Swim Easy: How John Konrads Taught Me

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My first experience with swimming was a disaster.

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Iconic North Sydney Olympic Pool

As a kid, I had to know how to swim. Not that I wanted to but, even back then, every Aussie kid had to be able to swim. So, in 1961, my parents fronted up with me to North Sydney Olympic Pool. It might be famous for its iconic Art Deco architecture but, to five-year-old me, it was huge and terrifying.

I don’t remember the lessons, but I do recall thinking I would drown.

In fact I was convinced I wouldn’t make it to the 25-metre half-pool-length mark to pass the freestyle certificate. I didn’t drown but I vowed never to go back. I did, but not for another 47 years.

Fast & Sweaty

Fast forward to the 2000s and I had finally succumbed to the gym craze: feverish RPM classes (stationary cycling like a maniac to Donna Summers’ ‘Enough is Enough’) at Willoughby Leisure Centre.

Sure, it was energetic and fast, but not exactly enjoyable; all that heavy breathing and sweat in a tiny glass cubicle with eight others.

Looks like fun

One day at the gym, I saw a poster for the Balmoral Beach Ocean Swim. It’s a charity swim to benefit kids with cancer.

‘Wow’ I thought ‘That looks like fun’. Problem was, I couldn’t remember how to swim freestyle; the last time was when I was five to get my swim certificate. I could do a basic breaststroke (splashing around, largely staying in one place), but I was pretty sure that didn’t qualify.

By good luck, I ran into a friend at Balmoral Beach.

She told me she’d improved her swimming using a video by John Konrads (sadly, as of 2021, the late John Konrads, former Olympic great). I jumped at the opportunity to borrow the video. It was called ‘Swim Easy’.

Sheer brilliance

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The SwimEasy System – book & CD in those days!

The brilliance of John’s system was the sequencing.

First, it helped me overcome that primeval fear of drowning. ‘It’s natural to be scared in water’ John would say. ‘We’re not designed to swim. Fish are.’

He focused on helping me feel comfortable at flotation depth and then swimming there, not thrashing about on the surface, as I had at five.

It’s natural to be scared in water. We don’t have tails and gills. We’re not designed to swim. Fish are.’

John Konrads

Then, John had a series of slow easy drills that, when put together, built the most efficient, easy, relaxing way to swim. It was so easy and so confidence-building.

Very reclusive

I was in heaven. In six weeks, I had learned a whole new way to swim.

It was fantastic, feeling my body slicing through the water, instead of fighting it. I was hooked.

I bought my own copy of the video, returned the original and asked my friend if she could give me John’s contact details so I could thank him. ‘Oh, no. He’s very reclusive’ she said.

Not easily deterred, I looked him up at the Saxton Speakers Bureau.

I sent him an email telling me how he’d changed my life in just six weeks.

Reclusive? He replied in five minutes asking me if I’d like to join one of his swim clinics.

Completely starstruck

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Little me with John at Balmoral Baths

Would I like to join a clinic? Are you kidding?

A clinic with the male freestyler who, in 1960, held every world record for what are now 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500 metre distances? The swimmer whose world records I walked past every day at North Sydney Olympic Pool? You bet!

When I met John at Cook & Philip Pool (near St Mary’s Cathedral in the city), I was completely starstruck. Not only was he one of Australia’s former swimming gods, he was handsome, tanned and muscular, with an impressive shock of thick white hair. I was frozen and tough-tied. Very unlike me.

Not all Olympians are the same

I didn’t have to be starstruck.

John was completely down-to-earth. No graces, no superiority, just a warm, approachable fellow who clearly loved to swim and teach others how to to do it.

(The opposite of another Olympian who used to run swim squads at Willoughby Leisure Centre. When I had enquired about classes, his wife made it very clear just how out of reach he was: ‘He’s an Olympian, you know. He doesn’t do that sort of thing’.)

After a month of clinics with John, I was even more hooked, so I enquired about private classes. ‘Of course’ he said, ‘No problem’. So started 18 months of one-on-one training. What a blast!

After a while, we swapped from the city to my former nemesis, North Sydney Olympic Pool.

I can tell you, it created quite a stir when the great John Konrads was recognised, walking and chatting with little me, as we passed his array of world records.

A bit obsessed?

John’s coaching was incredibly thorough.

He would instruct me, watch me, video me and later critique what he saw. After a while, my swimming sessions with John became the most important part of my week. Some might think I’d became a bit obsessed. Moi?

Kim certainly did, and he didn’t think it was with swimming.

He turned up unannounced one day to see what was going on. There wasn’t and when that was very clear, he didn’t turn up again. Kim and I did enjoy some dinners with John and his lovely wife, Mikki, though, which are now treasured memories.

What a blast

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At John’s birthday party at Noosa. Kim at left, Mikki at right.

I could feel myself getting stronger and more confident, but something worried John: I couldn’t rotate equally on both sides. It didn’t matter what he suggested and what I tried. (Years later, I had shoulder surgery.)

20 months after watching the Swim Easy video, I had gone from swimming freestyle zero distance to eight kilometres a week. I was swimming in open water at Balmoral Beach and Byron Bay, doing laps at North Sydney Pool and I’d completed two ocean swims. What a triple blast!

Sadly (for me), by then, John and Mikki had moved to Noosa. We visited them there (Noosa was one of my ocean swims) but I had to find another coach in Sydney. It was never the same.

How Champions Swim

Swimming at flotation depth is what champions do.

It’s why John’s Swim Easy system works so well. You don’t fight the water, you use the water to give you disproportionate thrust for little effort. Sadly,  John’s Swim Easy system is no longer available

Shane Gould, another swimming champion, uses and promotes a similar method which she calls ‘Fish-like Swimming. That’s why it works; fish don’t swim out of water.

Ecstatic after swimming 1.4km in open water at Byron Bay.

(An odd coincidence is that I went to school with Shane Gould at Turramurra High. I’d persuaded my parents to let me leave Wenona and complete my last 2 years at a co-ed school. The theory I proposed was this: I’d get used to boys and so be less distracted in those vital two years or at Uni. It didn’t work out like that; I met my first husband at Turramurra High.)

This swimming method is also called Total Immersion. (By the way, we don’t do affiliate marketing; we provide links because we believe, not because we receive).

Footnote

Swimming at flotation depth is the gentlest, easiest, most relaxing way to swim.

For we boomers, it’s also one of the safest ways to keep fit, in the peaceful embrace of water (preferably warm, for me anyway).

You don’t have to do great distance or achieve great speed. At the pools near me now, all the swimmers doing easy, slow laps (once the frantic squad kids have gone to school) are well beyond boomer age, and mighty proud of it, too.

If you’ve never swum before and always wanted to, you should try it.

If you’d like more updates (embarrassing anecdotes) like these and the serious ones with all the references, click below to get regular news into your inbox.

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Kim Brebach

Tracey James

Hello, I’m Tracey James, boomer, former scientist, technical writer and Fixer of Things at M&M. In my spare time, I like to walk, swim and garden.   

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