by Ken McAlpine
It's an impossibly sunny afternoon at UCLA, the kind of day where coeds drop-kick their books and scurry for the outdoors. Joggers are everywhere. Tennis courts are clogged. Soccer players traverse green swards and softballs ring off aluminum bats. But those are conventional sports.
I am here, waist-deep in the UCLA pool with Byron Davis, Mike Kanner and Derek Robinson, for something else altogether. "Ummm," says Kanner politely. "Turn the snorkel so it's in front of your face. If you put the snorkel to the side, at the speeds you'll be going, wheew!" Kanner makes a motion that indicates that the snorkel and any loose dental work will be promptly snatched from my mouth. That's because the snorkel I'm trying to settle on my head is attached to a contraption that looks like a scaled-down version of those halos used by folks recovering from neck injuries.
A former backstroker at UCLA, Kanner helps me position the headgear so that the snorkel juts straight out of my mouth, neatly bisecting my forehead. I've already cinched my goggles down tight. If I don't, Kanner tells me, they'll rip away too. I feel like a fighter pilot prepping for G forces, an analogy taken up by Kanner who brims with enthusiasm. "You're about to fly,'' he says, smiling wide. "You know when you're water skiing and you fall and you're being dragged behind the boat? That's kind of the feeling you'll get, except you're in control."
Scattered on the edge of the deck are a half dozen swimming fins. Well, they look like fins. They have two rubber slots to stick your feet into, but instead of continuing on to distinguish themselves as separate fins, they meld together into a single giant fan-like blade. They look like conventional fins that were melted together and then steamrolled.
Kanner helps me get into a monofin. This takes some doing. When I finally wedge my feet in, they're pinched tighter than commuters in a Tokyo subway. Within 30 seconds, I am certain I have no circulation below the ankle. "They're supposed to be tight," smiles Davis, a world class butterflier at UCLA before becoming assistant coach of the UCLA women's team. "They're an extension of your body."
The snorkel makes it difficult to whine. So I stand there, my feet going numb, my forehead ringed by metal, the snorkel jutting up in my line of vision. Kanner grins. "You don't know what you're doing," he says, "but you'll still end up going faster than you ever have."
He's right. For the next 30 minutes I will monofin on the surface and, removing the snorkel apparatus, underwater.
In trying to describe monofinning, finners use words like beauty, fluidity and power. These are all certainly fine adjectives and applicable sensations, but during the actual act of monofinning, speed rips them all away like dandelions in a hurricane wind. Powered by great swooping strokes of the fin, the water doesn't part around you, it tears away. It's like when you were a kid and you stuck your head out the car window and the wind snapped your head back and whopped in your ears - only underwater it's quiet, so the sensation is not of rude jarring but an almost dreamlike caress.
Beginners can't indulge in such flights of whimsy for long. The first time Kanner tried a monofin, he arrived at the other end so fast it was all he could do to keep from smashing into the wall. I don't make his mistake, but on my first underwater pass - before I realize the nature and direction of my own speed - I nearly scrape my face across the bottom.
Robinson, a member of the U.S. national finning team, told me he had always fantasized about being a dolphin. Now I realize he has come as close as he will ever come. When I pop to the surface after a 50-meter underwater run, Kanner, Davis and Robinson are all smiling and eyeing me expectantly. "The speed blows you away, doesn't it?" says Kanner. "And think how much faster you'll go when you know what you're doing."
You may never have heard of monofinning but, in Russia, China and parts of Europe it's a highly competitive sport. Fin swimming with two fins has been around in Europe since the late 1960s, and the appearance of the monofin a decade later - and athletes who trained seriously, and strictly, as monofinners - has elevated the sport to its current warp speeds. The men's world record for the 50-meter apnea (underwater without breathing) is 14.46 seconds; the women's world best is 16.57 seconds.
Undulating across the surface with a snorkel - arms thrust forward, rigid and motionless - the world's best male monofinners have covered 200 meters in 1:23; the women's 200-meter record is 1:32.
In the last of the three monofin disciplines, immersion, monofinners swim underwater with a small scuba tank. Holding such a tank in front of him, Hungary's Norbert Savanya undulated 1500 meters in 12:42. There's a world championship (held every two years), and monofinning has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee, though skeptics might point out that ballroom dancing is IOC okayed too.
The point is this - you may not have heard of it, but monofinning is a serious sport.
Not in this country, though. During the hour I spend at the UCLA pool with Kanner, Davis and Robinson, most of the other lap swimmers gawp at the fins. The braver ones come over to ask questions, their opener generally being "What the hell is that?"
Davis, Kanner and Robinson weren't offended. In fact, they were eager to help. "The more fins that are out there," shrugs Robinson, "the faster the sport's going to grow."
No one is trying harder to help monofinning gain ground in this country than John Mix and Pablo Morales. Schoolmates in high school, Mix, is a retired water polo player. Morales, of course, is the winner of gold medals at both the 1984 and 1992 Olympics and the former world record holder in the 100-meter butterfly. The two of them co-own Finis, Inc., the only U.S. producer of monofins and accessories, and Mix has a rejoinder for folks who think the fins are just plain weird. "They are," he says.
