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United States Masters Swimming

  Confessions of a Fin-addict

Printed with permission from:

Swimming World Magazine - December 2005

By: Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen Aquatic Edge, Inc.

A small, but serious group gathers in a circle. The air is damp and the smell of chlorine hangs in the air.

“Hi. My name is Jim.”

HI JIM! WECOME! The group calls outs.

“I’m not sure if I belong at this meeting. My friends at swim practice suggested I come. You see, I think I may have this problem. I can’t seem to swim with out my fins…”

The beginning:

It starts out innocently enough. A “friend” suggests you try out his fins. He says they make you feel great and that you can swim really fast. You hesitate at first, wondering if it’s the right thing to do.

You take stock; you’re an OK swimmer. Nothing great. Like most people you’ve struggled to keep up and some days making the intervals can be really challenging. But using fins, isn’t that kind of like cheating?

You take a look around the pool and are surprised to see that a number of swimmers are using fins, especially on kick sets. Hey, if they’re using, why don’t you? So you give in to a little peer pressure and decide to give it a try. Just once.

After all, it’s not illegal or anything…

“I remember when I started swimming in Masters five or six years ago.” Said Fred D’Ambrosi, 46, of San Diego Swim Masters. “I was new to organized swimming, and I could barely get from one end of the pool to the other. My friend Brian had convinced me to join. We would compare notes. One day he observed that everyone, even the good swimmers, had fins for the kicking drills. He said he was tired of watching everyone else fly around the pool during while he kicked his ass off, and barely moved,” said D'Ambrosi. “That day we vowed to get fins.”

Your first time:
Speed. Power. Zipping through the water. WHEEEE! This MUST be what it feels like to be Michael Phelps! You didn’t know it, but you have been waiting for this moment your whole life. You love the feeling, the rush, the way you glide though the water with less effort. Best of all, you actually keep up! You can even lead the lane!

“It felt great wearing my fins for the first time. It was like flying through the water,” said D'Ambrosi. “ Suddenly, a 2:00 minute interval was very doable.”

You swim in total bliss until the owner wants them back, then you spend the rest of the workout in a haze, following bubbles, getting passed and dreaming about those fins.

At the next practice, you borrow the fins again and the feeling is still the same. You weren’t dreaming. You swim PR’s! You pass other swimmers! The coach even calls out your times…you feel like somebody! However, the owner reclaims them once again and you spend the rest of the workout in mediocrity struggling to survive.

You decide it’s time to score your own pair. No longer are you satisfied with being “Joe Average.” You crave that feeling of speed and power and know you will go to any length to get it.

But where to buy? Where does one go to make such a purchase…

“We went to some conventional sporting goods stores and couldn't find them. Finally, we asked some of our new swim buddies where to go and we were told, “go to Paradowski's Swim and Sport." We got directions and plotted a lunch-hour shopping excursion,” said D'Ambrosi.

"I remember the first time I visited St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Awe-inspiring. Breath-taking. Profound. Well, Paradowski's is a lot like that, except with a much better goggle selection,” said D'Ambrosi. “We moved reverentially past the racks of Speedos, the lifeguard hats, the pull buoys and mesh swim bags. Finally, we knelt in front of an altar of swim fins. We knew we finally scored."

But what kind of fins? The ones you borrowed were good, but what about all these other kinds of fins? With so many choices; red fins, blue fins, split fins, Neo-fins, Alpha fins …how do you decide?

Just when you think your quest is over, life forces you to make a difficult choice: Red or Blue? Some of our fellow swimmers use the red fins, for "advanced" swimmers. I knew I wasn't advanced, but I had no intentions of remaining a novice forever. However, getting blue fins would clearly label me a loser, a Harley rider with training wheels,” said D'Ambrosi. “My swim buddy Brian immediately chose red. I chose blue.”

You buy a pair and proudly take them to your next practice. Swimming has now taken on a new dimension. You cruise though the water like an Olympian. Just about any interval is within your reach and even kick sets are a breeze.

For the first few months, life in the pool is great. You are now the fastest swimmer in lane two. You wear your fins with complete abandon, pushing yourself to go faster and faster. Your ego tells you that it’s the hard work that is making you a faster swimmer, but a little voice in your head warns you: “be careful…these fins can be dangerous.”

