A decade ago, today, I had my first swim in open water. It was the weekend before what was supposed to be my first triathlon. But I did not make it to that particular race. Because I nearly drowned.
Bit of background on Your Humble Narrator leading up to that morning. Except for a few group swim sessions, I did not have a coach. Or an experienced training partner. Or even friends I was training with. I’d been practicing my swimming solo for months, in a pool. I was proud of going from 0 laps to 16 laps and figured, “If I can swim it in a pool, I can swim it in a lake.”
Two weeks before my race, while visiting the local triathlon shop (FOR THE FIRST TIME!) I casually mentioned I was racing in a couple of weeks. One of the owners (Luke) told me I should get in some open water practice before the race. Ominous Foreshadowing: he said, “Swimming is different in a lake.” The following weekend, I met him and some other folks for that fate-filled adventure at Robinwood.
In unfamiliar water, with no support in place, I proceeded to do everything wrong. Didn’t warm up. Didn’t test the conditions. And as soon as the first guy jumped in, I jumped in. Which very quickly lead me to several interesting discoveries.
First, unlike an Olympic pool, you often lose sight of the bottom in open water. (If you ever see it at all.) Not being able to see the bottom triggers anxiety in most people until they get used to it. Strike one.
Unlike an Olympic pool, a lake does not have a highly visible line on the bottom to guide you from Point A to Point B. So you have to lift your head out of the water slightly and sight your position against some fixed target. If you don’t sight, you swim in circles. Even though you think you’re going straight. Strike Two.
And an Olympic swimming pool is 50 meters long. You can usually touch bottom the whole way. In a lake, you have no wall on each end (which gives your arms a brief rest) and you are rarely (if ever) able to touch bottom except along the very edges. After maybe 100 meters of not kicking off, I needed to rest my arms. But couldn’t touch bottom. Not being able to see or touch bottom is a double anxiety whammy. Strike three.
Circling endlessly in the middle of an unfamiliar lake, without prescription googles, I couldn’t see shore. Literally. I had no idea which way to swim. Strike four.
There’s no strike five in open water swimming. There’s either drowning or a panicked burst of all-out flailing towards what you hope is shore.
I didn’t drown.(You probably knew that.) I ended up exhausted and kneeling in the shallows, puking lake water out of my mouth and nose while I was literally crying from a combination of fear, anger, and disappointment. Fortunately, nobody saw me. Everyone else was swimming their laps and had no idea what had happened. So I crawled onto shore, gathered my things, and quietly left.
Two days later, I was diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia from inhaling lake water. And I did not go to that first triathlon.
I didn’t swim again until the weather warmed up several months later. If I hadn’t spent money on a bike, I would have quit and never tried again.
Two years later, I did Ironman Augusta.
Two years after that, I started a local training program to help prepare new folks for their first triathlon.
The program included a slow, gradual introduction to open water swimming. Hundreds of successful finishes later, nobody else has ended up on the shore, crying and puking up lake water.
I still own that honor.