One Buoy at a Time: Swimming in Open Water

From the sandy  beach, I followed the gaze of the triathlon club’s swim test official. He pointed to the buoys marking lengths across the roped off area of the lake; four lengths were required, roughly 200 yards. I regularly swim 2000 yard workouts in the pool and am barely winded after a set of 500 yards straight. But that’s pool swimming, never in a lake. Here there were no push offs between lengths, and more importantly, no walls reassuring me, standing at the ready in case, for some reason, I needed to hang on. (But when had that ever happened? Rarely, when I breathed in water or got a foot cramp.)

For years I’ve been thinking about working on my fear of open water. I am certainly a strong enough swimmer to do it. If I were asked to swim a half mile or even a mile race in the pool, I’d sign right up. I’d be slow, sure, but I have full confidence I could do it. Yet beyond the roped off swim area of a lake, even without choppy waves of boats or thrashing arms and legs of competitors, was outside my comfort zone.

And that’s why I was at the lake, about to take my swim test so I could swim with the local triathlon club out into the open water. To push myself beyond my comfort zone and, I hoped, get comfortable outside the safe confines of a pool or roped swim area.

Beyond the ropes, at the far reaches of the small lake, stood a course of giant round air-filled buoys defining the long course. Next to the roped regular swimming area was a short course, out 125 yards to an inflated triangle and back. But first, four easy laps in the roped swimming area. Would I get too cold? My wetsuit was designed for snorkeling in warm Hawaiian ocean. Would I suddenly and unaccountably lose my ability to swim? The woman completing the test before me said the water felt warm as soon as you get going. She smiled reassuringly.

I swam out to the corner to begin my test, noticing that the water was not cold at all and I instantly stopped worrying about my lungs closing up. All I had to do was 200 yards in the safety of water right beside a shallow shore where I could stand up at any moment. I would not need to stop and stand up anyway before completing 200 yards, I reminded myself. As I swam a swerving course, I observed the swirling sand beneath me, reeds, and suddenly a fish almost a foot long that looked like a goat fish from my Hawaiian snorkeling. I smiled through my bubbles. A fish!

The swim test seemed longer than 200 yards. “That was great. Very fast,” the testing volunteer said.

I was breathing hard. “I guess I went faster than I needed to,” I said. “I swim faster when I’m nervous.”

He laughed and signed off on my sheet. I was approved for open water.

As the long line of wetsuited swimmers signed in with another club member, a volunteer “swim buddy” told me how she too felt extremely nervous her first time in a lake. Another member about to swim the short course towing a fluorescent buoy said she’d swum open water before without a problem but had a panic attack recently and was working on regaining her confidence.

It seemed like everyone felt anxious, at least on their first time swimming in the lake, especially getting far enough out that the bottom disappears into darkness. Especially on days when the lake was choppy, like the previous week. Today the lake was reassuringly calm. It struck me that I wasn’t the only one here to stare down fear.

On the way out to the triangle buoy, I watched the lake floor fall away from me, reeds growing fainter until the view was unbroken dark. As I picked up my head to sight the buoy, I gazed at the rowboat beyond, reminding myself help was close by. I was swimming slower than usual, but quickly getting ahead of my swim buddy so I took her advice on getting comfortable by stopping to float. Waiting for my swim buddy was good for me since it forced me to remember I was safe out there, even if for some reason I needed rest.

I took breaks between laps, standing in the shallows, to let the anxiety ebb a bit. I was getting very cold. Teeth-chattering cold, despite the 2mm of neoprene. It was probably a mixture of waiting around after my swim test and getting cold at the start, the slow pace of my laps with pauses to wait for my swim buddy, and even the anxiety itself. My swim buddy kept shaking her head at the end of each lap, breathing hard, and telling me I swam so well. I never felt out of breath and realized I was a better swimmer than a lot of the people on the lake that day. That should have been reassuring, but instead it made me think I should have more confidence.

The person I judged the bravest was a woman who didn’t really swim and was working on two challenges at once.  After each out and back of the short course, she had to rest. I never really felt like I was working hard. On my last of four laps, I took a faster pace and struck out on my own to try to warm up. My whole swim had been only 1200 yards, if I also counted the swim test. I wasn’t tired, but drained by anxiety and cold. Everyone said the second day was much better than the first. I hope this is true for me also.

Only later did I think about my advantage in being an efficient swimmer who could swim many yards effortlessly. That would be a good thing to remind myself every time I even thought about my open water swimming. Every time I mentally rehearsed, every time I looked out at the course before diving in, every lap or, when I was ready, as I swam on the long course. One woman told me, “You don’t look up at how far you have to swim along the whole course. You only look to the next buoy. Just swim buoy to buoy.” It reminded me of Anne Lamott’s advice on writing—and life— Bird by Bird. Take a challenge paragraph by paragraph, Lamott says. In this case, one buoy at a time.

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