Reflections of a Converted Open Water Swimmer

Posted: November 5, 2014 in Lifestyle, Swim

I was reading a conversation yesterday about swimming wherein swimmers and athletes were sharing their experiences in endearing the swim portion of their first triathlon for the first time.  Long story short, 99.9% of these accounts were negative in that they found the swim absolutely terrifying; near death experiences by some accounts. This made me reflect on my own first experience with the swim portion of the triathlon in my first ever event way back when and it was, well, a bit different.

Swim MeetI’ve always enjoyed swimming growing up and I participated in the usual gamut of swimming lessons put on by the Red Cross every summer at the local Merritton Lions pool.  And when I wasn’t participating in my lessons, I was back in water that afternoon playing tag and ultimately getting kicked out of the same pool by the lifeguards for running, rough-housing, splashing, dunking…you name it.  Basically everything we learned not  to do while at lessons.  So all I ever really learned through the Red Cross was basically how to keep afloat and get from one end of the pool to the other without drowning which, as a child, is as good a lesson as any.  Oh, and I could do an amazing cannonball.

On rare occasions (usually at my parents insisting), I would sign up for a swim meet hosted at one of the other neighborhood pools but I never really fared very well, which goes to show how much I really picked up about stroke technique during my lessons.  At one particular meet, I made it from one end to the other without drowning and in the process earned myself a bronze medal so in my mind I was a huge success. Of course, there were only three people in my particular heat, but who cares? I had me some bling to validate my success at not dying.

Go me!

It wasn’t until much later – six years ago as a matter of fact – that I really learned how to “swim”.  In many ways, I am still learning and improving on my technique but what’s different now as opposed to my ability as a kid, is that I do more than simply make it from end to another without drowning; I can get there relatively fast and efficiently.

Anyway, back to my story.

When I first decided to participate in triathlon as a dare with my younger brother, I did a smart thing in that I signed up for a triathlon training group based out of the YMCA which offered spin classes, running groups and a weekly “Masters Swim” (click HERE).  This group would eventually evolve into the TryForce group of which I still belong to and train with today.  By that point, however, I had never participated in a “Masters” swim group and remembering my bronze medal as a child, decided that I was decent enough to position myself in the “Advanced” lane where I proceeded to literally get swam over time and time again (and nearly drowning in the process) by the faster swimmers until the coach moved me to the “Beginners” lane.  Ouch.

One of the other things about the TryForce group is that they would typically meet for coffee after these Masters swims and, really, that’s where the real education began and I would eagerly listen to and glean tips from the other group members as I prepared myself for my own first challenge that coming summer. I learned a lot that off season.  I picked up tips from them on how to strength train effectively, how to create a training schedule using periodization, specific race tactics and strategy, how to set up in transition, and how to fuel myself properly before, during and throughout my training program and races.  But there was also something else I picked up from them to a large degree, a healthy fear of open water swimming.

Remember that this training group was not so much a group of professionals as it was a group of people who were in the sport more to participate in a healthy and active lifestyle than to earn themselves medals.  So when the conversation turned to swimming, most of them had a specific horror story about their triathlon swims and open water swimming in general.  It seemed to me that everyone was very fearful of the swim.  Maybe I should too?

By that point, I had never swam anywhere but in a pool in my life.  I may have gone to the beach once or twice as a child but that was more splashing around where you could still touch bottom, hardly swimming out where it was dark and scary.  By these peoples account, open water swimming was something you had to be mentally and physically prepared for and to that end I stressed about it…a lot.

Throughout that off season I worked on developing my stroke through endless drills both at the Masters swim and then again on my own and, eventually, I graduated to the “Medium” lane – a huge accomplishment in my eyes. I still stressed, however, about how these pool skills would translate in the open water or if they would even translate in the first place. Thoughts entered my mind about what it’s like to not  see that black line at the bottom of the pool, or what it’s like to swim against a current or in waves.  Later when I shopped for and purchased my first wetsuit, I stressed about what it would be like to swim in a sausage casing.  Of course, there were the stories about the “washing machine” effect of the triathlon swim to feed off of and this scared the living bejesus out of me.