You ignore the little voice and swim on…

“I always feel better when I don’t use fins for a workout. That said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” said D'Ambrosi.

In the beginning your swim buddies accept your fin habit; some even encourage your usage since they have seen you struggle for so long. But it’s not long before trouble begins. You are teased about your attachment to your “augmentation” and they even call you “Big Fin Jim.”

Then the comments become more frequent and start taking on a serious undertone. One day your fins disappear and you find them in a nearby trashcan. Joke or no joke your lane-mates have gone too far! It’s time to move to lane FOUR. They understand. They all use fins.

“Fins are the designer drug of swimming. They make you feel good, give you that speed rush that you haven’t really earned. There are no fin World Records because they ain’t legit, and you know it,” said D’Ambrosi. “ You can move up a lane at workout, but inside, you know you’re a pretender.”

As you settle in to your new lane you try not to abuse your equipment, but this lane is much faster and you’ll get dropped if you don’t wear fins. As time goes on you give in and wear them for the entire workout. In lane four, there is no shame in wearing fins from warm-up to warm down, and on every set in between.

“There is no one in my lane with the moral superiority to lecture me,” said D’Ambrosi. “If you are a 6’1”, 250 lb man wearing a Speedo, nothing can embarrass you. Besides, junkies hang with junkies.”

One-day tragedy strikes; you have forgotten your fins. But you decide to swim anyway and have the most miserable workout that you can remember. No speed, no kick, and worst of all, you are asked to move back to lane two.

You realize that swimming without fins has become unbearable. You have come to believe that you are powerless without your fins and that your usage has become unmanageable.

So you try to control it. You decide to only wear your fins at certain times like: just in warm-up, only on the main set, just on kick sets, only on drill sets, during the first part of workout, or only on the last part of work out. However, nothing seems to satisfy and you find yourself having fin-envy all the time.

Your coach even notices your growing dependence on your fins and suggests you cut back, but swimming without fins is just so much harder.

“Only threats from my two main coaches, Dale and Alan, can keep me from wearing fins. And then, only if they are being reasonable about it,” said D’Ambrosi. “ If they declare our lane “fin free” for a workout, then they must set intervals accordingly. There have been several revolts over this matter. If the coach refuses to see the light, the fins always win,” explains D’Ambrosi.

“In my lane, we believe in the official motto of Masters Swimming: “I’m a Masters swimmer and you can’t make me.” said D’Ambrosi.

The end is near:
Your team decides to raise money for a local charity by taking part in the USMS One-Hour Postal swim and you can’t participate wearing fins. You recognize that you are nothing without your fins and this realization comes as a shock. In matter a few short months, you have become a bona fide fin-addict.

You have heard whispers about a FAA (Fin-Addict Anonymous) meeting and you decide to attend. You have hit bottom and need help.

It’s a sad story but one with a happy ending. After being weaned off your fins, you are taught how to use equipment to make you a more efficient swimmer, not just a faster one. You regularly attend FAA meetings and feel much better about yourself. The road to recovery is slow, but you seek progress not perfection.

Of course, there will always be Fred. He makes up his own rules…

Here are my current rules for fin usage.
  • Kicking drills.
  • Any drills that might result in drowning, including one-armed drills with the other hand at your side.
  • Any stroke other than freestyle. (Hey, I only started swimming five years ago. I barely swim freestyle, let alone backstroke. Do you want to wait around and go on a 3:00 min. per 100 interval? I didn’t think so.)
  • Anytime I’m forced to move up a lane.
  • Anytime more than two people in my lane put fins on and force the coach to give us a shorter interval.”
“Please note that the author reserves the right to violate or change these rules at any time, for any reason, without advance notice. These reasons may include, but are not limited to: alcohol usage within the previous 48 hours, late bed time, pressure at work, laziness, injuries [real or imagined], hard workout the previous day, new swimmers of undetermined talent in the lane, or the bad influence of deadbeat swimming friends.” Happy swimming! Fred D’Ambrosi.

Bio: Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen is an avid Alpha Fin user. She was voted Swimming World’s 2004 female World Masters Swimmer of the Year and currently holds multiple FINA masters age-group world records spanning three age groups. Karlyn lives in Kona, Hawaii with her husband/coach Eric Neilsen.