As much as I would like to pretend that my previous adventure in open swimming – you know, the time when I saw a bull shark and got stung on the head by a jellyfish, all within the space of thirty seconds – had rendered me some kind of aquatic superwoman, like Diana Nyad minus thirty years, the reality is that my evolution as an open water swimmer has been moving in fits and starts, sometimes not even in a forward direction.
Take this swim Brian and I did two weeks ago, off Sand Key in Clearwater. The sky was overcast, which made the water a bit darker and more opaque than normal, and so I spent the entire 30 minutes of our swim certain that the dark shapes I kept seeing in the water were bloodthirsty creatures with a particular fondness for tall, blonde women. The omnipresent sense of panic depleted my ability to swim, and I spent most of the time backstroking, partly out of fatigue but mainly because I told myself that if I couldn’t see the homicidal monsters in the water, then they weren’t there. (Sort of like how my kitten hides by sticking his head under the dust ruffle of the bed while leaving the rest of his body expose. Yes, I am as smart as a quasi-feral kitten.)
Considering that I have a triathlon with a half-mile swim coming up on Oct. 7, I knew it was time to call in the big guns. So when we got an email about a triathlon swim clinic held by a swim coach who is very highly regarded in our community, I insisted that we sign up. I’d already bothered Chrissie Wellington during a Brooks-sponsored Twitter chat for tips on open-water swimming – she obliged by sending me this very helpful document – but sometimes you need a coach who can watch you and tell you what you’re doing wrong, which in my case I’m sure was everything.
So last Saturday morning, Brian and I gathered with a handful of other triathletes and swimmers on North Beach at Clearwater Beach. Coach Joe Biondi and his daughter, Alexis, had set up buoys in the water at varying intervals. We started out with some basic information, like the benefits of wearing your goggles under your swim cap (which I was not doing) and the importance of warming up (which I’ve never done). Coach Joe had us swim out to the first buoy and back as warm-up, then as we all made our way to the beach, he gave us our assessments. When he stood in front of me, he said, “How long have you been swimming?”
I blushed, sure that he was going to eviscerate me. “A couple of months.”
“Your stroke is too short. Give me an hour, I can fix what’s wrong with you.”
I kept his first sentence in mind every time we went out after that. Instead of trying to furiously paddle my way through the water – which I think I was doing due to some subconscious hope that making a ruckus would keep all the fish away from me – I instead focused on lengthening my arm and sweeping it past my body. The difference was remarkable. I don’t know if I was moving faster, but I was certainly moving with much less effort.
We moved on to turning around the buoys, which is where Coach Joe became pretty sharp with us. “Stay away from the buoys,” he told us. “I don’t want you near them.” He explained that everyone was going to be around them – which I had seen first-hand at my first triathlon – and that we’d use less energy just swimming further out and staying out of the scrum. He then showed us this nifty turn where we sweep the arm closest to the buoy across our bodies, flip on our backs and then make a 90-degree turn. I did it on land a few times, then did it in the water, feeling the whole time like a sporty Esther Williams. I was giddy with delight. “This turn has changed my life,” I told Brian as we walked out of the water.
Next we practiced dolphin-diving, which I had evidently being doing ALL WRONG. Did you know that you are supposed to grab the sand to propel you forward a bit? I didn’t! And that you have to keep your head tucked between your arms? And for god’s sake, don’t stand up in between dives? And when you run into and out of the water, you should kick your legs to the side? SO MUCH NEW INFORMATION. I felt like Keanu Reeves, saying “Whoa” after each new fact-bomb exploded in my brain.
Finally, it was time for our half-mile swim, which would take us down the beach and back up. We started running and dolphin-diving into the water, and almost right away I ran into an equipment issue, thanks to my goggles, which kept filling up with water. I tried adjusting them and re-sealing them to my face, but to no avail. So finally I was just like “fuck it” and I yanked the loose ends of the goggle straps super-tight, even though I knew this meant I’d have suction cup marks around my eyes and a headache later on. By this time I was way behind everyone else, which caused me a bit of anxiety because I am not used to swimming alone in deeper water.
Instead of bugging out, though, I focused on keeping my arm strokes long and smooth. Soon enough I made the first turn, and then I started to see the pale outline of the feet of one of my classmates kicking a few feet ahead of me. It was at this point that I started feeling the oddest sensation, like little soft poofs bouncing off my body. It was the most puzzling thing, and I could not figure out what it was. I didn’t see anything, just felt it. I figured that maybe I was feeling turbulence from the swimmers ahead of me, or maybe bubbles? I had no clue, so I just shrugged and said to myself, Okay, bubbles it is.
