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.
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