I Can’t Swim / I Will Swim! (04.01.18)

Sometimes I feel like my swimming ability is an April Fool’s Day joke. Actually it has been some sort of a dark joke for me for many years but I am confident in my current path forward that “I will swim!” effectively by August. August is when the USA Triathlon Sprint National Championships are scheduled in Cleveland, OH. I hope to share some of my experiences here that may benefit you including dealing with the mental and physical struggles along the way.

I Can’t Swim

I have had quite the journey swimming. From age four to 17, I lived in a house where we had a pool and lived 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. I never swam laps but I knew how to swim to get around a pool and occasionally collect sand dollars out on the sand bars of Pinellas County beaches.

Trouble Creep In

In the summer of 2015 I was on a snorkeling excursion off St. Martin Island when I lost suction with my snorkel twice within a minute taking in and swallowing two mouth fulls of Atlantic Ocean water. After the second one went down I could not catch my breath and noticed I was a couple hundred yards from our boat and land. I immediately thought to myself – I am too far away to cross my hands above my head signalling for help for them to get to me in time – so I decided my best shot was to turn over and book it to shore. I made it the beach while in a full-blown panic, breathing extremely hard and looking around to see if anyone noticed what had happened. Nobody realized what occurred and I didn’t share until I met with a Sports Psychologist two summers later. More on that in a bit…

Just Deal With It

After the incident I didn’t realize it would haunt me in my first two seasons swimming triathlon. I had panic attacks in all but 1-2 races and those didn’t happen as those races had the main swim path in locations where we could all touch the bottom while still having our heads above water. What I realized was once I got to a point where I could not touch with my head above water all I could think about was the potential to not stay afloat and drown…the excursion coming back to haunt me. No matter how many laps in the pool or open water swims I practiced it didn’t matter once race day came. I tried to train myself out of it and blocking it out. Come to find out that was the worst thing I could do.

I’ve Had Enough

Even with the panic attacks, I was still winning my age group in most races so I just kept thinking the swim would just get better in time. Not so much. I will never forget the Pineapple Man Triathlon in Melbourne where I had a panic attack 75 yards into the swim, finding myself flat on my back floating. I finished a terrible swim, had a really good bike and a great run, finishing 6th in my age group. I had enough! Immediately after the race I was on my phone looking up doctors to meet with back in Tampa Bay to solve my head issue. The next day I got an appointment and was in the office dealing with it.

The Mind is a Powerful Thing

It took a few visits uncovering what was going on inside my head and taking approaches to deal with my anxiety in the water. I was taking the worst possible action prior to meeting with the Sports Psychologist. In a nutshell, I was trying to resist the feelings and that only intensified the anxiety when things didn’t get better in the moment. Lesson here – don’t think you can always solve things on your own.

Since those meetings I have continued to dive into education about the mind and have found resources on mindfulness being extremely helpful supporting this anxiety and other stresses in life. Two people I have really benefited from are Dan Harris and Andy Puddicombe. Dan Harris is the ABC News Reporter who had a panic attack on Good Morning America and has since wrote two books on meditation and has a mediation app. Andy Puddicombe is the founder of Headspace, the leading meditation app from what I have found. You can learn more about these two in long form as well if you are interested as Rich Roll had hosted both on his podcast.

Dan Harris – Rich Roll Podcast

Andy Puddicombe – Rich Roll Podcast

After this work on my head I successfully broke through the panic attacks with the second race being a 70.3 mile Ironman where the swim distance is 1.2 miles. After I accomplished that swim without a panic attack, I knew I was over the hump mentally but boy my stroke still was terrible.

Get Help on the Physical Components Too

After completing three triathlon seasons and having a train wreck swim in my first Sprint National Championship, I decided all my efforts to work hard, have a couple of coaching sessions and watch some YouTube videos to swim faster were not getting it done.

Like fixing my head, I reached out to an expert to help in a coach I have heard so many good things about. In my first meeting, I knew he was right for me. When I asked him, “how good do you think we can get my swim to compete at nationals?” he responded with, “that is up to you!” That is exactly what I wanted to hear. I will put in the work and he thinks he can fix my mechanical issues and there are several. After several 1:1 sessions and completing drills on my own, I just completed my first week of his Master Swim program, swimming with a large group of people 2-3 times per week, and I did three this week.

I will report back on progress. Based on what I have experienced in the last several weeks I am confident “I will swim” effectively with a goal to strongly compete at the National Championships come August.

Lots of work ahead…

– Add Health to Your Life


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