This (New Year’s) resolution will not be televised: The migration of the drowning butterfly


DPB editor Kyle Magin tried to swim a 200-meter butterfly to kick off 2016. These are his hazy, guy-with-cardiac-problems-during-a-stress-test recollections.

Written by Kyle Magin

0-25 meters

The butterfly was created by some Australians in the 1930s who wanted to make the breaststroke faster. At first it was actually swum with its arm motion and the breaststroke kick, which seems like a solving a physiological Rubik’s cube. In the first 25 meters, you can see why it was so cool when somebody finally married the double-arms-over-the-head and dolphin kick. You fly. It’s the stroke I employ when chasing a younger cousin down in the lake or pool for a dunking. It feels powerful and intimidating. Short of an all-out freestyle sprint, you’re not going to swim faster with any other stroke if you’ve got a little training in it.

I swim a few 50s of butterfly a week in my workouts. Never longer than that. You’ll see why later. 0-25 feels like I’m Gohan powering up during an episode of Dragonball Z, only in about an eighth of the time.


At about the :39 second mark of this video, Mark Ruffalo tells Captain America in Avengers that his secret to becoming the Hulk is that he’s always angry. That’s how I feel from meters 25-50. I’m in the flow. I’m feeling it. I’m ready to smash a giant flying Tremor. In my mind’s eye, I look like some overwrought ode to German ode to engineering; shoulders thrusting perfectly extended hands into the water to begin my perfect pull. I wish there was a full-length mirror on the bottom of the pool. (To the lifeguards I’m sure it looks like I’m trying to drown a muskrat under my sternum for the entire length. My technique is broken.)


Some swimming writer I follow on Twitter for the two weeks every four years he’s useful to me once tweeted the following: Butterfly day probably sounds awesome to a lot of people. Swimmers really hate it.

From 50-75 I’m doing work. My lungs are starting to bark. My shoulders aren’t quite elevating as far out of the water as they were in my opening 50. I start to mess up the timing on my dolphin kick (also way less fun that it sounds). Still, I’m making forward progress.


This is my limit. This is what the moon is to NASA or the ocean floor is to James Cameron or the grand jury is to a cop charged with shooting a minority. Nobody’s knows what’s further because nobody’s been further. I’ve never been further than this stage (I think. My competitive swimming career ended 15 years ago.) I am satisfied with my exploration of the stroke at this point. I’m losing seconds on my opening laps and this will be the last time that what I’m doing looks like a butterfly stroke for the remainder of the experiment. In fact, were it not for you, dear reader, I would have quit. I head into the turn with a little “I’m halfway done!” zeal. Think fat guy touchdown.


Continuing on the theme, the turn is classic fat person. I stop for a breath as I reposition myself push off for life past 100 meters. It takes about three seconds and I real purposely shuffle along the wall to get square with the middle of the lane even though it’s 8 a.m. on a Sunday and nobody else is at the pool, much less sharing my lane. I’m somewhere between thin and fat these days, but in this moment, I have a fat heart.


Speaking of my heart, it’s POUNDING. My ears are packed with water and I can’t hear anything else besides my ticker telling me that a few Cokes on the weekend and those E.L. Fudge cookies I bought last week were a terrible, terrible idea. Sometimes during running season I think my lungs could go a few miles longer than my legs. My conditioning varies between body parts. This is not the case during a 200-meter butterfly. Everything is dying in concert. My shoulders are barely turning over. I briefly try to break from my rhythm of breathing on every other stroke and try to breathe on every stroke. This causes a one-car pileup in my lane and I sorta choke on water while I’m gliding into the turn.


Viewed from above, I’m Willem Dafoe getting blown apart at the end of Platoon. Good form in swimming is built on repetition itself and repetition in the context of distance. Someone who is good at the 50 freestyle may look like a dying duck in the last few laps of a 500 if they rarely train at that distance. I, a middling sprint-distance butterfly swimmer with no formal training since the Clinton administration, look like a coked-out manatee attempting to outswim a boat prop off the Everglades. It’s all flops and bizarre, disjointed pulling and breathing. It’s Raoul Duke taking over for Gustavo Dudamel during the 1812 Overture.


Like a man heading to the firing squad, I tell myself ‘this is it’ at the turn. I try to prepare myself to meet my maker (or attending lifeguard/paramedic) with at least some manner of dignity. I resolve to slow down and get the stroke right on my way toward whatever end I am destined to meet. In order to bring my arms, hips and legs into agreement I slow to a point where the stroke no longer works. I drop into the water about a foot, gargle some chlorine water and contemplate my mother’s disappointment in spending on all those years of swim lessons at my funeral service. This all happens in my first stroke off my glide. At this point I try to re-adjust and go like hell into the finish. This is not happening. My muscles are in open revolt. They know damn well that I’m not fleeing the Indianapolis. They refuse to work quickly. I should say here that 200 meters is not a long distance. Even on light days it just accounts for a sixth or seventh of my total workout; I swim 500 meter freestyle sets without even a third of the pain.

But, something about the fly over this previously-unpracticed distance is tortuous and seems to do things to my body that most strokes take eight times as long to accomplish. Anyway, somewhere within the last 10 meters I give up and trudge over the side to catch my breath. I can’t tell you how long it took me to finish the 200 or how long I held onto the side heaving afterward. Both should have given the lifeguards cause for alarm but somehow did not. I helped myself to the ADA-accessible shower stall after getting out and sat down on the bench while the warm water dropped over me. I thought about taking the elevator up to the main floor of the rec center.

The 200 meter butterfly is demoralizing.