It's as predictable as the tide, as enticing as the waves: Every fourth summer, the pageantry and drama of the Olympics set our hearts soaring and inflate our imagination. "Wow! Look at those swimmers," we say to ourselves, buoyed by their splashy, churning performances and bobbing, smiling postrace pool play. "Did you see Michael Phelps dolphin-kick his way to the finish? It just looked so ... easy!"
Careful. The next sentence is the tricky one. It so often goes like this: "I could do that."
Actually, you couldn't. Maybe the fantasy bubbles up because water touches our lives in ways that, say, balance beams, 10-meter platforms and vaulting poles do not, because sliding through liquid is something many of us have done since we were toddlers, starting with the bathtub and moving to the neighborhood pool or vacation lake. But as a dedicated amateur who has been swimming as long as I've been walking, and as the author of a book that led me deep into the pursuit's science and secrets, I can report that what you see on TV is a world removed from what you can do at home.
Which doesn't mean you shouldn't try. The spectacular feats in the sparkling blue boxes at the Olympic trials in Omaha (which begin on June 25) and at the Games in London will indeed inspire, and will surely create the usual bump in swimming classes and competitions around the world. Always happens. In 1875, when British sea captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim across the English Channel, hordes of English schoolboys dived into the Thames. In 1926, after a plucky New York City teenager named Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the Channel—and the first person to do it using the crawl, or freestyle—more than 60,000 women earned their American Red Cross swimming certificates. This summer, too, countless air-breathers will test the water for the first time, and many advanced swimmers will try to tune up their speed. On behalf of the nine million Americans already in the drink, I say, Welcome. Bravo. Follow your dreams; get wet; like little Dory in the movie Finding Nemo, "Just keep swimming."
Just don't count on one of those fingernail finishes.
For starters, you don't have the right fingers. Elite swimmers are different from you and me, from the tips of their oversized hands to their flipper-sized feet, all of which scoop up oceans of water. Height helps, too: American Olympian Cullen Jones stands 6'5". Sun Yang, the Chinese phenom who cruised to the world record for the 1,500 free in Shanghai last summer, is just under 6'6". California-born Coloradan Missy Franklin, who won the world 200 backstroke title before she got her driver's license, is 6'1". And then there's wingspan. Michael Phelps is "just" 6'4", but his wingspan is 6'7", three inches wider than he is tall. Others beat their height by six inches. If elite swimmers were the models for Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, one coach tells me, "their arms would stick out way past the circle."
They even walk differently. Swimmers' legs bow backward; their gaits define their strokes. Freestylers tend to be pigeon-toed, breaststrokers walk like ducks. And they all flex like eels. Phelps famously can bend his ankle so that it's almost flat in line with his leg, a perfect paddle. Dara Torres's toes look as if they could work a computer keyboard. Double-jointed is de rigueur, as I saw exemplified by the arm of Ranomi Kromowidjojo, the Dutch Olympian who is currently the second-fastest female freestyler. When I asked to see how her elbow worked, she nonchalantly twisted it forward, an inhuman angle that would have popped a bone from my skeleton.
And then there's body shape. All those hours in the pool intensify natural, streamlined torpedo power. "Wide shoulders, thinner waist—some people have thicker thighs," is how Jones put it, perfectly describing his own inverted-V shape. Plus a finely defined six-pack. On a swimmer's body, you can count every pec, ab and oblique; bulging lats that strain the straps of even the trimmest women; thick traps that broaden the back. At a recent Golden Goggles dinner—professional swimming's version of the Oscars—three-time Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead, still shapely in a ready-for-Vogue gown, told the buff assembly of former and current athletes that she loved the event because "I can come here and my arms are average!" As she flexed her right biceps, the audience roared in approval.
One former coach put it this way, with total awe and respect: "The Olympians in almost every sport are mutants. They're at the far end of the bell curve. And they have the perfect body type, the perfect physio type and the perfect mind." That is, in addition to their superb shapes, they have the mental drive to make them work. "They have the heart and mind," the coach told me. "They can perform on that stage at that minute."
But here's the thing: You don't have to be built like a medal winner to enjoy swimming. Or win your own races. You can change your body. I was a lazy lap swimmer until last summer, when I trained for a big swim—across the Hellespont, from Europe to Asia. I worked so hard and built up so many new muscles, I've outgrown piles of favorite blouses. But I don't kid myself that I'll ever make the big time. Or even outswim some of the folks in the next lane in my U.S. Masters Class. And at my level (which I'm guessing is close to yours) the bodies aren't always so photogenic. So I don't say this to deter you, just to give fair warning. Watch, drool, work out, streamline, race, dream. You can fix your physique and you can take seconds off your time. But only up to a point. Because—and try to hold onto this thought as you watch the action from the pool in London—Olympic swimming is simply not for every body.