The weird sensation went away after a couple of minutes, and I found myself in a nice rhythm. The water was clear enough that I could see the sandy bottom and the sun was shining, one of those moments that left me feeling like, “hell yeah, I am so happy I live in Florida.” Don’t get me wrong, at least once a day I face-palm over something completely idiotic that has happened down here, but it’s easy to forget the stupid criminals and the corrupt politicians and the bullheaded real estate developers when swimming in the middle of the clear, blue Gulf of Mexico on a warm, sunny autumn day. I felt utterly peaceful, not at all concerned about the other creatures in the water or the seaweed or any number of things that otherwise cause me to freak out whenever I go swimming.
The best part was that I was doing a steady forward crawl without feeling like I needed to flip on my back or anything. In fact, I was actually starting to pass people. I swam alongside a man who was also in the class for a few yards, then at some point left him behind. By the time I finished, I was the third person out of the water, just a few seconds behind Brian. (We were both way behind a middle-aged woman who was a crazy-good master’s swimmer.) What’s more – I felt like I could have kept swimming for another half-mile if I’d needed to.
After I got out of the water and started talking to the other swimmers, I found out that the weird little poof-bubbles we ran into were actually jellyfish. I had a moment of “holy shit?!” which quickly passed when I realized that, hey, I just swam through a bunch of jellyfish! I actually felt like kind of a badass.
Brian told me that he had been really worried about how I’d react to the jellyfish, because in the past whenever I’ve encountered animals while in the ocean I’ve pretty much lost my shit in a myriad of creative and profane ways. I told him about how I’d just decided that I was dealing with some bubbles or some turbulence, and it kept me from freaking out too much. Basically, I’d encountered something weird that I didn’t understand, and so instead of making up a story that was going to cause me to become afraid and panicked, I instead opted to tell myself a story that allowed me to continue with a sense of confidence and safety. (LIFE METAPHOR ALERT!)
Later, before the day was over, I chatted with Coach Joe for a few minutes, and he asked if I had ever played sports before. I told him I had played basketball and volleyball in high school. “Well, your hand-eye coordination is superb,” he said. I beamed. I’ve received a few compliments on my athletic abilities in recent years, which always makes me smile. Because what I don’t tell people when we talk about my high school sports experience was how positively abysmal I was at sports, how I was clumsy and timid I was, and how none of my coaches would have ever thought I was naturally gifted as an athlete. It’s fascinating to me that I could go from being the kind of girl who shoots basketballs at the other team’s hoop to the kind of woman who receives compliments on her hand-eye coordination.
When we left a couple of hours later, I felt like I had been shot up with a monster dose of self-confidence. It’s not that I think I’m going to kill the swim on Sunday, but I do think I have a good shot at actually enjoying myself, and at the very least not spending the entire swim leg in a state of raw panic.
But I think that what’s even more important is that I’m continually learning that, just because something was true for me at one point in my life, it does not necessarily follow that it will remain true for the rest of my life. It’s true that I was – and still am, to a certain extent – afraid of swimming in open water. It’s true that I was not raised in a part of the country that leads one to become comfortable in the water. But this doesn’t mean that I can’t find it in me to overcome those fears. And it may be true that I was once awkward and unathletic, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I was always going to be awkward and unathletic.
We are not static and unchanging entities. We may have come to think of ourselves in one way when we were younger, but that doesn’t mean we must always be that way. When I was eighteen years old, I believed I was bad at swimming, bad at running, unathletic, lazy, somewhat cowardly. Now, nearly fifteen years later, I am an athlete who is good at running, getting better at swimming, capable of hard work and moments of bravery. I think this is true for all of us in so many ways. We develop these ideas of ourselves when we are younger – when we aren’t even fully formed as human beings yet! – and we allow these ideas to dictate our lives well into adulthood and beyond. I think we’d be much better served if we made efforts to keep ourselves open to the possibility that we might have talents and abilities that just weren’t ready to emerge when we were younger, that maybe they required some maturity and wisdom before they would reveal themselves to us.
I may never be one of those incredibly gifted athletes who can compete at an elite level, but through hard work, persistence and desire, I’ve managed to nurture what ability I do have until it has developed into something that makes me proud.