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How I Overcame My Fear Of Open Water Swimming To Complete My First Triathlon
For the past 2 years, I have been itching to do a triathlon but my total lack of swimming skills and fear of deep water has always held me back. Running and cycling posed no problem for me. Of course, I knew I would need to train but it felt an insignificant amount compared to the (liquid) mountain I needed to climb to learn to swim. I chose the sprint distance triathlon, which is a 750m swim. Having never swum a single meter in open waters, this absolutely terrified me and I couldn’t imagine a day where I could achieve it AND go on to finish a triathlon afterwards. So I just went for it. I signed myself up for the triathlon, found myself a swimming teacher and started training immediately.
We began in shallow waters at the beach close to where I live. First of all trying to get comfortable in the water, put my face in, get used to my surroundings. What’s that touching my leg? Are there sharks here? Now, knowing me, I knew if I started training in a swimming pool, the fear of open waters would have only grown. I would have found a comfort zone in the pool and refused to leave. I have never done things by halves, so this was no different. I had 2 lessons per week in the mornings so I thought at the very least it was getting me out of bed, outdoors and exercising. I got to see the beach at its most beautiful, just after the sun had come up, before anyone arrived and while the water was at its calmest. Breathing was the most difficult thing for me to master, as it was linked to fear. Fear causes erratic breathing patterns. Erratic breathing patterns when swimming can cause further problems. For me that included but was not limited to: swallowing water, panicking, losing grip on reality, giving up on life, seeing sharks and other sea creatures that were not there, and finally good old crying. My mind was focused on breathing to stay calm. But if my face is in the water I cannot breathe, therefore, I cannot be calm. How will this ever work!?
I used an Easy Breath face mask during the first class or two. Breathing in this mask is somewhat restricted of course but this worked to my advantage. You cannot panic breathe in the mask. A short, sharp inhalation causes the valve to seize or something to that effect, so you absolutely have to breathe slow and calmly. While I was getting used to being in the water and working on developing some kind of swimming technique, it was perfect for me. Plus, it meant no water went in my nose or mouth, another thing that was massively deterring me from open water swimming. No matter what I tried, nose clips, snorkels, not putting my face in the water, I ended up drinking it. After every class, I was nauseated from how much saltwater I drank. At some point, of course, the mask had to go so after a couple of classes I stopped taking it with me. From then on it was a couple of weeks of ploughing through the coughing and spluttering, working on technique and trying to get comfortable in the water.
During the first few weeks of classes, I noticed something strange was happening. Even though there were elements of it that were very unpleasant, I was starting to look forward to each class for the sense of calm that it gave me. Calm!? I needed to investigate this more because this simply could not be. How could being in the water, the place that had previously terrified me and at that point still did, be relaxing me!? But it was becoming clear. From the little experience I now had behind me, and my teacher continuously reminding me that the more relaxed you are the easier it will be, I began to realize that just being in the water, being surrounded and enveloped by something far bigger, learning to navigate the waves, you either became at one with the water or you didn’t. If you submitted yourself to it, you moved with the ebb and flow of the water as freely and easily as a jellyfish. If you fought against it, you would get chewed up and spit out and booed off stage. So to speak.
During this time I was confidently seeing the triathlon in my future as a genuinely accomplishable feat. Very few times did I sit and wonder why on earth I got myself into this and succumb to my negative inner dialogue telling me it’s too hard, there’s not enough time, YoU aRe NOt A sWiMmEr.
In the end, overcoming my own inner dialogue was what turned out to be the hardest part of open water swimming for me. Getting better at swimming was starting to seem like the easy part. Weeks went by swimming four times a week in open water, twice a week in a group and twice a week with my teacher and I was really seeing an improvement in my technique. I was eating less water, swimming in rougher seas, entering the water headfirst and even managing to increase my speed.
And then the day came. Sunday October 6th, Barcelona Triathlon. 9 weeks after I had my first swimming class I was there at the start line desperately fighting my inner dialogue that was saying, ‘why did you ever think you could do this!?’ But the gun goes and everything changes, it’s just about getting it done now. Stopping is not an option. Going back is not an option. It was that voice that I listened to that day, that voice that I allowed a seat at the table in my head during the triathlon. It was that voice that got me to the finish line.
Nothing any teacher could do would quell those voices in my head telling me I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m not experienced enough, this is for people in another league than I am. I have yet to overcome this, but I also accept that perhaps I never will, and that’s okay. I will continue to keep proving to myself that I CAN and like Dory, I will just keep swimming.
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Photo: Rose Findley