I am terrified of swimming. I’m happy to kick back and watch the waves, to run alongside the seafront admiring the rhythm of the waves, even to watch the boats glide over the horizon on a warm Sunny day, but to swim for any length of time within deep waters where my feet can’t touch the ground genuinely terrifies me. This year I have entered in for my first triathlon which entails a 400m swim in a bid to finally address the fears and phobias that have largely dictated my physical activities up until now.
Let’s go back to the start here, it’s March and I have just signed up to the Portishead Sprint Triathlon. When coming back into swimming again after a while, it’s better to start from the top again with swimming to ensure no kooky habits had suddenly started featuring within the swim technique. The search criteria entailed swimming lessons which were accessible and affordable, I was looking for lessons whilst I was changing jobs so I didn’t want to spend premium bucks on a number of lessons. Similarly, I needed somewhere that was relatively close to Bristol City centre however my attempts to sign up provided more brick walls than open doors. Bristol University had a long waiting list, which I asked to be put on in March and still haven’t had a callback. I signed up to receive 2-2-1 swim lessons at Bristol South but never got an email or a call. There were fairly limited options beyond these two options which meant that time trickled on and I had achieved nothing.
Open water swim centres
I was then told about an open water centre in North Bristol where your feet can always touch the ground. I had no idea these places even existed. It’s kind of place where swimmers are encouraged to go at their own pace, the owner, Mike, could always be found on the premises helping swimmers with guidance and tips. One sunny Saturday afternoon, Jo (also doing her first triathlon this Summer) and I cycled 8 miles up to the Open Water Centre where we hired our wetsuits before going in for a paddle. I won’t bore you with the extensive but equally hilarious efforts involved with trying to get into the wetsuit, but I eventually managed to walk out of the changing room with an elongated torso and short legs. Shortly afterwards I was told that the wetsuit looked too flat, but mistakenly heard that I was too fat, it was safe to say my first time open water swimming was a series of comedic moments.
Panic stations go
I wasn’t sure how I’d fare up in the open water, I feared the worst would happen even if my feet could still touch the ground. In addition to the panic stations sounding off in my head, Mike gave us some reassuring words of warning – “The one thing to be careful of is heart palpitations”. Okay. It was too late to go back now, I mean, it took me about thirty minutes to get into the wetsuit which in itself was a small milestone but I wanted to push it further. Without thinking twice about it I stepped into the water in a bid to adjust the cool water temperatures, the wetsuit loosened up within the water and Mike’s trick at alleviating heart palpitations was helping downplay the panic stations.
I stopped and looked around, the waves were virtually non-existent, the sun was shining and there were no sharks, this open water setup wasn’t too bad after all. No sharks but a whole load of carp fish! After exiting carp city with some swift doggy paddles, we staggered the whole distance by stopping at each buoy which were separated by 30 metres apart. I must’ve swallowed a couple of pints of water in the whole process but I feel like that’s inevitable, particularly as a newbie still ironing out my breathing pattern. It was exciting to feel real moments of competence even if they were over-shadowed by suddenly losing my breath and technique and then having to stop. I never felt frustrated at going so slow and when we got speaking to other people at the swim centre, there were alot of other people who had initially struggled to adjust from the confines of the swimming pool to the vast open water.
Practice makes perfect
Within days we decided to return back to the swim centre straight after work on a Monday night, it was an amazing experience escaping out of the crowded city consumed by mugginess courtesy of my bike and a little cycle path called Concorde Way. I couldn’t believe the difference between the first and second swim, the first noticeable progression was the time it took to climb into my wetsuit – an impressive five minutes! This time round there was a little more chop in the water as the wind had picked up, this provided more of a challenge in terms of breathing but this time round we were stopping less at each buoy and there was less half-panicked moments. It was amazing to see such a difference in such a short space of time, so let this account be a reassurance to anyone who is reluctant to jump into open water.
My advice is to brave it for the first time in conditions which will put your mind at ease. The open water swim centre was quiet and relaxed, we could hire wetsuits, the water levels weren’t too high and the sun was shining – had any of these factors been different, I may not have been quite so compliant in getting in.
Have you got any tips for swimming in open water? Comment below…