Overcoming my fear of lakes, Part 1

Overcoming my fear of lakes, Part 1

jamie and suzy at galenaby Jamie G.

It was 4:30 am on Saturday, May 19, 2012, and I was being rudely awakened by a panic attack. Not a good way to start a race, but it was expected. However, it was not because this was my first triathlon or even one I thought would be difficult.   This is my fifth triathlon. I had done both Naperville triathlons twice. The one thing that was different that was causing the panic attack was that this was the first time I’d be swimming in a lake. The Naperville triathlons are in a quarry. The months leading up to the triathlon, I was very nervous about swimming in a lake. I had done a practice swim in Lake Bloomington the Wednesday before the race and it did not go well. Something just kept freaking me out and I started to panic, so I rolled over and swam backstroke until I felt better. Eventually, I finished the swim by doing the breaststroke.

The day before the race, I talked to a few athletes about being afraid of the water and they all gave me great advice. Kevin’s was by far the best. He told me to take my time and not to worry about being last out of the water, ‘cause that meant more people to pass on the bike. I so love passing people on the bike, so that was great advice. The day of the race, Kevin and others told me I’d do fine and all would go well. At transition, I was getting ready and saw Coach Suzy and Stephanie sitting by the lake, so I headed over to join them. When I got close to them, I froze and just could not stop staring at the lake. Tears began to fall from my eyes and when asked if I was ok, I shook my head no. Coach Suzy said to sit down and we chatted about the swim. She gave me advice on how to relax and get through it as best as possible. So when my wave was signaled to go, I walked into the lake and when ready started to swim, but of course started to panic. I just flipped over to my back and did some backstroke until I felt calmer. I kept trying to swim freestyle, but it just wasn’t going to happen. I did eventually get into a good grove with the breaststroke and finished the swim. When I was done, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh, cry or kiss the ground. I got on the bike and did as Kevin suggested: passed lots of people.

After the race, I talked to my coach about how things went and we started working on a plan because I was going to do the Evergreen Olympic distance triathlon in July and needed to address this monkey – which actually felt like an ape – on my back. After talking to Coach Suzy, I remembered a conversation I had with Coach Joe the night before the race. We talked about being afraid of things and how sometimes you just had to practice and other times you would need to seek help. I know how to overcome a fear; I’ve done it. Many years ago, I applied for a position as an instructor in my company’s Engineering Systems Development Program to teach the first 5 weeks of the program. At the time I was quiet and shy and afraid of public speaking. I wanted the job because I felt that I would be a great instructor. During my interview I lied when asked if I was comfortable speaking in front of others. When I held my first dry run with my peers I was so nervous, I could not control the cracking of my voice. My peers also did a great job talking me down from many ledges. My delivery was awful and I had a lot of work to do to improve before going in front of a class. I was confident that I could do a great job and worked on delivery and being comfortable speaking in front of others. I went on to become a great instructor and the first one to get certified to teach the entire 10 week program. Since that job I have had many opportunities to speak publicly including speaking to audiences across the globe which required having a translator present to interpret.   I actually enjoy public speaking and teaching and am very glad I was able to overcome my fear of public speaking.

This fear was different; it was more than just being nervous. I knew in my core there was something more to this. This time I’d need both practice and seeking help. I had to find out why I was so afraid of lakes. The Naperville swim is in deep water and you cannot see the bottom. It was also a 750 meter swim, which was longer then Galena’s 660 meter swim. So time to share what I learned as to why the issue was that I was going to swim in a lake.

When I was 10 years old, my brother and I went to visit our Dad. He’d remarried and produced two step siblings near our age and a new baby brother. We went to a lake and us four older kids decided to play chicken in the water. It was the boys against the girls. At one point, I stepped back and there was no longer any ground beneath my feet, but I regained my balance and we moved to the shallower water. We started playing again and we girls were getting our butts kicked. I once again stepped back and this time could not regain my balance and Lynette and I went down. Lynette was sitting on my shoulders and I could not get her off me to swim to the top of the water. All I can remember are seeing her hands and feet near my face under the water. My Dad finally ran into the lake and pulled Lynette to safety. My brother helped me. This was the last time I ever saw my Dad or his new family. The lake was a reminder of this horrific day.

