Never Back Down: Facing My Fear of Swimming
Let me start by saying that until recently the only swimming I’ve ever done has been:
1. Swimming with a life vest on as a kid.
2. Swimming back to my pool float after falling off.
3. The swim test at summer camp that you had to pass to be on the deep end, and after barely passing, I clung to the side of the wall the entire time.
My story starts after finally being convinced to "check out" a few tri team practices. I was not convinced that a sport that involved swimming was for me, but being able to run at the Lavaman Tri in Hawaii was a huge selling point.
The first practice was on a Saturday and would consist of swimming and running. Although the running would’ve been ok, I skipped it because I was too intimidated by the swim. I did, however, show up to their track practice on Tuesday #stayinyourcomfortzone. It was fun, the team was warm and friendly and the energy was invigorating. So I arranged to borrow a bike and decided to join the next Saturday swim practice.
I never swam, so naturally, I had to stop at my local sporting goods store to pick up a few swim essentials #alwaysbeprepared. Considering all my suits were made for lounging poolside, I figured I need something a little more supportive. I also picked up some goggles and a nose plug so I wouldn’t have to plug my nose while swimming across the pool (a herald of what was to come). I opted out of the swim cap since I wasn’t even sure how to put it on and thought I’d look funny with it on anyway.
I arrived at practice and asked one of the coaches which lane I should be in since I missed the practice where they explained that. He asked if I could swim and I respond, "Yes, though I’m not sure how well." He had me get in his lane so he could assess. I hopped in and proceeded to swim frantically across the pool while trying to maintain my head above the water and swim as fast as possible. I could barely make it across the 25 yard pool. I was gasping for air and the stupid nose clip made me feel even more panicked so I promptly ditched that when I got to the wall. I persevered on with coach’s constant reminders to put my face in the water and me constantly thinking to myself “I don’t swim like that” and "Swimming is terrible!" and "Why am I doing this??" and "This is so hard!" and "I’m never doing this again!!," combined with a few choice profane expletives.
I made it through the hour long session feeling completely beat, disappointed in myself and a little embarrassed. It’s not often I find myself in a situation where I could barely deliver (if you could even call it that). Everyone around me seemed to be so at ease in the water and I looked and felt like a baby deer trying frantically to cross river rapids.
My teammate asked me how I liked the practice and I answered candidly with an eye roll. "It was awful, I sucked and I clearly do NOT know how to swim! Which means, now I have to learn!" #challengeaccepted. On my way home, I thought about how terrible that felt and I wondered how I would improve enough to make it through the next practice. I spent the afternoon searching for a swim school that offered adult lessons.
I started lessons the same week. I learned how to put a swim cap on, practiced breathing out slowly with my head underwater and getting more comfortable in the water. Even that was a challenge for me. I continued to show up for the Saturday practices with the team while mulling over the decision to commit to the race or not. Always staying in the "baby" lane. My coach was really encouraging and patient with me, but consistently pushed my progression. The mental strength and trust in myself was building and I really loved that. I started to look forward to swim practice, not for the swimming (that was still really hard) but for the feelings of confidence and accomplishment every time I finished. After about a month, I was ready to commit.
I continued to progress throughout the 4.5 month season and eventually got moved over one lane! #smallvictory. My coach even managed to get me to show up for an open water swim. That didn’t go so well, but didn’t deter me from powering on. Race day was fast approaching and my trepidation and anxiety was too. Swimming in the oceans of Hawaii wasn’t really something you could simulate in the San Francisco Bay Area. But my confidence was higher than ever and I was trying to convince myself I’d be fine.
The day before the race, all of the branches of Team in Training got together for pre-race swim. There were hundreds of people and we were all about to swim in the ocean together as a way to acclimate, get the butterflies out and simulate the race day experience. I hopped in the water with one of my #trainingbuddies and quickly lost her in the sea of people and the sea itself. Panic set in immediately. It had been storming the previous days so the water was murky and gray. I suddenly felt that with all the moving bodies, no one would be able to notice if I was drowning or needed help. We were supposed to be swimming out to the second buoy and turning around. I barely made it to the first and all I could think of was getting out. So I did.
Once I made it to shore, all I could think was how hard the next would be and thank goodness I brought my wetsuit (it had been declared wetsuit legal because of the storm). I mean, there was no way I was giving up now, but there was also no way I’d make it through the swim without it.
Race day is here! I strategized with my teammates that recommended I meander to the back of my corral and let the more aggressive swimmers go first. Advice I still take today I might add. I kept telling myself, "Take it one buoy at a time and rest when you need to." I started swimming to the first buoy with the swells and the timing of my breathing working against each other. Needless to say, I swallowed a lot of water. My only mission: Get the hell out of here so you can get to the fun parts! With a little zigging, zagging and occasionally choking, I made it around the buoys until I could see the two big palm trees they told me to sight with. It took me nearly 45 minutes, but I did it. I finished the swim! I had been working so hard mentally and physically to get to that point and I was completely elated. I felt so empowered to have conquered that fear. The surge of adrenaline was just what I needed to power through the remainder of the race.
Guess what I did when I landed back home? Signed up for another tri! I think swimming will always be my biggest challenge because I have the least experience with it. But I’ve continued swimming regularly every week since (with a swim cap and no nose plug). I get stronger, faster and more comfortable in very tiny increments, but that’s progress none-the-less! Now I prepare for the next challenge, Ironman Whistler 70.3.
Written By: Sylvia Rivera, Tri Sirena Siren Luminary
Follow Sylvia on Instagram @sylv824
Did you have to overcome a fear to become a triathlete? Let us know in the comments below!