Total Immersion – RIP Terry Laughlin

Last week while listening to my favorite podcast Tim Ferris, I was surprised and saddened to learn that Terry Laughlin, founder and developer of the Total Immersion swimming method had passed.  The cause of Terry’s early demise: prostate cancer – metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer – a nasty cancer with a bad prognosis.

Tim Ferris’s own story of learning to swim reminds me of my own, and Tim’s fandom of Terry resonated with me as well. There is so much to admire about Terry and his story, but what I take away most of all is his sense of purpose – the powerful sense of purpose to which Terry lived his life and the innovation he found in something so many others had looked at for so long.  Terry accomplished this by remaining open minded, mindful, non-judgmental, and process orientated.

Perhaps my own story with swimming will sound familiar to your own and it may inspire you to take advantage of the seven day free trial Terry offered for the Total Immersion Academy.  I could swim all my life, but I struggled with the traditional “crawl” or “freestyle” stroke.  This is the stroke that people seem to effortlessly sail through the water in high school, and it’s the foundation of all competitive long distance swimming. When I completed my first triathlon, the Pigman Half-Iron in 2003, I really didn’t know how to swim. I had just run the 2002 New York City Marathon and I wanted more – so I signed up for the Pigman because I thought the multi-sport distances sounded challenging. For the swim, I figured I would just figure it out. Well I was one of the last contestants out of the water and my wife reminds me that when I finished Pigman I said, “The half-iron made the NYC Marathon look like a joke.” Nonetheless, I loved the Pigman and I was hooked on triathlons.

Since I was going to be regular triathlete participant, I decided I better learn to swim. On that point I learned the freestyle stroke and became a “swimmer,” or so I thought. Then one day while on a run my friend commented how he attended a Total Immersion clinic and improved his swimming.  I researched Total Immersion a bit and ultimately signed up for a weekend clinic. When I attended the clinic I had already completed an Ironman distance triathlon, swimming 2.4 miles with hundreds of other swimmers, at a reasonable weekend warrior time.

Well, let me just tell you that everything I learned and thought I knew about swimming before attending Total Immersion clinic meant nothing. Here are some thoughts on Terry’s philosophy taken from the Tim Ferris podcast – and they are absolute truths of swimming and life:

  • Balance is the keystone skill of swimming and enjoyment.
  • Be conscious development of the whole person.
  • Be attentive to focal points, moment to moment, recognize that you have to train your brain or neural connectivity to learn.
  • The more external turbulence you encounter the calmer you must become inside in order to survive.
  • When you understand the underlying foundational aspects of something and then meditate and visualize that which you want to happen – you have an ability to bring about the change more rapidly.

View Terry in action, displaying Total Immersion:

View the most amazing swimming stroke every as Terry’s Total Immersion partner Shinji Takeuchi moves through the water:

View amazing outdoor swimming of Terry and in the pool with Shinji

The following are The 5 First Principles of Swimming (And Life for that Matter) according to Terry Laughlin:

  • First – recognize that the human swimming machine is an energy wasting machine – 97% of your energy in swimming is wasted – focus on saving energy – and get more out of the energy you do exert.
  • Two – most of what we know of swimming is wrong – most of our primal instincts and what we hear about swimming is wrong – so we must exercise critical thinking on those instincts and suggestions on swimming that do not work – trust your intuition rather than information provided by supposedly authoritative sources.
  • Three – it is obvious that efficiency is not natural for humans – inefficiency is the natural output of humans – but efficiency is a learnable skill – and once efficiency is learned, your goal should be keep focused on continuous improvement applying the principles of mastery by learn to “love the plateau” as described by George Leonard.
  • Four – if you want to swim with more ease or efficiency – think about what you can do to make your vessel sleeker – strive for a sleeker vessel – it’s a universal truth of physics who study fish and life masters for that matter).
  • Five – strive to swim in a way that you use your body as a whole – a complete seamlessly integrated movement that is based in the core – resist any suggestion that you focus separately on your kick or arms – this is one body movement

And finally four action items from Terry for swimmers:

  1. Align Your Head. Hang or align your head – the most fundamental – visualize a tow line pulling you at your head
  2. Lengthen Your Body. Use your arms to lengthen your body – not to push water back – by using your arms to lengthen your body you are promoting two important things (i) lowering your drag co-efficient; and (ii) a complete movement. You will still push water back but (i) and (ii) are more important. Spear with the front hand to extend, and finish the stroke near the front, not back by the hip (swim in the forward 1/3rd of your body.
  3. Kick Less. You cannot go wrong by kicking less – kicking is a great way to burn energy and create drag – it is very poor way to create propulsion and move yourself through the water.
  4. Become Quiet. Anything you do more quietly is more effective and efficient – so whatever you are doing in a given moment focus to do it more quietly and become more effective and efficient.

What I learned at that clinic and studying Terry’s instructive approach has since changed my life on how to approach and enjoy being in the water. Open water swimming is now one my favorite activities, and one that I expect to be able to do well into my old age. Since learning Total Immersion, I have completed the 5.0 Mile Lake Minnetonka Challenge, and I regularly swim for miles in open water with confidence and blissful enjoyment.

So thank you Terry Laughlin! Thank you for giving the world such a wonderful gift of swimming! Thank you for being such a down to earth guy! All of the Total Immersioners will miss you and be thinking of as we spear and glide through the blue! Long live Terry Laughlin and Total Immersion.

2 thoughts on “Total Immersion – RIP Terry Laughlin”

  1. Jon, this is good stuff. It inspires me to become a better swimmer and find enjoyment out ofsomething that seems harder for me now. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

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