Underwater Breathing

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“© All rights reserved. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung GmbH, Frankfurt. Provided by the Frankfurt General Archiv.”

English Translation:

Anyone who recovers as a normal tourist in a sports centre is not crazy, but clever. Nowhere else the body is relaxed so quickly – at “Thanyapura” on Phuket world champions help with this.

The British are coming. Behind the kitchen counters, the cooks move the raw food to the side. The swimmers of the British national team need pasta and protein later, something to burn. Outside, it pours as if from buckets. In front of me: a green smoothie and a raw courgette lasagna that is so delicious that Kreuzberg hipsters would queue up to Moritzplatz. The excellent “raw food” at “Thanyapura” is just as unusual as the resort itself. We are in Phuket in Thailand, but there is no beach. We are surrounded by caoutchouc forests and houses. Also, “Thanyapura”, which translates to “land of abundance”, is not a hotel as you know it. You enter the 23-hectare area through guarded gates and at the beginning, you still think that you have landed in a kind of Silicon Valley in the rainforest. But then the long swimming pools glimmer bright blue through the green bushes, framed by bright white buildings. Originally a German entrepreneur wanted to build only a school, then he added the sports facilities, the training centre, finally the hotel building. For this reason, residents of the Garden Wing have quiet surroundings, but long walks to the sports facilities, the clinic, the bar, the pools and the restaurant.

Marcela Soto Prats sits in an air-conditioned room facing the swimming pools. The petite athlete from Costa Rica is Thai boxing world champion in the under 50 kilos weight class and my dietary adviser. We talk about dieting and how athletes dehydrate themselves before a competition, so they fit into their weight class. Outside it is at least 35 degrees. I wonder how I should exercise at these temperatures. Then we talk about my diet, in the end, she advises me to eat gluten and animal fats only sparingly, as there would be too much information in the body. “And your asthma,” she says then, “can be trained away. Get into the exercises, but do not follow the group, find your own level.” Then I should stand on a kind of scale. Marcela gives me a note, smiles: “Your metabolic age.” I read the data for weight, fat percentage, muscle mass, bone density, in the end, I also have to laugh. The machine states that I am thirty years old.

On the first floor of the clinic, just behind the shop in which you can purchase bicycles, is Dr Narinthorn Surasinthon, also known as Dr Care-bear in Thai social media circles. We talk about his work as an anti-age specialist and the different treatments. Some people want to know if heavy metals are in their blood, others come after a beauty surgery or a heart attack in the so-called golden phase, while they are actually afraid, but urgently have to start exercising again. He recommends the mind training with Pierre Gagnon and says, “Go to bed before 11 pm. That’ll do good.” I could lie down right now, but in an hour I start my first swim training.

“Come out and lie down on the table,” says Miguel Alvarado, Head Swim Coach and Aquatic Director, that is what it is called here. I climb out of the 25-meter pool, put my belly on a small wooden table and am glad the swimmers of the British national team do not see me. They have their heads in the 50-meter pool next door. I do what Miguel says, after all, he has trained more world champions and Olympians than his British colleague behind us. I do freestyle movements in the air, then follow Miguel to a blackboard. He draws and explains why my arms should remain longer in front of the body. When I’m back in the water, we’re doing something different. I should hold my breath, hug both knees, float for five seconds in the water, then exhale all air and sink to the ground. I do as I am told, but do not sink. “You still had air in the lungs,” says Miguel. After a few attempts, the exhalation of the very last air under water causes me to panic, but at least I sink. Coughing I swim to the basin edge. “Much better,” says Miguel. “This is a good exercise to breathe properly. Now float again and tell me if you feel a difference.” I swim and wonder. I breathe slowly, the movements succeed casually, almost effortlessly. As I get out of the water, it starts to rain again. No matter. I have not been so relaxed after exercising for a long time.

