I asked my four year old, Liam, what I should do if I got scared while swimming at my first open water triathlon. He responded with these two words.
I wrote about my practice swim, and being overcome with fear when I realized I was surrounded by green fog in the water.
I pleaded for advice to get me out of the water at the finish line, not the starting line. I heard back from friends I had known for years and people I had never met. I took all the advice to heart.
The morning of the triathlon, I had both of my sons draw smiley faces on my hands in Sharpie. Liam is old enough to write, so I also had him pen “be brave” across my forearm.
Another friend suggested I think of a mantra to recite when I was afraid. I originally selected “swim anyway,” as in, even if you can’t see the bottom. But “Be Brave” won out. As music pumped through the speakers at the event, I chanted be brave, be brave in time to the beat. Minutes before the race was to start, I was treading water waiting for the signal to swim. A competitor next to me shouted out “I’m nervous!” I gave her the advice Liam gave me. I hope it saw her through the race.
Even though the practice swim sent me into a two day panic, I’m thankful I took the time to do it. The night before the race, I spent time visualizing what it would be like when I was in the water. I imagined myself focusing on my breathing (another tip I received), thinking about the finer points of my technique, and repeating my mantra. I knew if I could make it to the first buoy I could finish the race.
I saw the race course the day before the event. Until that point, I had not realized I would have to swim under bridges. I have no rational reason for this increasing my fear, but it did. On the drive to the event, I told my husband of this fear. He ended up cracking about trolls living under bridges and them making a meal of wayward swimmers. I told him I needed to think happier thoughts, but I was laughing when I said it. I needed someone to point out how ridiculous my fears were. The bridges ended up to be much needed markers along the way. I’m almost to the first bridge. If I make it to the second, I’m almost halfway there.
The starting line was out in the lake about 50 yards. We lined up on a stairway and took turns leaping into the water. I was surprised that from the first stroke, the green fog surrounded me. There was no gentle slope of rocks and plants leading up to the deep. For whatever reason, this made me more comfortable, as if the water was saying “This is how it is. Just deal with it.”
When my face was in the water, I could not see a swimmer that was a mere foot away. But with every breath, I noticed swim caps all around me. We were all in this together. I swam past swimmers holding onto kayaks for a rest, one swimmer deciding she couldn’t do it and being pulled from the water. I did not take joy in seeing them struggle, but it did clue me in to my own strength. I COULD do this.
It wasn’t easy by any means. An unseasoned swimmer, I kicked wildly for the first leg of the race before I tightened my form. By that time, I had expended a lot of energy. I frequently flipped on my back to catch my breath. My wet suit, while keeping me warm and giving me added buoyancy, constricted my breathing.
But I was fortunate to have a personal cheerleader for the duration of the race. My husband, Ben, had offered to swim with me, knowing I was uncomfortable. Weeks before, I declined the offer. But after my practice swim anxiety set in, I asked him to swim near me.
After about 200 yards, I knew I was going to be ok. I told Ben he could swim ahead, I would be alright. He said “No, I’m doing this with you.” He cheered me on the whole way, but as we rounded the last buoy he smiled and said “You’re going to do it!” We exited the water and grabbed hands as we crossed the timing mat, the announcer calling our names and titling us “the husband and wife duo.” I loved that. At that moment, I was connected to this person who not only accepts me as I am, but encourages me to be the best version of myself.
And that’s why we do these events, isn’t it? Yes, it’s good exercise. It’s fun to have an event to look forward too. But ultimately, I wanted to challenge myself to do something I did not believe I was strong enough to do. I had to dig a little deeper than I thought. My fears a little more ingrained than anticipated. But as I ran to the transition holding my dripping wet suit, my eyes welled up a little. I had done it. I hadn’t allowed fear to beat me. What else could I do?