In the pool, everyone swims in a relatively orderly fashion one after the other.  Well, that’s assuming everyone is using proper lane etiquette that is (click HERE).  But in the open water, by the sounds of it, it was every man for himself in a non-stop frenzy of fists, elbows, knees and feet all thrashing about wildly for the singular purpose of both fending off other swimmers and, hopefully, also making it to the end of the swim itself…alive preferably.  We actually practiced swimming as a group in the pool during our Master swims but you could always see the bottom, or grab onto the side if the going got too tough.  I knew full well though that grabbing the side would not be an option in the open water.

I'm in there somewhere.

I’m in there somewhere.

Come springtime, we started having our Masters swim outdoors in Welland at the site of what is now the Welland International Flatwater Center.  It was during these initial open water workouts that I figured out that swimming in a wetsuit was not so bad, nor was it a big deal to not be able to see bottom. Sure I stressed a bit about monsters from the deep coming up to drag me under and I remember constantly hearing the classic John Williams Jaws Theme (click HERE) playing in the back of mind each time I swam but, generally, I found the whole experience not as difficult as some others. In fact, it was kinda fun and this made me happy.  However, there was still that “washing machine” effect to contend with.

My first race was in Milton in May of 2009.  I spent the entire night stressing about it, the swim in particular.  I pictured be literally being beaten to death in the water (like THIS) at the hands (not to mention knees, elbows and feet) of 300 other capable swimmers.  I knew I could get around the bike course, and even if I had to walk I would make it through the run but, swimming, well, who knows. Triathlon isn’t known as the world’s most dangerous sport for nothing and that fact was not  lost on me, like, at all.

When the time came to enter the water before the race’s official start I found myself smack dab in the middle of the pack and I totally freaked out.  Certainly my imminent death by drowning was at hand. So much so was my fear at the time that I immediately moved to the back of the pack with the old ladies and doggie paddlers.  Certainly, I was a little more skilled (maybe) but damn if I wasn’t terrified of being in that washing machine.

When the race started, I literally waited for nearly everyone else to get on with it before I even started.  I remember watching the flurry of white water erupt from the main gaggle of swimmers and it looked absolutely chaotic.  Eventually, I started myself and it wasn’t long before I had joined the fray of flailing body parts, except, it wasn’t as bad as I had thought.  Dare I say it, I actually found it exhilarating.  Sure I look some lumps and I’m confident I gave some back in return but, all in all, it wasn’t bad.  It was tough, sure, but it wasn’t as ‘scary’ as I had initially thought it was going to be.  I used this new found confidence to drive me through the water past other struggling swimmers and by the time I exited the water I had this huge shit-eating grin on my face.  I was happy not in that I had survived and not ended up as fish food but because I had actually enjoyed myself; so much for believing the hype.

Incredoubleman Triathlon Challenge 2014

Incredoubleman Triathlon Challenge 2014

Now, six years later, where some still dread and fear the open water swim, I recognize that it is my strong suit when it comes to triathlon.  In fact, open water swimming is my one true joy when it comes to either training or just being active and healthy. For me, there is no greater joy to be found than swimming out into the open water and simply…being there. It’s so peaceful.   I love the seeing the odd fish swam underneath me, or the feeling of aquatic plants on my bare skin when I choose to go sans wetsuit (which is most of the time).  Really, I just love the feeling of being out in the open water and I work hard at helping HRH  to get over this same fear herself (click HERE).  To me, open water swimming is a life skill and I really thrive on seeing her develop this same love that I have for it.  Sure, she still hates the feeling of plants on her bare skin, but she’s no longer afraid of fish nibbling on her toes so she’s definitely getting there.

For my end, where others might not mind so much, a triathlon isn’t a triathlon unless there is a swim involved.  I work hard to perfect my open water technique and genuinely see myself doing more in this particular discipline.  But more than that, it’s now what I love to do.  Period!

I guess what I’ve learned through all this is that while a positive ‘Can do’ attitude is contagious; so too is fear. And if that fear revolves around open water swimming, I suggest working at it and embracing it as best you can to ultimately get past that fear. Eventually you might come out the other side loving it instead.  And, believe me when I say this:  there’s a lot to love about open water swimming.  In fact, my favorite workout ever is to simply swim out into the canal in the morning just as the sun is beginning to peak over the horizon and the early morning fog is still settled over the water and just pause…tread water…and simply enjoy the silence…confident that no monster is going to drag me down.


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