Stroke of Genius

New Paltz athlete and coach Terry Laughlin makes a splash in the world of swimming

Author: By Deborah J. Botti
Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2008

Talk about swimming with the fishes. Or learning from them. Terry Laughlin’s hands seamlessly slipped through Manhattan’s murky waters to allow his perfectly aligned body to glide almost effortlessly across the 28½ miles that surround the island.


A total of 27,000 strokes were counted over the nine hours that it took the then-51-year-old to complete this ambitious undertaking to mark a milestone birthday.


“I got dehydrated because the water bottles got hot and I didn’t want to drink them,” he says. “But I had no aches the next day. I really felt good.”


Not bad for the Williston Park, Long Island kid who couldn’t even make the Catholic Youth Organization swim team some four decades earlier.


But one thing the avid athlete had, even as a youngster, was heart – miles ’n miles ’n miles of it at that.


“I played everything … I’d practice for Little League when there was still snow on the ground,” he says.


But there was something about swimming that piqued his curiosity and ignited his determination. By the time he was a sophomore at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset, he had made the team. “But I wasn’t one of the better swimmers,” he says.


He came across a copy of David Armbuster’s “Competitive Swimming and Diving” in the library – and repeatedly checked it out throughout the year.


“I wanted to memorize it, study it, looking for clues … I envied those who could go fast without trying,” Laughlin says. “This was the first sport that affected me that way.”


He was a distance swimmer while enrolled in St. John’s University as a political science major in 1968, but was still plagued by mediocrity in athletics and academics. He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. Along with contemplating his future during the summers, he also swam with a guy who coached at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, Long Island.


“He knew of my curiosity [about swimming] because I was constantly questioning him,” Laughlin says.


But those questions – and a good dose of karma just after graduation – paid off. Because of an early acceptance into law school, this coach had to find someone to fill his shoes – and fast.


“He took me to see the athletic director,” says Laughlin. “No way should I have gotten that position. I was only 21. I was younger and smaller than the people I was coaching. I had no training. I took no phys ed courses at St. John’s.”


For the first time, though, Laughlin no longer felt like the fish out of water.


“Something made me feel very comfortable, like I belonged. Within the first few days, I saw things clearly from the deck.”


And it was those early observations and insights that would later lead to the founding of Total Immersion Swimming in New Paltz.


What Laughlin observed immediately was that the faster swimmers in Lane 1 looked different than those plugging along in Lane 4. “They looked taller in the water, even if they weren’t,” he says.


While traditional coaching has always been about laps, intervals and heart rates, Laughlin instinctively keyed in on the aesthetics. He experimented, making mental notes of what worked. “You need to lower your head … extend your arm more … less splash.”


Not only did his team make the championships, but they won.


“And we broke conference records by huge margins,” he says. “This is the first thing I’d ever done in my life with distinction. People started taking notice, and I realized that this was what I was meant to do.”


Under his coaching, the Merchant Marine team placed in the top 10 in the nationals, and Laughlin was named Coach of the Year in 1973.


“But after three years, I felt like I would stagnate,” he says. “There were only 15 or 16 swimmers. I wanted to coach larger numbers.”


Keeping him from stagnating too much at that point was Alice, whom he met and married in 1974.


“She was friends with a girl I had a bit of a crush on, but who had a boyfriend,” says Laughlin. “Alice came to a swim meet with this girl and caught my eye though we never spoke. I thought she was intriguing but never acted on it. Two years after I graduated – not having seen Alice at all in the interim – I had a chance meeting with a friend who was the boyfriend (later husband) of the twin sister of the girl I had been interested in. Though I hadn’t seen or thought of Alice for all that time – nor even knew her name – I described her to him and said I’d found her ‘intriguing from afar.’


“He knew who I was talking about and agreed to set up a group date at which Alice and I could meet. That was January 19, 1974. A group of five or six couples went to a St. John’s basketball game and to dinner afterward. Alice and I have been together ever since.”


Swimming success continues

In 1975, Laughlin accepted a position with the Eastern Queens YMCA in Bellerose on Long Island, a position that connected him with more than 100 kids, and thus beginning his 13-year quest to connect himself with a series of better teaching positions.


That quest resulted in 16 or 17 swimmers who became national champions – as well as a stint in Richmond, Va.


“Two Richmond swimmers I coached around the age of 10 went on to become Olympic medalists in their 20s,” he says.


Despite the professional successes, the couple was homesick for New York. By 1983, they had three daughters: Fiona was 8, Cari, 4, and Betsy, 2.


“Alice has worked over the years in several public-relations positions,” says Laughlin. “We took turns raising the kids. I often coached at 5:30am and 5:30pm, but was home during much of the day. She would come home and take the evening parenting shift while I went to practice.”