The Rostock triathlete Michael Raelert is at the back of the pool and discusses the next training session: cycling, tomorrow morning at six. The two-time Ironman World Champion turns to me. “Do you want to ride?” he asks. I hardly can suppress a laugh, smile and say with a reference to my professional-looking swimming shirt: “That is deceptive. Optics is half the battle, isn`t it? “He grins and nods. His arms still show the remains of the temporary tattoos from the last competition in Vietnam. He has short, blond hair looks almost lean. He could also play in a Canadian punk band. Miguel and he were talking about the difference between high-altitude training and heat training, why one is slower in the heat and why it is causing stress for the circulation. Later, I ask Raelert why he is training here, as many professionals go to Florida, South Africa or the Canaries. You have more space, more breathing room, he says. Cycling could be done everywhere, running too, but the pool here is fantastic. In addition, he is able to cope with the culture and nature of the people here. Then we talk about techniques. Much, he says, athletes cannot explain. It is an instinct. “If you were to ask the swimmers over there, how they do it, why their bodies do these things, and nothing else, it would be like asking Mozart how to get that one note.” Then we speak about writers and sharks.

A little later, between the tennis court and the gym. About twenty women and two men are trembling while planking. Sweat drips on the mats. Some groan. “It’s still a bit early for these noises, ladies,” says Stefan Lange happily, rolling his wheelchair past us. With lunges and squats behind us, we were holding miniature medicine balls in the air before, another time we hopped silently on the spot, and Stefan made the participants, silently cursing grin. The Hamburger, who has been wheelchair-bound since age 35, was a double world champion in reclining biking and is perhaps the most popular coach of the “Thanyapura” because of his nature and his knowledge. His colleagues call him “rarity”, while slightly envious. Now we should tighten the abdominal muscles, bend one leg, stretch an arm, I have difficulty breathing, my arm trembles. Suddenly men’s blue trousers run past me. The British swimmers. I feel like Bridget Jones. The following days I attended Pacha’s Yin-Yoga class and, like the others, lay in an impossible position, my foot in a band which I was tremblingly pulling. I stood on the only covered tennis courts in Thailand and with the help of the head coaches Timo and Jenny I found my topspin again, which I strangely lost 30 years ago. In the morning, during Stefan’s aqua-core training in the pool, I am overtaken by two seventy-year-old ladies, experience heavy rain showers, try the smoothie consisting of kale, kiwi, parsley, cucumber and honey which was invented by Maria Sharapova and share the buffet with the two-meter-tall British athletes.

On the last day, 7 o’clock in the morning, birds are chittering. Crickets chirp. The fountain ripples in the humid air. Michael Raelert has been riding his bike for an hour. In the pool, Adam Peaty, the four-time European champion, Olympian winner and world record holder over 50 and over 100 meters, does his laps. My asthma has disappeared since two days. Stefan said that the sea air in the north of Germany is not good for the bronchi because it is eight degrees cool. Here, on the other hand, many respiratory problems would disappear because after the rain, the air humidity is 75 percent, and at a yearly average temperature of 29 degrees, this would be like a continuous steam bath. In addition, the regular twelve-hour change of daylight and stagnant night would do the body well.

At eight o’clock on the first floor of the pavilion: Pierre Gagnon sits in front of a backdrop of rainforest and clouds. You might think we are hovering in a scene from “Star Wars,” but they are just well-cleaned panorama windows. Then he explains interval meditation, which relaxes the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system and is supposed to act on the brain like valium: breathe into the belly, fill the breath in the chest, exhale from the chest, finally press the air out of the belly, count to a number, and repeat. “The brain does not want us to be happy,” says Pierre. “The brain wants us to survive.” I nod and breathe. “Your amygdala is a bored, high-born child.” I look at the deep green skyline. White haze rises from the mountain as if the clouds would sit in the peaks of the trees. For a moment, I feel like I’m on an island, far from everything. I breathe in and out, and my right foot falls asleep.  Arezu Weitholz.

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