Rupesh Patel learned to swim as a boy in Zambia, in southern Africa, but he never considered himself much of a swimmer.
"I could barely make it 25 yards," said the 39-year-old Tampa man. "I had no stroke. I couldn't do the crawl. I just sort of made my way across the pool."
But then a friend of Patel's suggested he train for a triathlon. Skeptical at first, Patel agreed and embarked on an ambitious training program.
"I could run and bike, but I knew the swimming would be a problem," he said. "So I started asking around and heard about this coach."
Today, just four short weeks later, Patel can bang out a 500-meter swim in less than 14 minutes.
"I never thought I would say this," he said. "But I would actually call myself a swimmer."
Joe Biondi is a legend in local swimming circles. The 68-year-old stroke guru has coached at dozens of pools, recreation centers and YMCAs over the past 40 years.
A hulking bear of a man, Biondi is a gruff, no-nonsense drill master who is short on sentiment but big on results.
"I'm not going to lie to you, swimming is hard," he said. "You can become a good runner or a good biker in six months. But if you want to be a good swimmer, it can take years."
The difference between those who are swimmers and those who can swim is simple, Biondi said: "Technique."
Learning to swim well takes a lot of hard work. But in the end, the time invested will pay big dividends.
Even if you have no desire to compete in a triathlon, learning to become a strong swimmer pays off in many ways. Lolling around in the water is relaxing, but to reap health benefits, you need to develop a strong, fluid stroke that can propel you through the water for at least a half-hour training session.
A great low-impact activity, swimming is ideal for athletes suffering from arthritis or overuse injuries. Swimming also promotes good cardiovascular health and is one form of exercise that you can do your whole life.
"If you are willing to make an effort, you will see results," Biondi said. "You will see results sooner than you think."
The first thing Biondi, or any other good coach, does with a new swimmer is a detailed stroke analysis.
"If you don't know what is broken, you can't fix it," he said.
Most novices have poor head position, and where the head goes, the rest of the body follows.
"That was my problem," Patel said. "Once I learned to keep my head down, everything else came easy."
Once a swimmer learns good head position, Biondi works on breathing.
"The single most important thing you can do to improve your swimming is to master bilateral breathing," he said. "If you don't breathe on both sides, you will swim lopsided. And you can't do anything right lopsided."
Bilateral breathing gives swimmers symmetry in the water. It also helps establish rhythm, which is essential for the long, open-water swims of a triathlon. And once you learn how to breathe, you've got to learn how to roll.
Drill, baby, drill
Watch any good swimmer move through the water and you will notice that they rock from side to side with each stroke.
"That is called the body roll," Biondi said. "All the power comes from the hips."
Gustavo E. Saballos, a 32-year-old from Tierra Verde, has spent the past 10 months working on this particular technique.
"We do lots of drills," he said. "If you do the same thing again and again, eventually you start to do it naturally."
Saballos does not yet consider himself a "swimmer," even though he has completed two half-mile, open-water swims in triathlons. But he said he has become more confident in the water.
"I keep improving every week," he said. "It takes time."
Biondi said his program isn't for everybody. "We do lots and lots of drills," he said. "But that is the way you fine-tune your technique."
THE MENTAL EDGE
Gail Lohman didn't learn to swim until age 49. Today, the 60-year-old St. Petersburg resident is going to Hawaii in a couple of months for her fifth Ironman-distance race.
"There is more to swimming than just the physical," she said. "Like any sport, a lot of it is in your head."
Biondi agreed. "There are three groups of people who come to the pool," he said. "The first group doesn't want any discomfort. The second group will put up with a little discomfort, but not much. The third group, they are the ones who work through it, even when it hurts.
"Those are the ones that become great swimmers."
With time, training and a little coaching, you could be there, too.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.