I had to find a way to address this issue as I was weeks away from another triathlon in a lake. This was going to be my first Olympic distance triathlon. After Galena, I told Coach Suzy of my near drowning experience, but I did not tell her the full story as I did not remember the full story. I had to seek help to remember that horrific day at the lake and remember what happened. The most haunting part is that it truly was the last time I saw my Dad. It was a great loss and a very painful one. I wanted to try and resolve this issue myself. I wasn’t going to let the lake be this reminder of what I did not want to think about or deal with. I attempted to go to practice swims in Lake Evergreen, but found many excuses to not go (it was raining, I had to work late, etc.). I forged ahead. Race morning, I was not rudely awaken by a panic attack, just my alarm clock. I went to the race and this time the water was too warm for a wetsuit, so I was going in without one. I walked over to the lake, but this time I did not cry. I just told myself that I was going to conquer the swim. I was once again in the last wave and took my time getting into the water. Being the last wave and last one on the swim course, I had the luxury of having a kayak follow me all the way in. When I finished an hour later, my daughter and coach were there cheering me on. It was great to see them. Shortly after that race, I hung up my swim gear, then my running shoes, then my bike gear.

In the fall of 2014, I went to an ET social and it felt great to be reconnected with everyone. The next day, I contacted Coach Suzy and said that I wanted her help and I wanted to compete in my first half Ironman at Racine. So we got started on a plan. I told her I had not been swimming since the summer of 2012 and felt there would be a lot of work to do in that area. I went to several swim clinics and started to feel really good during my pool swims.

My first race for 2015 was going to be Galena. Oh boy, I get to swim in a lake again and I’m not sure if I have truly faced this fear or not. The only way I will know is to go to the race and see what happens. Every time I thought about the race, my anxiety went way up. So I tried to not think about it. The week before the race was full of distractions. Sunday was Mother’s Day and I got to enjoy the day with my kids. On Tuesday, I was interviewed for a promotion, and on Wednesday was notified that I got the promotion. This meant that I needed to attend an all-day meeting on Friday, so would get me into Galena much later than planned. This was good, less time to think about swimming in a lake. When I picked up my race packet, I was given the number 448 and I’m 48, so I thought that was going to bring me great luck. On race morning, I did not wake up with a panic attack, so felt things were going to go well. As soon as we got to transition one, it started to pour and it rained many more times before the race started. So getting into the water would be a little different as I was all wet and already cold. Before going in I was very nervous, but remembered to just take my time, go in nice and slow and if I started to panic, roll over onto my back. Well that’s exactly what I did. Every time I put my face into the water I began to panic, so I just flipped over and swam mostly doing backstroke. When I got out 21 minutes later, I cried. I was concerned that Racine would not go well and I knew there is a 1 hour 10 minute cut off. Now I was worried.

When I saw Coach Suzy after the race, she asked me how it went and I said, “Good.” She asked how the swim went, and that’s when I had to admit that things did not go well. I had panicked and was very concerned that I would not do well in Racine. Coach Suzy told me not to worry and that we had plenty of time to make a plan to address the swim so I would be successful. As I write this story, I realize I’ve been in denial and have blamed myself for a very long time over that horrific day at the lake. It’s time to move on and allow myself to be successful. Coach Suzy and I as well as the many other amazing ET athletes will get me though this and as some point I will have a successful swim in a lake. I have full confidence in my coach and know we will be fine. My son has also agreed to go to Ohio Street Beach with me every week so I can practice swimming in Lake Michigan. The plan is in place and this story is to be continued…

On Sunday July 19 Jamie will be competing in her first Ironman 70.3 at Racine. She is ready and she will most certainly get it done!

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  • Drew Repoza

    Great story, Jamie. I can’t wait to see you kick Racine’s ass!

  • Nancy Antol

    Thanks for writing this, Jamie. It really sheds so much light on how our emotions and past experiences affect us in the most unexpected ways.

  • Sharon Kirkland

    Jamie, thanks so much for sharing your story…I too am having issues with open water swims and am trying to conquer my fears. I am so proud of you for sticking with your plan to compete in your first Ironman. Best of luck to you!!! I know you will do great, and I can’t wait to see your next chapter.

  • So proud of all that you’ve accomplished, Jamie, and so looking forward to racing with you at Racine on Sunday!!!