Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How to swim in 14 feet of water - or not

When I first started thinking about doing a triathlon, I thought the bike would be my weakest discipline since I had to actually learn to ride first. The ensuing experience, and the speed with which I learned to balance, ride, climb, change gears, coast and corner, finally made me feel that although I may not be very fast on the bike, I can finish this leg. Not for a moment did I think that swimming would become my Archilles heel.
I am not a great swimmer. I learned to swim as an adult and can only do 2 styles: front crawl and backstroke, and let me add that I do neither very well. I have always been a bit afraid of deep water, but have learned to manage my fear over the years. Indeed I have even jumped off a yacht, straight into the sea and snorkelled off the Costa Smeralda or Emerald Coast in Sardinia, Italy. Last summer I went swimming at the local Y, and I also managed to control my fear in 7 feet of water, which is the deep end in that pool.
This year however, because I spent most of my time trying to learn to cycle, I found it too challenging to start swimming as well. Anyway, I thought I would be able to manage my fear as I have always done. When I finally started the tri course, and started swimming on Mondays, I found I could not jump into a pool where 7 feet was considered to be the shallow end, and 14 the deep!
So I swam lengths in the shallow teaching pool, improved my stroke and learned to breathe on both sides. Last Monday I finally went to the 'big' pool. Although I had a few faltering starts, I managed my fear and I think I swam more than 700 yards that day. I felt I had taken a huge leap, and now all I needed to do was practice, and I would be fine come race day.
Well, yesterday we did a 'mock' triathlon. I had been dreading the swim, and the anxiety had been building all weekend. When I set off for the pool after work, I had to go back home 3 times to fetch various items I had forgotten. Stuart joked that I was secretly hoping the swim would be finished by the time I got there.
Well, no such luck - not only was I early, but the pool was relatively empty. My anxiety level was sky-high at this point. I got into the pool and clung to the side. After a while, feeling most unready, but urging myself to take the plunge so to speak, I started swimming. I only went a few yards when I had to clutch onto the side of the pool. I stayed there for a bit and found that I could not go on, so I swam back to the start.
I made a second start and stopped at exactly the same place. I swam back, spoke to myself out loud and tried to analyse what I was doing differently from the previous week and then started out for the third time. Yes, you guessed it, I stopped at the same place, only this time the lifeguard came over and asked me if I knew how to swim! This was not what I wanted to hear, and I explained to him that sometimes it took me a while to get into the swing of things. Still, I recognised that that was not going to happen that afternoon: I could either stay in the pool, desperately clutching the wall, or I could get out and actually swim a bit in the shallow pool.
I chose the latter. Naturally I felt a bit disappointed at having given up, and even more worryingly, how on earth am I going to swim on Sunday? Last night was not a good night, as I felt a bit lost and concerned about how to sort out this situation. I spent all of today thinking about it, and appealed for help in a triathlon forum. The response was amazing! I got so much encouragement, and help from so many people. It would also seem that quite a few people struggle with the swim.
Most importantly, I read something in one of my Buddhist magazines which I am still chewing over: when you take a leap from point A to point B, that is progress. But you cannot always go on to point C. You have to go back to point A and fill in the gaps which span your leap to point B otherwise you have a shaky foundation. Translated into swimming terms this made me understand that although I had made that leap when I swam in 14 feet of water, and in the sea in Sardinia, I never went back to fill in the gaps. Now I am trying to understand what are these gaps that need filling, and above all, how did I feel last Monday and what enabled me to swim in deep water.
I have decided that I am not going to manage my fear as I have done in the past. I do not think that I am going to overcome it in a few days either. However, I want to try and understand what I need to do to trust myself more when I am in the water. Most of all, I am trying to understand how I can be in deep water, and not associate that with feelings of fear. After all, water is the cradle of life - the place where human beings first came from....

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