“I’m always afraid my first swim of every season,” a veteran triathlete told me at my second open water swim practice with a local triathlon club. More than a few good swimmers and determined triathletes told me stories of feeling fear or even having panic attacks in open water. A woman with an Iron Man Triathlon tattoo was towing a float for a sense of security. Everyone meant to reassure me my feelings are normal, that at times, everybody feels the way I do.
I truly appreciate this supportive community of triathletes and I am glad to know I am not alone in my fear. On the other hand, I also find this talk a bit disconcerting. What I really want to believe is that the fear magically goes away. And doesn’t come back. Tell me there is a moment in lake swimming when the experience is transformed and it’s just like swimming in the pool: no worries. But almost no one shared such a story.
That is, with the exception of one person. A friend from the pool told me that she never feels more at peace than when she is swimming across a lake. I tried to imagine how that would feel. Completely at peace? I told her how the fear came up for me as the lake bottom dropped away into darkness.
Her perspective is completely different. As the ground falls away, she said, she sees the sunshine through the pollen causing the lake to appear green. She said, “It’s my green happy place.”
Her phrase was the single most comforting formulation I’d heard since I’d begun this adventure of facing my fear of swimming out into the depths of a lake. Perhaps “green happy place” could be my new phrase to try? That would be re-framing a fearful image into one of peace and calm. I couldn’t wait until my next swim to try it out.
The next week, the swim was cancelled due to weather. All week I had mentally rehearsed swimming calmly in the lake, and then at the last minute, no swim.
The following week I was not quite as prepared. I hadn’t visualized being calm in the water. I also didn’t feel well, owing mostly to an overzealous ab workout earlier in the week. Plus, I was plain tired at the end of the day. But I had a wetsuit to demo and had to return the next day. Besides, I knew if I skipped the week, it’d just be harder the next.
I used my “just get everything ready to go and see how I feel” trick. Sure enough, once I was in my swimsuit and everything was packed, I was no longer tired. Just nervous.
By the time I’d entered the water, after a long time wriggling into the wetsuit and pondering the course, the idea of “green happy place” had vanished. My swim buddy this second practice was a strong triathlete who advised me to count my strokes 1-2-3 as I breathed on each third stroke. Establish a steady pace, she said. Another swimmer advised using a mantra.
I tried counting. In lieu of a mantra, continually talked myself down. (“I can do this. It’s not that far. I can float. I’m not that far away. There’s the rowboat…”)
I made three loops, going faster each time, fueled by nerves. Notably, though, no panic attack. I kept the anxiety in check just enough to keep going, though not using my usual calm efficient stroke and not conserving the energy to make the four loops I’d planned. My sore diaphragm muscles didn’t help, and neither did the full wetsuit. The neoprene squeezed my biceps and shoulders. It provided comforting buoyancy but felt like a giant rubber band was pulling me backwards every time I went for a stroke.
When I got into the pool again, I decided to swim without pushing off the walls to build some confidence for lack of walls in the lake. No cheating by getting to push off every 25 yards.
My no-touching-the-wall technique was so awkward I felt like everyone in the pool area must have been wondering what in the world was wrong with me. At the end of each length I’d kind of whip my body around, lose all my momentum, and use a breast stroke kick to get horizontal again and move in the new direction. It was as tiring as it was strange. I persevered, however, swimming 500 yards at a time this way, double the distance to the buoy and back on the short course. Fortunately I would have only one turn around in the lake, at 125 yards, rather than the pool gazillion, after each 25 yard length. When I returned to the lake I wanted to be able to tell myself I’d done twice as much in the pool, and had done so four times in a workout.
I also tried a mantra, now that I could calm down enough to create one and practice using it. I tried all kinds of words to remind me I was safe and competent. I settled on “buoyant, efficient, peaceful” and concentrated on truly feeling the sensations of buoyancy, efficiency, and peace in my body as I swam. I counted my strokes, three counts for each word. I was surprised to find that as I practiced, I felt more peaceful. I hadn’t even realized that I wasn’t already calm.
Of course, there’s also proper equipment. This week I will be testing out a sleeveless wetsuit. I am hopeful: the confidence of extra buoyancy with the additional bonus of being able to use my arms.
I dream of the lake becoming a green happy place for me. Meanwhile I repeat my reminders to myself that I am so buoyant that I don’t even need to swim to stay afloat; I am so efficient that I will have no problem gliding through the 250 yards; and, I am peaceful in the water. Over and over I assure myself: buoyant, efficient, peaceful. For this week’s swim I will bring those three words. And a sleeveless wetsuit.