Everything has a time and place and about now I was going to discuss the path of the arms and contributing body parts, but an overwhelming response to my blogs has prompted me to respond to a common theme. Who is the enemy dwelling among us, pulling us down, taking our breaths away and making our hearts pound? Fear, my friend. Fear is the enemy living between the lines of tile at the bottom of the pool. He crawls between the grains of sand on ocean beaches and lakeshores slithering his way through the pores of our skin and finding a home in our hearts and minds. If we could take a pill to make him go away I would sell it and be a billionaire. Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” and FDR’s First Inaugural Address certainly applies, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It only makes sense. If fear is what holds you back as a swimmer, don’t be afraid. Take this pill and you’ll be fine. If it could all be so easy.
How can we move when our bodies are paralyzed in fear? So before we discuss the path of movement lets understand fear. Fear creates tension and tension in the body restricts movement, burns energy, and shortens breath. This experience is compounded in water because it makes it harder to stay above the water. Being underwater is not a good place to breathe. Knowing this and the fear starts feeding itself.
Imagine the start of your first Ironman with 2000 athletes clad in skintight body suits. Their bodies chiseled from years and miles of training. All eluding the confidence of world champion prize fighters ready to bite your ears off. On the loudspeaker beat-box music blasts as the announcer introduces the wave of professional athletes. These athletes who you only read about and thought were legends, mythologies from the land of high altitude training camps are all looking at you. Right now they are racing on the same course as you and they are real. A year of training, unmentionable amounts of money, time, food and tears spent getting ready for this moment and it is now! Boom! The gun goes off and all 2000 athletes just jumped on top of you. Nothing but whitewater, kicking feet and gallons of water sucked in your lungs concerns you. “Oh my God, I’m going to die!” You scream and the sound is lost in the vacuum of chaos. You lift your head for air and a 350 lb line backer swims over the top of you. You stop to stand up and the bottom is gone. You double arm pull and kick to get above water slamming into a chiseled 755 lb triathlete who pushes your head deeper towards the bottom. On your way down he stops to kick you in the eye. The race director announces “swimmer down” and the whole field stops racing to push you down further. How far down will you go? Does it sound crazy? Have you ever been afraid?
Fear can come and assume complete control of the thought world. Why is it so powerful? The beauty of swimming is that it brings us right to the door of fear. Swimming has that special thing where it can literally take your breath away. Go ahead and try it. Put your head underwater and don’t come up. You’ll find it hard to breathe. Ok, don’t try it, but you know what I’m talking about. No matter how good of a swimmer you are at some point in time you have had to face the dragon of fear. Maybe it was so long ago you don’t remember, but it is what inspired you to get your breathing right. Water has this way of bringing it out in people. Maybe it was a near drowning accident that happened at a young age, or just an intimate wisdom of the danger involved. Many people struggle with fear in water. It’s not unusual and it is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
As a coach, one of the most common fears I have had to address over the years is the open water swimming fear. A person can swim in the pool until the pool guy comes to clean the tile, but put the same person in the open water and dragons start pounding the heart and shortening the breaths. For a long time, it was so long ago that I had my deep rooted swimming fear experience. I had forgotten the power of its control. So many of us had that time when we fell in the pool or stepped into the deep end and couldn’t get to the surface to breathe. The years go by and we learned to swim. We brushed the memories away. Then put us into a situation where we feel a little less confident, a bit unsure and suddenly the heart rate goes up, the breath gets shallow and the next thing we’re doing is screaming for land.
I didn’t really start to understand teaching fear until I almost drowned about 10 years ago. I was doing the swim down the Salmon River and got sucked into a “hole” under the support raft. A “hole” is a system of water flowing downstream over something like a big rock. The water flows over the rock and drops down the other side. What happens is water flows into a continuous circular motion behind the big object. Boats caught in a “hole” can be sucked down and circled around until the river decides it’s time to let go. That could take a moment or a few days. So the raft was being held in place by the “hole” while I was under and in the “hole” going round and round. Any time I have been in a near death moment time seems to slow down. It gets really strange for me, kind of like the feeling of a millisecond taking an hour to pass. Every thought was processed at hyperspeed while a sense of calmness overcame me. I guess you could say I had a spiritual experience. No, this is not the point where I sell you on a new religion. This is just a way for me to put words on paper to explain what happened. Here’s the weird thing - fear didn’t overcome me. I found myself at a point I had to make a decision. I was in the hands of the river, which was obviously much more powerful than I was. I knew death was knocking on the door. It was then I figured the best thing I could do, the polite thing I should do, was introduce myself. I was certainly getting to know the river, but didn’t feel as though the river was learning much about me. I’m not saying I decided to overpower her. I knew that wasn’t possible, but by damn if she was going to show me how powerful she was I certainly wasn’t going to let it end without her knowing a little more about me. I moved with every ounce of swimming power I had developed. I called on the resources of 20 years of competitive swimming, every coach who worked with me, every triathlon, and all the tears and laughters from success and failures. I honored the moment with confidence and power that comes from the core of who I am. It wasn’t one of those macho fights of me against the river and I won. It was me providing the situation with everything I have available. It was moving not from my muscles and bones, but from the core of who I am with everything I have. That was it.
What is the pill that comes from this story? You can lay there and die or you can take control of the moment, honor it with who you are, and move your ass. You can decide not to swim in the deep end or you can learn and find confidence to give it a try. You have lived in this life and suffered a time or two, so draw on the power from where you come and face the fear. Take the steps to learn how to find peace in the moments that scare the heck out of you. If you’re afraid of the deep end find peace in the shallow end. Go underwater and open your eyes. Look about and see if the dragons are swimming around. Come up and breathe in a big breath and go under again. Find that place in water, in your mind where life is weightless and float there. Water is an amazing place to find quiet peaceful comfort. Float on your back, your stomach and spin around. Jump up and down. Play in the water, underwater and learn to hold your breath. Learn to tread water by sculling with your arms. Learn to do it with relaxed effortless movements.
Sculling is the surface of your palms and forearms pressing against the water to lift and hold your body weight up. It is a pattern of movement that presses against the water at an angle. The hands press out and in. It really is a peaceful movement once you get a feel for it. You can learn to do it and as you get better you learn to do it with less and less effort. What you want to achieve is the ability to move with as little movement as possible and keep the body at the surface. You will learn what little it takes to hold the body up. You will earn confidence knowing with little effort you can stay above water. It will relax you and the dragons will leave allowing your heart to beat slower and your breaths to go deeper.
The only way to deal with the fear is to face it. I don’t recommend jumping into the river and finding a big rock to swim under. Creating a situation where you can die will either kill you or scare the swimmer out of you. My river story was a success because I have found a place in the water where I felt peaceful. It took me a lifetime. That is what you need to find for yourself. Take the time to get to know water in friendly environments and slowly as you grow confidence you can swim towards the wild. Remember under the water you hold your breath and above you can breathe… or is that right, yeah, yeah that’s it.
© 2007 Paul Lundgren of F2R - Manufacturer of Triathlon Wetsuits
Al rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the copyright owners.