At first, even Mix and Morales thought monofinning was strange. That view has since changed, and that change of heart is not all just a byproduct of Mix and Morales trying to sell the things. These days, Morales uses a monofin regularly in his own training and he competed at the Pan American Fin Swimming Championships last December in Mexico City, where he was unceremoniously stomped ("It's a misconception that a world-class swimmer can just put on a monofin and become the best in the world," he laughs).
In talking with Morales, though, it quickly becomes apparent that his reasons for using the fin have little to do with sales or competition. "I don't think we've invented a word yet to describe the sensation of water flowing over your body at speeds you've never experienced before," he says, his words falling over each other like, well, water rushing past. "It's very exhilirating, but it's a meditative experience as well. It's a smooth, yet fast feeling. It's an effortlessness." Morales pauses. "Gee, I don't know what would you call it. But I think I know why dolphins look like they have a grin on their face all the time."
Fun is a sound reason for doing anything, but once they're done futilely yawing and stammering about the fin as a plaything, monofin enthusiasts point out that the fin is a great training tool for conventional swimmers. Swimmers like butterfly world record-holder Denis Pankratov and Jenny Thompson (triple gold medalist at the 96 Olympics) use a monofin in training, and so do lesser known folk like Kanner, Davis and Robinson.
Among the training pluses, the monofin promotes streamlining ("At those speeds, if anything's out of place, you'll know it," says Mix), it gives the muscles in your stomach, back and legs a terrific workout, and swimming on the surface with a snorkel (and for that matter underwater) is a great workout for your lungs (proponents claim swimmers who use the snorkel regularly can increase their lung capacity 15-20%). Though your arms are held rigid, they aren't neglected either. "Isometrics, big time," says Davis. "Pushing against all that water really works the arms."
There are disadvantages, too. If you aren't careful with the fins in the beginning, they can put some serious hurt on your ankles (Davis actually tapes his ankles before a hard monofin workout) and they could strain your back (they create enough stress that Mix and Morales don't recommend their use for children under 12). The fins may hurt your wallet, too. Finis offers a variety of models; the cheapest is $90, the most expensive $300.
Folks don't seem to mind forking over the cash for a monofin (Mix and Morales say there are about 2,500 monofinners in the U.S., and they expect that number to double by next year), and the discomfort eases as your ankles grow accustomed to finning - and then all you're left with is whippet speed.
How do you get started?
"Slowly," says Dietrich Lawrence. A member of the U.S. finning team in Hungary, Lawrence is also the aquatics director at the Kona (Hawaii) Family YMCA. Lawrence teaches monofinning there, and his groundrules for beginners are simple - exercise caution, relax and have fun. Lawrence recommends beginners start with conventional fins - dolphining through the water with conventional fins will get your muscles (most notably your back and stomach) in shape. When his students do put on monofins, Lawrence doesn't have them obsess about technique nuances. "You need to get the basic hang of it, and then start refining," he says. "In the beginning, it should just be real fun."
While his students are undulating on their sides, their backs, and corkscrewing through Kona's warm, blue ocean waters, Lawrence has them thinking about streamlining and using both their back and stomach to flex their hips, keeping their legs fairly straight during the kick ("Bending the knees too much creates drag"). When it comes to staying streamlined, you can envision yourself threading a needle, or better for beginners (holding your arms rigid is really tiring), see yourself as a ribbon flowing in the breeze.
"Beginners shouldn't worry about being super rigid," says Lawrence. "Hold your hands out in front of you and let them do a little bit of undulation. Let that undulation follow through your whole body. It's really a natural movement. No sense in making it overly complicated."
Lawrence is right. Monofinning isn't quantum physics, certainly not at my level. After a few brief snippets of advice from Kanner, Davis and Robinson, I was able to monofin passably. Like any good promoters, my new friends blithely ignored my faults. I tried a few turns (done the same way as a conventional flip turn, only you come off the wall more on your side for additional streamlining), though Kanner politely suggests I not try diving off the block with the snorkel. "If you don't do it right, the snorkel doesn't fall off," he says. "It actually rips off your face."
My companions whip up and down the pool, dark shadows blinking past. My own legs and ankles ache, and the tops of my feet turn an alarmingly bright shade of red. But it doesn't matter. Kanner, Davis and Robinson are like kids who have just kicked away the training wheels, and their enthusiasm is contagious. "Monofinning has given me that learning sensation all over again," beams Davis, the sky purpling around us. "It's a new discovery."
Veterans are no less moved. Later, I speak to Harry Laverde. It doesn't matter that Laverde was a fin swimmer of 15 years. It doesn't matter that he was part of the U.S. fin swimming team at the Hungary World Championships, or that he was a member of two relays that set American records. Nor does it matter that Laverde is missing his right arm.
That stuff is all extraneous. Laverde is just another monofinner searching to explain the feeling. "It's more like freedom," he says.
For more information on monofinning, call United States Fin Swimming at 408-885-0979.
Originally published March 2000.