30 Minutes With: Terry Laughlin

We know: you have a recurring dream where you fall off a yacht and can’t swim back to shore. First, drop the extra Champagne.


We seem to be squarely in a new age of discovery about how our bodies work during physical activity and how to make them move more naturally, efficiently and gracefully. Minimalist running. Yoga for everyone. Eating like cavemen. Some are fads and others are becoming widely accepted ways to boost performance across disciplines. One of the consistent voices in this revolution is Terry Laughlin, a former West Point swimming coach and founder of Total Immersion Swimming, a system of swim instruction that values balance, mindfulness and drag reduction — with the overall goal of helping humans swim more like fish. Since we were testing the TI program, we caught up with Terry to talk aquatic technique, Mastery and Flow, and getting cut from the swim team.

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Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Every man — in the sense of genus, not gender — should know how to swim a mile with ease and enjoyment. Preferably in a place of stunning natural beauty like Lake Minnewaska.

Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Learn to swim like an aquatic — not terrestrial — mammal. I swam with terrestrial technique (head high, limbs churning) for 25 years and have since spent an equal amount of time replacing old habits with aquatic technique (balanced, streamlined, fluent). Twenty-five years from now, I expect — no, make that hope — to still be on the steep part of the learning curve.

Q. What are you working on right now?
A. A new ebook with the working title How Swimming ‘Works’ (and How It Doesn’t). Planning to release it in September.

I was the only person cut when I tried out for the swim team at my Catholic grammar school as an 8th grader in 1963.

Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. The pursuit of Mastery and Flow in every day. Is that two things? No, pursuit of Mastery results in the experience of Flow.

Q: Who or what influences you?
A: Paul Lurie, my 95-year-old student. He took his first swimming lesson at 94 and now swims with an inspiring ease and grace. He also took up woodworking at 93 and has created some beautiful and useful furniture using lumber milled from a tree he selected. Paul has an unquenchable curiosity. I hope to be just like Paul when I grow up.

Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Looking for a Ship (FSG 1990) by John McPhee. I look to McPhee as my exemplar when I’m working on a book myself.

Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. I was the only person cut when I tried out for the swim team at my Catholic grammar school as an 8th grader in 1963.

Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. A chopped salad with at least 10 ingredients, which I’ll enjoy on the deck of my home in New Paltz, looking at the Shawangunk Mountains.

Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. Have no fear of getting older. You can’t even imagine how good life will be in 50 years.

Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. As the person who radically redefined how swimming — an essential life skill that almost no one can do well — is taught and practiced.

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