The Non-Expert


Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we instruct you on the basics of swimming, with many of the most popular strokes explained in detail. Except for the double-trudgen—because come on.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


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Question: Some friends have invited me to go to a pool party next week, but I don’t know how to swim!! I am 21. Nobody takes me seriously when I tell them that either. PLEASE HELP —Ben G.

Answer: The number of people—whatever number that might be, let’s say lots—who don’t know how to swim is surprising. One imagines this number was a lot more shocking in the days when people traveled by ocean liner, and swimming was not only a recreational activity, but also a skill that could save your neck. But times have changed, and most of us now only swim and go on cruise ships “for fun.”

Anyone who’s ever taken a childhood swimming class, however, knows that swimming is really anything but. And anyone who’s been on an ocean liner knows… well, they know what to expect there.

Here are some strokes you can try out in case your friends force you into the water, hopefully with your shorts on.

Treading Water

If nothing else, you should learn how to not drown. Because there’s only so long you can hold your breath, and thus only so long a pair of lungs full of air will keep you afloat. With “treading” water, you are in a sense “walking” on water, which, though considered by many to be a miracle, can be learned at your local YMCA. Stay upright in the water, and begin circling your arms windmill-style just below the surface of the water. Now slowly jog your feet, and you’ve got it.

Hey, you’re in the water and you’re not sinking! Hey, you did it! Now wave to your mom! Wait—don’t stop jogging! No! Wave to the lifeguard!


The most basic of all strokes that actually propels you is called the freestyle, for whatever reason. While floating on the surface, face-down with your head pointed in the direction you want to go, reach one arm up, over, and ahead of you in an arc, and use it to dig into the water. Do the same with the other arm. Repeat. That’s step one.

Now, all the while you should be kicking your legs, which are, as far as I can tell from this guidebook, supposed to act as some sort of self-made outboard motor. Oh, and make sure you tilt your head up occasionally to breath. Sound easy? Try making sure you face the opposite direction from the arm that’s out of the water during a stroke. Still got it? Did you swallow water on the way? Feel a bit sick? Do you want to go home? That’s doing it right, unfortunately.

The Backstroke

A backwards plus upside-down freestyle stroke, for which many swimmers wear goggles. Why?

Fashion aside, ease yourself into the water, back first. Now, before you sink to the bottom, lift one arm up, hold straight, and arc behind your head, cupping your hand sideways into the water to pull you along. Repeat with the other arm, and kick, up and down, first one leg, then the other.

The purpose of kicking during the backstroke is not for the motor effect, but to splash, loudly, so others can hear you coming. Can’t see where you’re going? That’s OK! This is what makes the backstroke so much fun. Repeat all four arm-leg motions until you slam the top of your skull into the far wall of the pool. One lap down. Repeat.

The Breaststroke

Apologies, but it’s not what the name implies. In fact, it’s a lot more difficult than the prom-night squeeze. Back in the pool, chest toward the icy depths, send your hands—palm to palm—forward, slicing through the water, then separate them to pull your body forward as your propel yourself with a leg motion somewhat like a drunk partygoer playing “now-I’m-sitting-down, now-I’m-standing.”

Tiring, ridiculous, and the stroke most preferred by competitive swimmers, who don’t seem to enjoy swimming anyway.

The Butterfly

Twirl your arms around and around in a rapid circular motion, keeping your trunk and legs absolutely rigid. Done quickly enough, you’ll glide atop the water like a swamp-bred dragonfly, the tips of your toes only licking the water. Faster, faster the dragonfly goes! Your hydrofoil-like body will storm across the water’s surface, slapping hapless pool-folk silly with your unstoppable arms! You will be glared at! You will knock over the BBQ and slick the poolwater with flammable oils! Watch them burn, magic dragonfly, then flee to your cubbyhole in the lunar fields!

The Doggie Paddle

Simple and satisfying. Tread water, as shown above, but now venture a cupped paw forward, then the other, and tote yourself forward.

This is especially great when you have to pee but can’t be bothered to jump out and find a tree instead.

Floating on Your Back

Here’s what you’ve been working toward: yes, fun, or at least what passes for it, in the water. This is why your friends invited you over for a swim, a carefree summer afternoon in a possible deathtrap. To float on your back, all you’ve got to do to is lay on the water, chest to the sun, lungs filled with air, then exhale gently, breathe in slowly, and repeat. Stay very still; relax, if possible. Let your knees bend and your ankles swim a bit lower. Breathe in slowly, exhale gently. Watch a cloud pass turn into a unicorn, or is it a toaster? Pretend you’re taking a nap. Breathe in slowly, exhale gently.

But you should always keep one eye open, and trained on that shifty one lurking under the diving board with a super-soaker.


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack