By Vladimir Latocha
In July 1996, the pleasant warmth of Atlanta was welcoming thousands of athletes from all over the world. Inside the Olympic Village, the Aquatic Center was basically a roof over two pools. This roof was about 50 meters above a surface that could comfortably host a very large and deep pool for swimming, a large pool for the acrobatic diving, seats for the press and all swimmers on one side and a huge stand for the 14,000 spectators on the other side of the pool.
On the morning of the first day of the competition, I was walking to my starting block to compete for France, my lips were smiling against my will. The race of the morning was strange but ended pretty well: my ranking allowed me to swim the B final and win it in the evening. With my 9th place and a new French record, I could sleep peacefully that night.
I regret one thing: I had to wait a few more years to encounter the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education. I wish I had tried it then. I just had no idea it existed. But I do remember what I would have expected and I can tell you now, maybe this can help the great swimmers of 2021. Isn’t it funny that some of them were born when I found out about the Feldenkrais Method, in 2001.
I belonged to the category of athletes who were curious: what I sensed, how I could navigate my sensations and my abilities, how I could avoid injuries, and how I could enjoy swimming fast. I highly valued osteopathy at that time, since I knew the exact damage a simple pain in the elbow could do to a season of swimming, with the physician having no solution. On the contrary, when I found a good osteopath it was easy to extinguish small fires before they became arson.
My bridge towards Feldenkrais Method was called the Mézières method and it was way more boring than Feldenkrais® lessons: I was lying for about an hour with my arms stretched and me pushing outwards, slightly but for the whole hour, somehow proud of coping with the growing restlessness. You see, a pro swimmer can go through really boring things if they think that this will improve their performance. Did this help? I do remember that I noticed a few years after doing Mézières that it may have been of some help with performance, as that season was better than the year before and after. Mmmhh, hard to know what helped and what was key. But be sure of one thing: many high-level athletes like to explore. Many athletes are much more comfortable with not knowing than an average person. We can have fun together, we just need to trust one another and we are willing to try new things if we believe this can help. We don’t wait for the New York Times to talk about it, we like to try the cutting edge things.
So what are the things I have discovered through Feldenkrais lessons and wish my pre-2001 self would know? Let me tell you four things that I would have wished I knew in my Olympian days:
- Please keep the process light and easy. I did many activities: swimming, weightlifting, cycling, being curious, and having talent. All of this contributed to my medals. What was the most important thing? We will never know. I want you to give your body what you sense/believe/think it needs and then forget about it. My coach may have noticed my fatigue and adapted a session but I didn’t need to be aware of it. My task was to just go through it and let my body absorb what it could and then recover. I was busy recovering, assimilating, and making this learning deeply mine.
- Find the joyful sense of beauty in your body and the whole self and call it yours. I had this sensation of riding a superb horse every so often in my training sessions or in my races. Don’t strain tremendously too often because this is hard to sustain. But you can aim at raising your performance baseline, simply, step by step.
- Find your edge in the ability to discover new and valuable things that are unique to you – through self-exploration. Think of it as a secret ingredient in the recipe to be ahead of others. Yes, I like competition and it is fun to have secrets.
- Find support when you have doubts, be it Feldenkrais practitioner or another coach. I like the wisdom and the security my Feldenkrais learning offers. Some people believe that top athletes are strong and stable as rocks, yet we dance on narrow ridges at high altitude. More often than not, we reach for the gold to feel good and we are highly sensitive. A good Feldenkrais practitioner will help you lay a more secure ground under your feet and back when you rest. That will be so much more important than just getting that shoulder blade free.
I still remember this sense of awe after my first Feldenkrais workshop. I was not a competitive swimmer anymore but I was still quite sharp in the water and had precise landmarks about how I felt when I jumped in the water to swim a bit. So when I dove after these three days in the country doing seemingly meaningless explorations, I was not expecting… this. My ribs gracefully opening on the side where my arm was finding the support of the water, this sense of harmonious forces and fluidity, a place in the realm of my abilities totally new despite my 15 years of deep exploration.
This feeling got me hooked and I was eager to know much more about this Method; the retired swimmer that I was decided to follow the thread to this incredible Method and here I am. Indeed it was too late and Feldenkrais couldn’t help me in my career as a swimmer. But, as I am writing this, I hope that this bridge in time will help younger swimmers, the ones thinking about Tokyo or Paris Olympics. I hope they meet a Feldenkrais Practitioner who will be kind to them and help them breathe and smile.
Vladimir Latocha, OLY, PhD, SEP lives and practices in France. Son of Polish immigrants, Vladimir was born and raised in France, close to Paris. Both swimming and studies were important to him, hence he studied to graduate from a Master in Scientific Computing, while training in swimming to reach the Olympic level. After quitting swimming, he finished a PhD in applied mathematics and discovered the existence of the Feldenkrais Method in 2001. Feldenkrais’s book followed him in Japan for a two years contract at Kyoto University. He is also a Somatic Experiencing practitioner. He is still working as a mathematician and became the director of a small institute that promotes studies to improve the way mathematics are taught, where he is starting a study group on the topic “mathematics and anxiety.”