For those of us with a 30-year gap in our swimming resume, the process of building up to a strong, reliable swim stroke is a step-by-step exercise in humility. From those first manic learning laps in the 25-meter pool to the daunting task, the venture into open water swimming would be epic if it weren’t so common and mundane to the entire sport of triathlon.
There are obviously people who approach the sport from an entirely different direction that I did. Swimmers that have never been runners or cyclists have their own thresholds to cross. Some might find the running part a grindingly merciless slog. Others might think cycling on the open roads to be an insane proposition. And granted, riding three hours in the Illinois wind is enough to drive anyone to multisport-level distraction.
Inch by inch
I grew up swimming as a kid so there was this feather of a baseline. to build upon But not really. It all had to be regained. Inch by inch. Turn by turn. Rotate. Catch. Pull. Repeat. It has taken two years not to royally suck at this swimming thing. And I can still barely break 1:50 for 100 meters. But it’s coming.
But a funny thing happens when you take all that pool swimming into the open water. You tend to forget the basics at first. Without the pool bottom to guide the senses, a swimmer in open water too easily falls into some kind of one-dimensional creature in an 180-degree environment.
That turns into an exhausting adventure quite quickly. Then if you suddenly tire in open water because you’re not paying attention to the proper mechanics of swimming, a unique sort of panic takes over. “I’m going to drown,” crosses the mind.
For some the open-water experience turns into a fearfest. In that circumstance much depends on whether you’re wearing a wetsuit or not. With a wetsuit the right thing to do is stop and tread water or flip on the the back. The suit will hold up the body. Which is why most of us trust the wetsuit to get us through the bigger style of open water. From there, it is a matter of developing and keeping an open mind.
There are things to be gained beyond swimming from these experiences. So let’s discuss what it means to have an open mind. In this instance, we’re talking about getting past our fears to enable the body and mind to do what we’ve trained them to do. Then there’s this: fear is a vicious competitor. It loves to take over our conscious mind. It can subvert the unconscious mind just as quickly. Fear is defined as: “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”
For these reasons, fear is a motivator frequently used by politicians and religious authorities to get us to do what they want us to do. Coaches sometimes do the same thing. If you want people to go along with your agenda, throw a dose of fear into them. It almost works every time.
There is a spectrum on which people in fear operate on a scale from anxiety to trepidation. The liberal propensity for anxiety is well-documented. That’s why liberals worry about the environment and social justice. They have this abiding sense that things are going to hell and it might cause current and future generations to suffer. Or worse, it might bring personal suffering close to home. That’s cognizant anxiety.
This is a brand of anxiety with which many of us are born. It is hard-wired into the chemistry of our being. As a result, cognitive therapy can help, but it may not always cure. For that, a bit of medication to adjust the brain chemistry can be critical.
On the other end of the spectrum we have conservative trepidation. This condition feels like precognition, an assured sense of fear, you might say, to those who possess it. Trepidation is “a feeling of fear or agitation (italics mine) about something that may happen.”
In fact the conservative tendency toward trepidation is to expect that something bad is not only likely to happen, it may be predestined or the product of forces outside our control. That is why the mindset that embraces trepidation is so drawn to apocalyptic religion and the pursuant belief that evil is a living force in this world. It all becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. To people living inside this worldview, it is inconceivable that others don’t see the same warning signs.
So it is hard to reconcile these imagined and unimagined fears on both ends of the spectrum. One fear tends to be suspicious of another. No one like to admit that it is fear that lurks at the heart of their worldview.
It’s the animal within us that really drives us all.
Fight or flight
Genetically, all living things are evolved to respond in either fight or flight mode. But when we try to run away from something we bring upon ourselves, such as choosing to swim in open water, real internal conflicts can arise.
There is a very real parallel between navigating the open waters of daily life and swimming in the open water of a lake or ocean. The more complex an issue becomes, the deeper it seems and the more we struggle to identify the real source of our fears. As a result, some people choose to focus only on the surface of things. That’s the dissociative approach to personal philosophy and sports. As in: Don’t let reality impinge on your efforts, it will only slow you down.
By contrast the associative approach applies a bit more reason to the situation. A runner or cyclist in ‘association mode’ tries to identify all the signals that systems are ‘go.’ The same goes for swimming. If you have confidently swum 1000 yards or a mile or two in the pool, there is no reason why you cannot do the same thing in open water. Unless your fears take over.
It’s the imagination in either case that can cause so much trouble. Whether it is a liberal dose of anxiety or a conservative dose of trepidation that enters the picture, the net result is a brand of fatalistic thinking. If fear catches up with you from above, behind or below, the body freezes up. The breathing grows shallow. Panic wins the day.
So in order to gain confidence and get practiced swimming in open water, I chose to do laps in Crystal Lake yesterday rather than striking out into a longer swim to a pine tree half a mile away. I swam 300 meter intervals back and forth between buoys in water deeper than I could stand. The water was choppy from a wind and that provided an opportunity learn how to sight and breathe.
And there were times when I got out of breath, which meant focusing back on the proper freestyle stroke with sufficient rotation of the body. Nice clean elbows out of the water. Catch and pull. When I did that, I not only swam strong, there was plenty of confidence to go along. My fears were only imagined.
What can be done
What’s the lesson here? That is it neither liberal anxiety or conservative trepidation that should dominate our minds. It is focusing on what can be done that works. Then we move from ‘can do’ mode to ‘do better’ mode. As that happens, better performance becomes possible.
As the rest of the swimmers yesterday came back from the longer route, I stood in shoulder deep water smiling at the fact that none of them looked all that different. And the fear I’d had that the water would be so cold at 65 degrees that I might cramp up and not be able to swim? Not true. We typically imagine things to be so much worse than they really are. That’s how it is with open water. And that’s how it is with everyday problems.
The only cure is an open mind.