Being a national champion in a sport you love is an incredible feat. Achieving that title as a teenager makes it even more admirable. For around four years, Kamal Nasser was Pakistan’s best swimmer until the rigors of medical school took over. And the rest as they say is history. Or is it?
Even though it has been several years since he swam competitively, Nasser, now a physician in Ann Arbor, Michigan, believes that the rigorous discipline he learned from swimming are lessons he hopes to pass on to his two sons. His interest in swimming and fitness started by seeing his father as a great role model.
“I remember my Dad waking up at 4:00 a.m. to go for a brisk walk or play tennis or squash, and that was something my sister Saira and I both learned from him.”
Starting early and being consistent seem to be the top two contributors to swimming success according to experts and parents alike. Gabriel Rivera, a high school senior from Elgin, Illinois agrees. He always loved the water and began swimming competitively when he was eight years old. He was part of the swim team at his local park district and competed against other clubs and towns for around eight years. Multiply that by five days every school week and nearly every day in the summer and you can tell how much he loves the water. He gives his parents a lot of credit for driving him to swim meets and practices and always being there to cheer him on.
“Swimming is not just great physical exercise,” Rivera said. “It is great for mental health too. If I am ever upset or anxious, I know I can release my feelings into the pool and that is awesome therapy.”
Hafsa Rana, a blogger and entrepreneur from the Chicago area wants to instill these skills in her children and therefore makes it a priority for her six and four-year-olds to take regular swim lessons. She shopped around in her vicinity and found that the Goldfish Swim School in Glen Ellyn was the perfect fit for her family. “Not only do I love the beautiful facility at Goldfish with big changing rooms and a sitting area for parents,” Rana said. “The best part is how the instructor gives me a recap after every 45-minute swim lesson so that parents are apprised of what the kids are learning.”
Rana suggests that parents try out different swim schools in their area as most offer a first free session before making up their mind. They can try to find the best choice for their family, but if their child is still not enjoying it after a few classes, they might want to take a break and reintroduce swimming after a while. Her older son did not enjoy swimming at first, so she decided to give him a break rather than push it. After a year or so she tried again and now he loves the pool. She started her younger son at an earlier age, before he turned three, and finds that he has fewer inhibitions and has shown tremendous progress for his age.
Rana’s boys go for their swim lesson after school, so they have a snack like an apple or banana before swimming. Nasser also recommends a snack or light meal higher in carbohydrates such as a cereal bar, before swimming. That can give you a quick rush of energy. After a good workout in the pool, he encourages a meal high in lean protein within 30-60 minutes of swimming.
Swimming can be fun and great exercise, but this life skill can also equip you with the know how to save your life and the lives of others in the case of an emergency. As we learn in Islam, saving one life is like saving all of humanity. Thus it is definitely a skill worth honing.
During the summer, Rivera has worked as a lifeguard and knows firsthand that it is a huge responsibility. In fact, lifeguards have to take a test every year before they are hired for the season. “I try not to spend my summer as a lifeguard sitting on a chair. I walk around the pool—sometimes for two hours at a time,” Rivera said. “There have been four instances when I have had to jump into the pool to save a life. Each time it has been a child who has still not mastered swimming and went into the deep end of the pool.”
Soon graduating high school, Rivera sees the benefits of swimming to stay with him forever. Even though he agrees that some people love to swim bright and early, he believes that if you have had a tough day at work or school, a few laps at night followed by a nice shower guarantees a great night’s sleep. If a child enjoys a sport, any sport, its ripples can be seen in other parts of his life too. Rivera, for instance, took up track and field in high school and plans on continuing that in college.
Swimming is one of the three sports, along with horseback riding and archery that are encouraged in our Islamic tradition. “Not only does swimming provide fantastic cardiovascular activity, it aids in weight loss without added pressure on the back or knees,” Nasser said. “One mile of swimming is equivalent to four miles of walking since you swim against a resistance so you can see results sooner.” He recommends swimming for at least 45 minutes three times a week for it to be effective. One can increase the intensity and duration as time goes on. The bottom line is to push yourself a little so that you go out of your comfort zone and feel a little out of breath, not just like a leisurely splash in the pool.
Nasser said it is hard to compare swimming in a pool to the ocean. “The open ocean is a completely different beast. It is nearly impossible to train competitively in salt water plus the water buoyancy is very different too,” Nasser said. “But as far as pools are concerned, indoor and outdoor are equally good provided you apply a good sunscreen when swimming outdoors.”
Experts recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 50. When choosing a brand, also look for one that protects from both UVA and UVB rays. Once you have the right sunscreen, it is equally important to re-apply it if you swim outdoors for a longer period of time. It is recommended to apply one ounce of sunscreen every hour you are outdoors. Professional swimmers prefer sunscreen lotion to sprays as lotions can provide more even coverage. They feel “waterproof sunscreen” is an urban myth which makes people believe that they do not have to reapply the lotion. This can lead to burning, skin damage, and worse consequences. In addition to sunscreen, especially if you plan to surf or swim for longer periods outdoors, protective swim clothing is a great addition for increased safety.
Nasser wishes he had the opportunity to represent Pakistan in Olympic-level swimming. But, like Rivera, he enjoys watching the Olympic swimmers on television. They both love analyzing techniques and marveling at their every stroke. They find it amazing how winners can be decided by as little as one-tenth of a second.
They agree that there is no guarantee that your kids will love swimming, but as parents it is our job to at least provide them with the opportunity. Just like sometimes it takes a few patient tries before a child enjoys a new food, it might take a new instructor, time of day, weather, or facility before a child takes to the water.
Some children might excel naturally while others may need a nudge now and then. Still others would rather dribble a basketball or enjoy cross country running.
“The important thing is for them to love some sport, especially in this era of video games and gadgets,” Nasser said. “The actual sport may vary, but if they are enjoying an activity rather than being plopped in front of a screen, you are doing something right and will see the results both in the short and long run.”
Kiran Ansari is a writer and entrepreneur in the suburbs of Chicago. To read her previous work, visit www.kiran-ansari.com.