Rather than a lucrative and more challenging coaching position, the Laughlins were lured to Goshen because of affordable housing and a manageable commute to Bergen County, N.J., where Laughlin landed a coaching job – the Gergen Barracudas. They were and still are based at Ramapo College in Mahwah, and the swimmers ranged in age from about 6 to 16.


“I did that for another five years,” he says. “But I became a little burned out, primarily because of dealing with the parents.”


Not able to stay out of water for too long, the next year he began summer camps for adults at Colgate University. Intensive coaching on strokes was offered to competitive master swimmers. Six attended the first session; four the next.


But by the early ’90s, his camps caught the attention of triathletes, whom he describes as notoriously poor swimmers. “Initially, I was a bit bothered,” he says. “They only wanted to learn freestyle, and after a pool session, they’d go run or bike. By the second pool session, they were too tired.”


But he was now teaching people who were struggling to learn how to swim in just a few short days.


“It forced me to examine everything,” he says, including drawing on his initial experience with the aesthetics of swimming.


“Conventional pull and propulsion became secondary to how the body line should feel,” Laughlin says.


By teaching students to swim quietly, without roughness or struggle, Laughlin saw outcomes in his students in one hour of teaching that outstripped the previous results. He systematized and formalized his concept of minimal-resistance, low-drag swimming in a book titled “Total Immersion,” which was published by Simon & Schuster in 1996.


“It was the first book about swimming that taught how to experience the water,” he says. “Within a year, it became the best-selling book on swimming in the world. It’s still a best-selling book.”


With the credibility and visibility that the book provided, solving swimmers’ problems was elevated to the status of a real business. Total Immersion Swimming was born. The documented curriculum and training videos made an undeniable splash in the world of swimming. Today, there are Total Immersion licensees worldwide, the first tier of which have all been trained by Laughlin.


Although he describes himself as a “reluctant traveler,” he’s been to destinations ranging from Japan to Australia to observe how others immerse themselves in Total Immersion. Upon the release of his most recent book, “Extraordinary Swimming,” he found himself in Taiwan last April.


“That was a heady experience,” he says. “I felt like a rock star. … The president of Taiwan is a big fan of Total Immersion.”


Swim studio becomes a family affair

Because Laughlin prefers swimming in the open waters of Lake Minnewaska to a pool, he knew that one day the family’s home base would be within the arms of the Shawangunk Mountains. Fifteen years after moving to Goshen, they settled in New Paltz. And in 2005, The Swim Studio opened in New Paltz as well. The two lap pools are a training ground for coaches, a film studio for underwater videos and a safe place for someone who is water phobic to cast his fears away.


“We started to attract a diverse group,” he says. “It’s such a huge gift to be able to help someone put his face into the water for the first time.”


Daughter Betsy, who is now 26, is as comfortable teaching 6- to 8-month-olds as she is a 90-year-old beginner.


Cari, who is now 28, also shares her father’s passion for the Gunks. Along with teaching Total Immersion techniques, she also runs the Inner Wall, an indoor rock-climbing gym in New Paltz.


Fiona, 33, is an instructor as well, and wife Alice does some PR and marketing. They’ve just hired a COO – chief operating officer – but Laughlin still maintains the title of CEO – “chief executive optimist”.   


Even the three recent cracked ribs didn’t dampen his spirits too much – although he was forced to forgo his four-times-a-week swims in Lake Minnewaska last summer. Laughlin lives to be active, whether it’s swimming, cross-country skiing, doing yoga or biking to get around town. His bike crash on Main Street in New Paltz in late June might have even been a signal to ease up a bit.


“Since I turned 55, I’ve been the top ranked distance swimmer in the country. I hold the one- and two-mile records and I’ve medaled at the world competition,” he says. “I’ve been putting pressure on myself to hold that ranking … but it’s OK to let go.”


So what’s next for this man who continually challenges himself, now that he’s healed?


“I want to swim in unusual places, like Gibraltar,” he says.


The first time he completed the ultra-endurance swim around Manhattan, he did so without any ultra-endurance training – just his typical six hours a week in Lake Minnewaska.


“I focused on every one of those 27,000 strokes … how economical to make every stroke, to keep the heart rate down,” he says.


Two years later, he repeated the feat, this time training a little harder, swimming more aggressively and shaving about an hour off his time.


However, he has a more immediate goal, now that there is a business manager to keep Total Immersion afloat. He wants to spend some time helping to reduce the number of drownings in Third World countries, be it in the rice paddies of Vietnam or a region, such as Sri Lanka, that experiences flooding – in that case, after the tsunami.


“There are a half-million drownings a year,” he says. “And when put against malaria, it’s a serious epidemic, an epidemic that could be cured at low cost with three words: Float, don’t swim.”


If he has it his way, though, Laughlin will swim his way through his golden years.


“And I want to be a world champion in open water – maybe in my 80s.”


Deborah Botti is a freelance writer living in Orange County.

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