Beginning Ocean Swimming Is Not As Scary As Previously Imagined

After a lot of reticence and procrastinating, I finally attended my first ever open water swimming clinic. I have pretty much been terrified of the water since I started training for the LA Triathlon and since it’s coming down to crunch time, I started doing my research about a month ago.

I was unsuccessful at cajoling some of my friends to join me in an open water swim, since they were unavailable. I met someone at a running store who recommended an open swim training group but it turned out to be incredibly expensive (over $100 a session). Lastly, I went onto Meetup and luckily I came across the Beginning Ocean Swimmers clinic. Sessions were only $10 a pop and they had clinics nearby that introduced newbies like me to the ocean. I RSVPd and I was in.

When I’m super nervous about something, I do two things: I eat (a LOT) and, if it’s an appointment, I leave/arrive obscenely early for it. So, bright and early on this Sunday morning, I loaded up my brand spanking new wetsuit and gear out to Seal Beach to meet with the group. I was so nervous and scared when I first arrived at the beach since I was the only one there. I found a secret hidden nook in the parking lot (yeah, they exist) and tugged on my new wetsuit. I had put on my wetsuit for the first time that morning, and since it took me so long, I wanted to save myself the embarrassment of feeling slow again later in front of the group while getting dressed (and again while swimming)…so, I dodged that bullet by getting dressed early.

When I arrived, I was the only one wearing a wetsuit (totally noob move). Plus, I awkwardly didn’t talk to anybody and cracked open some trail mix and begin munching away (reference above nervous tendency). The instructor arrived, cool as a cucumber, and reminded me a lot of Jeff Bridge’s character in The Big Lebowski…except without the hair. Cool!

He briefed us on the conditions and coached a bit on what to look for when getting in and out of the water. Before I knew it we were lining up to swim out and in a few times. The first swim out there was scary. I waited for most of the pack to go before heading in to the water. In an effort to make it through the clinic I tried not to expend too much energy, thus taking the swim in a really calm, relaxing, and slow manner. It could have been compared to the swimming version of a Sunday stroll, which I guess at that time it was exactly that.

The first few times I tried to swim out I was greeted with breaking waves. Luckily, no saltwater was snorted yet. I eventually made it out to what felt like the middle of the ocean but about 50 yards from the Seal Beach Pier. We caught our breath and waded around a bit. I was surprised at how I was holding up, given that I hadn’t done much pool training. Whenever I get really tired in the pool I have a tendency to just stop swimming and stand up in the pool, or hang on to the side, but in the ocean none of that exists. All I could do was wade it out…and that I did.

The instructor then had us swim back to land and repeat the exercises a few times. Before I knew it things were looking rosy. I was actually keeping up with the pack and was swimming. I suppose what was scary to me before was the depth of the water. When swimming though, it’s easy to forget how deep the water actually gets, since you’re always swimming near the surface of the water. For all I knew the floor was right underneath me…but at the time, it didn’t matter. I was in the moment.

It then came time for us to swim parallel to the beach, from one lifeguard tower to the next. This was more of a long haul for me. After all the outs and ins, I was beginning to feel taxed. My stroke weakened and got rather sloppy (it had been progressively gotten sloppier over the course of the morning) and I was feeling out of breath. Something I learned from a friend who once completed an Olympic-distance triathlon was that since there were no limits to the swim strokes you could use, the backstroke was completely acceptable. I rolled over and paddled as much as I could without expending too much extra energy and when I caught my breath, I rolled over and continued swimming. I knew that if I spent too much time on my back that eventually a wave would crash over me and that I’d get saltwater inside my nose, mouth, eyes, etc., so I really had to keep it to a minimum.

The swim back to home base was the most difficult. By the time I was a few minutes in I was already pretty much tapped out. I slowed down considerably and strayed pretty far from the group. The idea was to swim back in to shore in the L formation in which we came in, but I ended up doing some sort of cut around that ended up being the same distance to begin with.

By the end we all met up at our original starting point. Everyone seemed very accomplished and the newbies (like me!) were getting all of the attention. It felt nice to finally overcome something that I had previously deemed incredibly scary! By the time I got to my car I was super elated that I couldn’t wait until the next swim clinic. I’m hoping to catch some ocean swimming sessions (either solo or with a partner) quite a few times before the BIG DAY.

When we were all done, I was incredibly thirsty. I drank and drank and drank but my thirst was insatiable. I couldn’t figure if it was because of my perceived exertion or if it was because of all the saltwater that I probably ingested! All in all I had a great time, I felt accomplished, and I can honestly say that I can’t wait to do it again.

In retrospect, it was such an amazing experience. Being around other triathletes and people who have trained in the water was incredibly inspirational. Being in the middle of the water with no land underneath my feet, surrounded by people who were sort of like me was great. It was like my own little place on earth that no one could touch. And, even though I was surrounded by other people in wet suits, it still felt like one-on-one time with nature. I was finally opening myself up to what the Earth has to offer…and it felt great.

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