Open-water-swimming-triathlon-competitionI think deep down inside every athlete there will always be a burning desire to return to a race they’ve already competed in with the primary motive of beating their original time. Even if I do well, this will always be the case for me. There is no other way to explain it. I simply always want to do better.

The very first triathlon I competed in was a sprint triathlon located about an hour outside of the city of Philadelphia. The 400-yard swim took place in a murky lake, the ten mile bike course was along a series of rolling hills and the run was a quick out and back 2 mile run on a semi-shaded path. The bike and run portion of the triathlon did not intimidate me, but the swim portion did because truth be told, this was not only my first triathlon but it was also the first open water swim (OWS) I had ever participated in. At this point, I had only just learned to swim for about 2 or 3 months, and although 400 yards was a distance I knew I could swim, it was still the most I had ever swum in one straight shot, and I wasn’t particularly good at it. Saying that out loud now, it’s hard for me to even comprehend what that felt like because I can’t remember the last time I swam less than 2500 meters in one shot.

I knew the swim was STILL my major hurdle but I had built up some confidence with each workout in the pool to feel less nervous over time. Just about every triathlete I had talked to up until this point had warned me about your first OWS experience and how no matter how comfortable you’ve become in the pool, there was a dead set guarantee you would freak out on your first OWS. I listened and took their advice at face value, but some part of me believed that maybe I would be an outlier who didn’t freak out. With that said, I will let this excerpt from my original race report help paint the picture of what my first OWS actually transpired. Let’s just say, I was definitely not an outlier…

“I don’t know what to say about this other than this was horrible. I’m glad I did it, but it was one of those situations where everything went wrong. When we first lined up at the lake, the first thing that concerned me was how cold it was. At the start it was 56 degrees outside but thankfully, as I would find out the water was much warmer – 71 degrees to be exact! This made me feel more at ease, but little did I know what I was in for. I was in the second wave, and when our horn sounded, I took off as planned. But that’s when things got sticky – literally! There was so much seaweed, it was insane, I could barely move my arms! Swimming through that for the first couple of minutes was really difficult. As soon as I got around that, I was instantly wedged into some weird vortex of panicky women who were backstroking and not only could I not get around them, I could barely swim. I started to panic – it was one of the worst feelings I have ever felt. I don’t think I have ever understood how someone could drown until today. As we passed the first buoy, I saw my chance and managed to swim around the vortex that was sucking the life out of me and FINALLY was able to start swimming. I was pretty livid at this point so I basically focused on calming myself down and just kept going, swimming at an easy, relaxed pace. Before I knew it I was out of the water and on my way to the transition area. I’m so glad I was able to calm myself down because this was my only saving grace. I am sure because of that damn vortex and the panic that ensued, that several minutes were added onto my time. It pains me to think of that but, it is what it is, right?”

Shamefully, it took me 12 minutes and 26 second to swim 400 yards during this race. Yes, really.

The lesson I learned from this experience was that I needed to get more comfortable in a big body of water. This was my first triathlon so I’m not beating myself up for what happened nor how I reacted, but I did recognize that if I had more practice outside the pool, I likely would not have panicked as much as I did. In the end, all I knew was that I never, EVER want to feel like that again!

Open-water-swimming-competition

After this experience, I made it my mission to find local lakes I could swim in and get more comfortable in. I even started looking for and eventually found bays and oceans I could swim in for the same reason: to become comfortable swimming in water I could not see through, without the luxury to quickly stop and put my feet down like I could in a pool. It took some time, but with every OWS and triathlon I did, I got better at it. Not great, but better. Before long, I looked forward to the summer simply because of all the OWS events that naturally spring up when the weather gets warm. Because I still do this, I found myself searching for some OWS and triathlons earlier this spring to start planning my 2013 triathlon season when I saw this same sprint triathlon listed. It didn’t take but a few seconds to decide to sign up again, for the simple reason of wanting to be able to measure what I was capable of then, as opposed to what I am capable of now. While I had not turned into an amazing swimmer since I first participated in this race, I had definitely gotten better and specifically I had definitely gotten better at swimming in the open water.

So what happened? This time around I completed the swim in under 6 minutes, and it felt like I had actually swam slow. After the bike and the run portion and completing the overall race, I placed 3rd in my age group, a mere 10 seconds behind the second place winner and about 20 seconds behind the first place winner. It really was a good feeling to compare the two races, years apart and reflect on all you can do when you work hard and stick with something over time. Let’s face it, we all like to improve, but what I like even more is learning how to do things I never thought I could do before, and for them to become so common I have a hard time remembering life without them. And for me, that’s what swimming has become for me – something I simply can’t imagine life without.

More: Stress Management for the Athlete

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