion apart from other techniques is that the rebuilding process includes precision dryland drills, video analysis (both under- and overwater), heart rate monitoring and the use of a tempo trainer, a small metronome that fits under the swim cap. “It’s a very systematic and incremental process.”

The technique alleviated Hummelstein’s pain and injury, and she says she looks forward to enjoying the sport for many more years. But she also experienced an unexpected side effect—the ability to tap into a flow state.

“It’s at once both cerebral and completely body-oriented, the intention is to be in harmony with your body and the exigences of the water,” she says. “When you focus on the smallest thing—like the feeling of your hand entering the water—you can fall into a meditative state. It really is the perfect thing for longevity because it’s not frying your nervous system like so many other activities can. When you’re done, you’re refreshed.”

This connection with her mind and body followed her outside of the pool as well. “It gave me gears. It showed me that if I’m in a stressed state, I have the ability to change channels and be more present with my surrounding and my body.”

Another surprising benefit was that Hummelstein says she felt more athletic than she ever had. “I just wanted to heal myself, and I ended up discovering this inner athlete I didn’t know I had,” she says. In the near future, she is going to put this to the test with a few open-water races, leading up to a 7K.

Hummelstein is so enthusiastic about the process that she wanted to share it with others. She is now a certified Level 3 Total Immersion coach, one of very few in the Pacific Northwest. Her training certifies her to develop personal practice plans for all levels of athletes, teach all four strokes, and offer detailed instruction on technique to improve speed, endurance and comfort. She is co-teaching a series of clinics at the Bellevue Club this summer.

Open-Water Swim Safety

Hummelstein is a huge proponent of practicing good safety habits. Here is her checklist for open-water swimming:

Bring a swim buoy
This personal floating device attaches around the waist with a belt and provides a bright visual so that others can keep an eye on you.

Always swim with a buddy
Never swim alone in open water. Ever.

Check the weather, tides and algal blooms
Swimming in open water exposes you to more elements than in a pool. Be sure to check all the conditions before heading out.

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