I Carry a Little Suzy On My Shoulder
Shoulder to shoulder, chest deep in the water of Centennial Beach, we stood on the concrete wall and focused on the smiling blonde woman treading water in front of us. It was my first Experience Triathlon (ET) open water swim clinic with my new swim buddy. We were both wearing our brand-new wetsuits and looked like deer, or maybe seals, in headlights. I tried to ignore the thud of my heart as I realized that if I stepped off the concrete, I would have 15 feet of water below me and about a million (okay, maybe ten) swimmers all around me. My new swim buddy and I had both signed up for the ET Naperville Sprint race. We met only a half hour earlier, but nothing creates a bond like shared terror, and we were determined that this crazy open water swim thing was not going to stop us.
Over my thumping heart, I heard the blonde woman say something about the race swim start, not to go out too fast at the beginning, or we wouldn’t enjoy our swim. I glanced at my swim buddy. Enjoy the swim? Was this person kidding? She had to be, but she sounded serious enough. Newbie adult learners enjoying an open water swim? No way. Was she taunting us? No. She seemed to care sincerely about our success. We learned her name was Suzy and promised each other as newly minted best swim buds that we would be back next week to see what wisdom Coach Suzy of ET Personal Coaching Services could impart to get us through our race.
We came back every Monday evening as the race date approached. I still felt the rising fear every time we swam across the deep water of the quarry, but I also felt that the fear could be subsiding a little with every exercise that Suzy gave us. We may not have felt completely, or even remotely, ready but ET Naperville Sprint Triathlon 2018 was upon us. My swim bud and I met on race morning, hugged, trudged to the beach and lined up for the start. During my first moment of panic during the swim, I thought of what I fondly call a “Suzy-ism.” Suzy had said that if we needed a break, to roll over onto our backs and gaze up at the clouds, breathe slowly, backstroke, and regroup. Pure magic. Before I knew it, my fingers were touching the sand and I was out of the water. A spectator called “Way to finish strong!” I was one of the last swimmers out, but I was grinning from ear to ear. My demons had been faced.
I did another sprint race that summer, completed it, and signed up for the ET Masters swimming program in the fall at Suzy’s suggestion. I learned that improving my stroke reduced the amount of energy that I had to use to get through the water. The panicky “I’m not going to make it” feeling and the fight-or-flight response has been replaced by “Yes, I can” and a feeling of (believe it) enjoyment in the water. I’m so grateful to Coaches Suzy, Joe, Jim, and Kurt for turning this wind-milling maniac into a calm and happy swimmer.
From my marathoning days, I am very familiar with the angel that sits on one shoulder throughout the race and the devil that sits on the other. Each tries to make their whispered suggestions the most persuasive during the rough patches of the race. During the swim in a triathlon before I spent the winter swimming with ET Masters regularly, it was nearly impossible for me to silence the devil. It took a while, but the angel on my shoulder is now Suzy. Her vast supply of “Suzy-isms” not only quiets that devil but drop kicks the little monster right out of the water.
The happy ending (so far): In July of 2019 I completed my first Half Ironman, 70.3 Ohio, at age 65. As I ran out of the water and into transition, I called to my son, “That was the coolest swim ever!” and truly meant it. No panic. Only joy. I slept that night with my finisher’s medal under my pillow and dreamed of that swim. I carry a little Suzy on my shoulder during my swims now.