Open water swimming for the terrified.
Updated: Aug 24
I should have started writing this at the beginning of the journey instead of what feels like the end, but there was a part of me that never believed it would happen. 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 metre 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. It was in July that I finally went for it and signed up to the triathlon after having a conversation with a friend who had done her first triathlon the previous year. She seemed to have started in a similar place to me, if not in skill level then definitely in fear! She told me she started swimming in July and was ready for the triathlon by October. I figured I could at least try to do the same. I had the time and the money for personal training sessions, something I've never had the luxury of before (and probably never will again!) so I went all out. My friend gave me the contact for her swimming teacher and we started the next week. At this point I had goggles, earplugs and a dry swim bag, absolutely no know-how and not even a swimsuit. I arrived for my first class eager but terrified. So much could go wrong. Maybe the teacher thinks it's impossible for me to learn to swim for the triathlon, maybe I don't like them or they don't like me, maybe they lose patience with my fear maybe this maybe that maybe ten thousand other worries that were pointless to think.
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 grown. I would have found a comfort zone in the pool and never wanted 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 all the people arrived. It also meant the water was at its calmest. Here in Barcelona, by midday there is usually a chop to the water that isn't there at 9am, so I was grateful for that time in calm waters. 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 breath, 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 not exactly like breathing on land like they claim on the website, it is somewhat restricted of course but this worked to my advantage. You cannot panic breath in this 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 through my mouth and nose, ears, eyes and belly button. After every class I was nauseated for a while after just from how much saltwater I drank. So anyway, at some point of course the mask had to go and 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 this time 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 realise 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 don'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.
After a week or so of classes I had got my hands on a decent second-hand triathlon suit, so I at least began to look the part, although I certainly didn't feel like it yet. My teacher was lending me his neoprene to help with my buoyancy in the hope that would give me a bit more confidence in open water swimming. By the third week in August I started going out in a group organised by my teacher and his coworker. I was still eating water at this point and still moderately terrified of the open water and everything that lurked beneath. But I ploughed on regardless.
By this point I had acquired a few more things to add to my swimming kit which were helping make it a more comfortable experience being in the water. As someone who had a childhood of ear infections, water in my ears was an absolute NOPE so I was ready to spend some money on stopping that happening. I did a lot of research and through trial and error, settled happily with Arena earplugs and the Ear Band-It®, which further seals your ears to stop water from getting in and keeps your earplugs securely in your ears. On top of that I had a basic swim hat and in the end was lucky enough to find a pretty sweet second hand neoprene. The dry bag served as a personal buoy for me, and was also handy to keep all my stuff safe and dry while swimming. On top of that, wearing all black in open water makes you pretty much invisible so it was also good to make my presence known! My goggles I kid you not I found at the bottom of the sea.
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 the f*ck 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. But it happened. 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 with the 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. Now that was a bonus I didn't expect. I was never aiming for a time goal in the swimming leg of the triathlon, my goal was to simply finish it without dying. For cycling and running I had an idea how long it would take me and I would be happy if I kept within those time frames, but really the goal was just finish it. If I could finish with a smile on my face, even better.
And I did just that. Sunday October 6th, Barcelona Triathlon. 9 weeks after I had my first swimming class I was there at the start line absolutely sh*tting my neoprene 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. So do what you set out to do and sWiM BItCH! 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. With a mother f*cking smile.
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 me. I am yet to overcome this, but I also accept that perhaps I never will, and that's ok. I will continue to keep proving to myself that I CAN and like Dora, I will just keep swimming.