Once that was completed, we got into the actual pool for a screening to make sure I would not immediately drown. Again, it started slow: 10 minutes of treading water, then crossing the pool underwater, a satisfying application of the crash course in breathwork I had just completed. But the next exercise felt very unnatural: swimming on your side, scissoring your legs, and paddling with one arm, while holding 10 lb. rubberized black brick out of the water. This was the moment I realized how difficult this was going to be, but I passed.
After the screening, we moved into dumbbell water walks: I was told to strap my goggles on, grab a set of 45-pounders and calmly walk from the shallow end to the deep end and back, a tortuous circle of hell. The idea is to use the breathwork we had learned to keep yourself calm even when you feel like you are going to die. I gave in to that feeling the first few rounds: panicking, fumbling the weights, scrambling for air. But slowly, I began to get the hang of it, moving surely and quickly under the water, using momentum and breath to propel me around the pool. It was invigorating.
Next was the actual workout. They call it a burner: The brick swim, five dry land dumbbell jumps, an underwater crossover followed by ten poolside muscle-ups, and then my newly beloved underwater dumbbell walk. I watched other guys handle it well: everyone had weak spots, sure, but they were getting it done gracefully.
When it was my turn, I made it to the dumbbell walk. But as I began to make my way back to the safety, the accumulated fatigue got to me, and panic set in. I dropped the weights and forced myself to the surface, where the crew had assembled to make sure I was O.K. I had been concerned that I was getting into some macho next level gym rat stuff, but I was surrounded by guys that wanted to help each other get better. As I fought to catch my breath, they wouldn’t let me quit. I went back under. My time was slow, but I finished. I have never felt so excellent while gasping for air.
It was clear that it was going to take more than one session to get the hang of working hard while submerged. But as I drove back in silence to my hotel from Topanga Canyon, I felt both depleted and invigorated. I had known my body was going to get punished, but it was my mind that was racing. I wanted to improve and apply these breathing techniques in my daily life—I knew I could smother that panicky urge if I worked at it, and then who knows what I’d be capable of.