It’s been a while since my last swim lesson — like, 15 years — so I’m having trouble trying to perfect the front crawl as a water current blasts into my face.
I stop a few seconds later, stand up, and pull off my clouded green goggles. Within seconds, the 88-degree water becomes calm. I look up at a flat-screen TV in front of me, which is playing a delayed recording of my strokes.
“You can see yourself up there,” says Kelly, my instructor for the day. “Don’t lift your head so much when you take a breath.”
I’m at SwimLabs, a new training school located 15 miles east of Seattle in Issaquah that features three 3-foot-deep small pools, each equipped with an Endless Pools machine that propels water toward a swimmer and allows for continuous swimming in the same place. Think of it as a swimming treadmill.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the facility, which opened two weeks ago, is the technology.
There are three video cameras in and around the water at each pool. One records from the bottom, another from the side, and the last from above. During a lesson, swimmers can look at themselves on the TV, as the recording plays on a 20-second delay that essentially amounts to an instant replay of your strokes.
Those video files are also available for a swimmer to access when he or she goes home. Instructors can edit the videos and add annotations or show side-by-side footage of a professional swimmer that provides valuable feedback. The technology is powered by Dartfish, a video analysis software used by collegiate athletes and Olympians.
The idea is to help swimmers adjust their form and improve their technique during and after a lesson with visual feedback, versus someone simply telling them what to do.
Check out my lesson recap here:
SwimLabs started in 2006 after co-founder Michael Mann saw how Olympians trained two decades ago in the “flume,” which was built by U.S. Swimming to train athletes with cameras and sensors in a 50,000 square-foot tank. Mann thought that if the technology and analysis could help professionals, why not everyone else who wanted to improve their swimming technique?
The company opened its first facility nine years ago in Colorado and has five other locations in the U.S. The Issaquah center is SwimLabs’ first in the Northwest.
Chris Chalmers, who swam in the 1988 Olympics for Canada and now works in the biotechnology field, connected with Mann two years ago after learning about SwimLabs. He then teamed up with Andy Hill and Scott Whelan to help open the Issaquah location, which replaced an old dance studio.
Chalmers recalled training for the Olympic team in the late 80s by strapping on a belt and using a pulley system while swimming in place in a hot tub. SwimLabs, of course, is quite the upgrade from that.
He noted that for other sports, particularly for youth, there are ways to take private lessons or sign up for premier leagues that help improve technique and ability. With swimming, however, it’s a little difficult to find anything past the traditional group lessons at the local swim center.
“If you want to get some 1-on-1 coaching, this is the place to do it,” Chalmers said, adding that there are plans to install more technology that can analyze fitness and endurance performance.
Half-hour lessons typically cost around $65 at the facility, which cost $1 million to open. There is a waiting room for parents equipped with WiFi and TVs that stream what’s being recorded in the pools.
Whelan explained that SwimLabs can benefit everyone from a child that’s just learning how to swim to a triathlon competitor who wants to shave a few seconds off their finishing time. He also noted how the Seattle area is unique given that the city is surrounded by water.
“If you go into the water here, you don’t want to be bad at swimming — you want to be comfortable,” Whelan said. “If you’re in a kayak, you want to know that you can swim to shore if you fall in the water. Our goal is to get people confident and comfortable in the water — adults, kids, everybody.”