Not drowning according to Robyn

I love swimming. I was born to swim and I’ve spent 18 of my 25 years doing it. I also blame the fact that I am a bit socially inept on the fact that my head was always under water during my school years.

My mom took me to my first coach, Brian Button, at the age of 7. I made my first Western Province swim team that year, fell in love with the sport and went on to break SA records and kick boys’ butts. Seriously, I swam faster than all the boys my age. I was taller than them too.

Swimming was my thing. I was good at it and I loved it. We were a great gang of swim squad kids and we all loved swimming training. I was always super serious though; getting annoyed at those who didn’t take training quite as seriously as I did – pulling on lane ropes and turning early.

Attempted cozzie selfie

Attempted cozzie selfie

I have fond memories of taking bets on who could swim the furthest underwater. I always won the brownies with my ability to swim 60m under water. I think I killed many brain cells only surfacing when I was near to blacking out.

And then at about age 14 I hit a plateau. I stopped improving and galas became miserable. I still loved swimming and training, but I just wasn’t achieving faster times or enjoying competing. Eventually, I moved coaches looking for a change. I joined a group of super disciplined youngsters under the watchful eye of a strict Hungarian coach, Karoly von Toros. I loved suffering with my friends. We’d do main sets like 5 x 800m or “4 ones and a four” (8 sets of (4 x 100m + 400m) and set each would have to be faster).

We’d rejoice when coach said “dive day.” It meant a shorter set of race simulations.

We’d swim at Newlands public pool in summer. Some chemical imbalance in the water would make our teeth hurt all day after the session, making it almost impossible to eat something hard like an apple. Eventually some of the kids had gum guards made to protect their teeth from the water while they swam.

Swimming there during the summer holidays was the worst. We’d pitch up for our session at 5:30am to find the previous days revelers’ chicken bones at the bottom of the pool. What else was in that water did not bear thinking about.

I was a backstroker and as such had to swim in the lane next to the wall because there were no lane ropes. Coach moved bins to where the flags should have been so that we knew when to tumble turn.

The squad would move indoors at the end of April and then back outdoors in October. The water was still so cold that I remember crying into my goggles. Otherwise we sucked it up and got on with it.

Straight pull and rotating hips in the TYR Torque swim skin - photo credit Joshua Hodge

Straight pull and rotating hips in the TYR Torque swim skin – photo credit Joshua Hodge


We used to swim 8-9 times a week. In winter we swam 05:00 – 06:30 and 18:30 – 20:30 each day. I’d have dinner before training and again afterwards. I was always hungry and couldn’t make it to first break at school without tucking into my homemade, brown bread sandwiches. And I’d sleep in every first language Afrikaans class (but, really! Who’d blame me anyway?).

Good times! Enough with the nostalgia though.

Now that I only need to swim for triathlon my swimming training has changed drastically. My time is far better spent working on my biking and running and as such I only do 2-3 sessions of 3km per week. I swim by myself at Virgin Active because my coach is in Cape Town and I can’t warrant extra money spent on another gym membership to be able to swim with others. Swimming is the one thing that I really struggle to do by myself. I can run and cycle for days, but swimming alone is really tough. So I like to keep the sessions simple. That way I won’t try and negotiate with myself.

A few examples of main sets that I repeat quite often are:

5 x 200m easy leaving on 3:00 + 10 x 100m hard leaving on 1:30


2 x (300m easy on 1:30 leaving pace, 6 x 50m hard on 50sec, 200m easy, 4 x 50m hard, 100m easy, 2 x 50m hard)


15 x 100m on 1:40 at max sustainable speed

The hard is always very hard and the easy very easy.

Warm up is always 400m swim, 5 x 100m on 2:00. Followed by the main set.

Cool down is 100m.

Just like that. Every single time. I don’t believe that sets need to be complicated.

Killing it in the new TYR Hurricane Cat 5 wetsuit - photo credit Chris Hitchcock

Killing it in the new TYR Hurricane Cat 5 wetsuit – photo credit Chris Hitchcock

In 2012 my coach, Brendon Pienaar, spent a long time working on my stroke. It was a tedious, frustrating process and I hated it. My stroke is not perfect, but as a result of that work I have a very straight pull. We worked around my shallow hand entry and added in some more hip rotation, changed my breathing from every 3 strokes to every 2 and now my stroke works just fine for me. I think that having a decent stroke allows me to get away with less training too.

I like to do no-nonsense sessions. No drills and no frills. Just wham bam. Drills don’t help me now. The only training tool that I take to the pool is my kickboard. My coach is a firm believer in needing to be able to kick. When I swim with him in CT we never do less than a 1km kick set. By myself, in Stellenbosch, I am a bit lenient and only do 5 x 100m.

"Mutant zombie" TYR swim cap, goggles and kickboard - the only things I take to the pool

“Mutant zombie” TYR swim cap, goggles and kickboard – the only things I take to the pool

I never use a pull buoy or paddles. Brendon likens the use of paddles for me to going to the gym and doing 1000 lat pull downs with a 1kg weight. Pointless.

My swimming is nowhere near what it once was, but that’s okay. I used to do 8-9 sessions per week of 6-8km. Now it’s a big week if I get to 10km.

So straighten out that pull and in the words of Dory, “just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”