10 mile swim

It isn't far to swim when you have friends waiting at the end.


Questions about Open Water Swimming: 2) What Scares You?

What scares you? I asked my (non-swimming) friends what they wanted to know about open water swimming, and one asked, “What scares you?” That’s a great question. I am scared of all sorts of things. But almost none of them can get me in the water.

There are people who head out into the wild, climbing mountains and flinging themselves off cliffs, as a way of confronting their fears, but that’s not me. I returned to swimming as an adult as a way of dealing with anxiety. When I am in the water, I am literally swimming away from my fears.

When my children were small, one of my fears was that I would fall down the stairs while holding a baby. It’s a completely rational fear. I know someone who fell down the stairs while carrying a baby. The baby broke a leg. It’s the earth that is out to get you, my friend: one wrong step, and gravity will suck you down and break you.

But one wrong stroke in the water? There’s no such thing. Water is a great big buffer between you and all that could hurt you: the crazy man with the gun, the phone call in the night, the slip on the stairs. And it is absolutely reliable. The water wants to hold you up. It will always hold you up.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote to Oliver Neave, “You will be no swimmer till you place some confidence in the power of water to support you.”

It is possible to swim in dangerous water. You can swim from Cuba to Florida through box jellyfish. But you can also cover yourself in honey and sit on fire ant hills. I’ve had scarier encounters with squirrels on land (really, squirrels are crazy) than with anything I’ve ever encountered in water.

Table 1Last time I swam in Lake Jocassee, a little bass nipped at my leg while I was standing in shallow water. I yelped and looked down. There were a half dozen fish around me. I was yelling at them when I realized that my kayaker couldn’t see the fish and that, as far as he was concerned, I was shouting, “Back off, you little buggers!” at my feet. That is my most dangerous animal story: a fish nipping at my leg while my kayaker questioned my sanity.

I am not a risk taker. I check conditions; I swim with friends. If I have any doubt about safety, I don’t swim. I have driven an hour to the lake, waited thirty minutes for a storm to pass, and driven an hour home without sticking a toe in. But if the conditions are good, I feel safer in water than I do on land. I’m not scared when I’m swimming.


The Two Most Important Things I Know about Swimming

Here are the two most important things I know about swimming:

1) The water wants to hold you up.

I see a lot of bad swimming. I don’t interfere. First of all, it’s none of my business. And second, people swim for different reasons–maybe they just want to get their heart rates up–and these people may be perfectly happy swimming badly. It probably burns some calories. It certainly looks tiring.

The reason many of these swimmers are having difficulty is that they don’t understand that the water wants to hold them up. In the words of the great American founding father and swimmer, Benjamin Franklin:

You will be no swimmer till you can place some confidence in the power of the water to support you.

(I would stitch this on a sampler and hang it on the wall if I did embroidery. I have thought about taking up embroidery for this very purpose.)

In order to swim, you have to be able to float. Ultraswimfast has a great post at The Waterblogged Triathlete called So, You Think You Can Float? She’s got simple stick figure drawings showing you the body position you need to float; you press your chest down to bring your legs up. Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, pressing into the water to float, but it makes a huge difference. As Ultraswimfast puts it, “Swimmers who can’t float without kicking or using buoys will feel like they are swimming uphill. Swimming uphill will cause a lot of drag, forcing the athlete to work harder to go slower.”

I see people working very hard, not going anywhere. They look as if they are fighting off invisible alligators. Sometimes I wonder if they are fighting off invisible alligators.

Photo of invisible alligators?  Image by You As A Machine on flickr

There might be invisible alligators in there. How would we know?
Image by You As A Machine

But if you want to move forward, you have to stop fighting. The water wants to hold you up. Let it.

2) You only swim on the top of the water.

When I was very small, I was afraid to swim in the deep end of the pool. Actually, that’s not exactly it–I was only afraid when I was swimming on my front. I wasn’t afraid on my back, doing backstroke. It was seeing the water under me that scared me.

But one day I realized the second very important thing about swimming: You only swim on the top of the water. It doesn’t matter if the water is 3 feet deep or 300 feet deep, you could be swimming over the Mariana Trench, it’s all the same–you only swim on the top.

Jenny Landreth wrote a post on The Guardian’s swimming blog last October titled, Open-water swimming: how do you handle the Fear? She asks:

Is there an open-water swimmer alive who hasn’t at some point found his/her mind thinking, “What the hell is underneath me at this precise moment?” and by the very act of thinking it, opened the floodgates to a self-generated vision of some great monster of the deep rising up underneath to take you SCHWOMP in one great bite, exactly like that Jaws poster?

I assume this question is supposed to be rhetorical, but I can answer it: Yes, there is. There’s me. I have never imagined horrors below me, not in a pool or a lake or the ocean. I have never worried about the kraken lurking beneath me, any more than I have worried about space debris hurtling from orbit to hit me as I walk down the street.

I've never stitched a sampler, but I knit this kraken. Little known fact: the kraken prefers cheap red wine.

I’ve never stitched a sampler, but I knit this kraken. Little known fact: the kraken prefers cheap red wine.

It’s not that I’m fearless. I haven’t been afraid of imaginary sharks, but I have been afraid of real people behaving irresponsibly in high-speed boats. The sad truth is that the most dangerous hazards in open water swimming are not lurking beneath the surface; they are right on top of it, and they’re human.

I never wanted my children to be afraid of deep water—I want them to be safe and careful, but not irrationally afraid—and so even when they were small, I would put them on my back and swim them into the deep end. I would be the mommy sea turtle, and my child would be the baby sea turtle holding on to my shell, and we would pretend to swim in the deep ocean.

It doesn’t matter how deep it is. You only swim on the top.

What’s the most important thing you know about swimming?