When I first moved to the States in 2011, my friends back home in the UK were doing their first triathlons, and one of my closest friends was about to start training for her first Ironman. At the time I was just a runner, and I really liked being just a runner, except that I was constantly injured. I decided to buy a bike so i could keep active even when I wasn't able to run, and so that I could keep my friend company on her long training rides. It didn't take long for me to decide that I wanted to do a triathlon myself.
The problem was, I couldn't swim. I mean, I had learned to swim as a child and was ok at breast stroke, but I had never learned to swim with my face in the water the way distance swimming demands, and I hadn't been near water since a near-drowning experience when I got caught in a riptide in 2004. The first time I went to the pool and tried to swim front crawl, the way I knew I would have to if I wanted to do triathlon, I managed to swim about eight strokes before I got confused and panicked and had to stop.
Despite this, I signed up for my first sprint triathlon, which would take place in June 2012. It was a small event in Windsor, England, that a number of my friends were doing. I knew I was fit enough for the bike and the run, and I had been going to the pool regularly and managed a length or two of front crawl at a time. I had expected I would patch that together with paddle and breast stroke and whatever I needed to do to get to the end.
I borrowed a wetsuit and a bike and when we got to the race it was apparent that it was a season starter training race for people who are really really good. I hated coming last in anything, but I resigned myself to it immediately. Like many of the triathlon swims I would do subsequently, the swim was one long panic attack. The panic literally propelled me forward in a mix of breast stroke, side-stroke, and back stroke to get to the end of it, all the while keeping my head completely out of the water (there was NO WAY I was putting my face in the water with all of these people around me - what if they didn't see me and hit me in the face, or what if I went in the wrong direction). I didn't manage to get it under control for the rest of the race either - I gasped all the way through the freezing rainy bike, and all the way through the slippery muddy run.
I had completed my first triathlon but it didn't feel like a triumph. Rather I felt traumatized. I realized that I needed to get serious about swimming if I wanted to do more (which I did, of course... It isn't clear why!).
So I got a coach and she taught me, firstly, how to breathe to stay calm, and secondly, how to put together an efficient swimming stroke. I went to open-water training sessions on weekends and came to love the peacefulness of swimming in open water (as well as the lack of chlorine). I also joined DC Tri Club's masters program (we were living in Washington, D.C. at the time), where I spent most of the first six months hanging on the wall gasping for air as people lapped me and lapped me again.
A couple of weeks before I completed my second triathlon in September of 2012 (an Olympic distance, where I swam about a third of it with my face in the water and spent the rest of it panicking and breast-stroking), inspired by my friend's Ironman I signed up for Ironman Louisville for the following year. From my running days I was in the habit of signing up for another race to "take the edge off" the race I was about to do, but even I realized that signing up for an Ironman was a little bonkers. I knew I could bike 112 miles and run a marathon... So all I had to do was figure out how to swim for 2.4 miles without it being a very long, energy-sapping panic attack.
About halfway through my Ironman training, the swim became my favorite thing. There is little more motivating than a steep learning curve as an adult - we rarely get the opportunity to go from zero to competent. I started to find swimming relaxing for my mind and body, and found a peacefulness in open water swimming that I used to only get from hiking and trail running. I still feared racing - the crowds and choppy water combined with the nerves from racing makes it the hardest part of the race for me (and I even DNF'd in a swim during one of my warm-up races).
On Ironman race day I lined up for a time-trial start, sans-wetsuit (Louisville used to be in August and was HOT), and was excited. Terrified too, of course, but I had worked so hard and waited so long that I was desperate to get into the water. I don't know if I actually had a smile on my face during the swim but I had a smile in my head the whole time. As it got to the end and I could hear the noise at the swim exit, I didn't want it to be over. The swim had become my favorite thing.
Here are my top tips for learning how to swim to race triathlons:
Meghann Jones, Austin Tri Club Vice President
As part of the Austin Tri Club mentoring program, Meghann is hoping to mentor triathletes who are looking to overcome their fears of swimming.
Austin Triathlon Club was launched on October 8, 2017. Austin Triathlon Club is an all-volunteer, member-run community welcoming triathletes of all abilities, with membership opening in November. We encourage you to learn more about the Club by checking out our Mission and Values, the Club Leadership, and how you can get involved.
We would also love to see you at our Kick-Off happy hour on November 6th at the Ginger Man in downtown Austin. For more details and to RSVP, see our facebook event page.
Welcome to the Austin Triathlon Club blog! Through this blog, Austin Tri Club members can share their triathlon knowledge and experiences. If you are interested in blogging for Austin Tri Club, please contact us.