Becoming a Swimmer
by David H.
I chose to compete in Leon’s Triathlon, June 6, 2021, because of when it was scheduled. At two weeks before Ironman 70.3 Des Moines, the Hammond, Indiana, the event seemed like a reasonable opportunity to get in a practice Olympic-distance race. But Leon’s is significant to me for another reason. In 2018, it was the first outdoor triathlon I signed up for–a sprint with only a 500m swim. Now, if the start of a race brings you some anxiety–particularly about the swim–Leon’s might not be the best choice for you. It’s called America’s Race. It’s dramatic on purpose. There’s 20-30 minutes of military honor and recognition ceremony that happen as you finish tugging on your wetsuit. You can’t even hardly see the lake as you watch this pageantry on an outdoor stage. Then, when it’s time for your race wave, then you’re led around the building and down a dock and immediately urged to hop in (no ceremony there). Compared to a beach start, particularly on a lake you were just in a few minutes earlier for a warm up, Leon’s almost seems designed to provoke open water anxiety, especially since no one gets time in the water before the race. But, hey, that didn’t matter to me. I did not have open water anxiety…until I jumped in a lake for the first time, which was that very moment.
Yikes! Where’s the bottom? Where’s two feet in front of me? Where’s the wall? Now, in my defense, I didn’t panic right away. It might have been a full two minutes after the starting horn that I was looking for the helpful man in the boat to extract me from Wolf Lake. Grateful for my unexpected free boat ride, I was nonetheless embarrassed and defeated. I was done.
Well, not done done. My panicked reaction to the swim start just didn’t feel like the reason I should give up on triathlons. I’d been working toward it for a year. I’d already formulated a path to an Ironman! There just had to be something I didn’t “get” about lake swimming. So, I found opportunities to do lake swims on my own terms, starting with Ohio Street Beach, where you can be in the “open water” and a few feet from a wall. (I’m not recommending you doing that for reasons I won’t get into). I also did a few more races, but might as well flip a coin: “Will he bail or will he finish?” (In one race, I did both, but they don’t like that). By the end of the summer, my record was pretty miserable: two events I kept my cool, three events I couldn’t finish, and, oh my gosh, the Chicago Triathlon, where I yelled for a boat a few times and then I must have hung onto the wall of Montrose Harbor a dozen times, daring to swim only about a dozen yards at a time. I’m still amazed that spectators urged me on instead of expressing amusement.
Well, I persisted. I learned that hanging onto a kayak and chatting with a lifeguard was not as calming as just floating on my back (thank you, wetsuit) and breathing. It was nonetheless embarrassing and demoralizing as you watch the sky spin and think, “Oh, I guess some people are out here to race.” Anyway, my luck improved. I went on to more panic-free races and, per my master plan, last year I completed a half-Iron distance race. Despite being shut out of the gym for 3 ½ months, I was determined to plow through 1.2 miles. It was the Route 66 Triathlon and the water temperature of Lake Springfield was in the 80s, so no one was wearing a wetsuit. Didn’t matter. I had my happy thoughts. Just one arm in front of the other over and over. And, yay, I got around the course without stopping. I conquered the half-iron swim. We’ll just not mention my later realization that I’d taken more time than they should have allowed.
So, needless to say, the pressure for 2021 was still high. There was still that question of whether the swim in any given race would “work for me”. And at 2.4 miles, Ironman Wisconsin swim is the real deal. I’ve watched the race there twice and I’ve even volunteered at the swim start. I knew I needed to become Aquaman or die trying—not just love the lake like a brother, but be fast enough to not feel like I’m there to lead the lifeguards in at the end of their duty (my impression of my final race of 2020).
Enter Experience Triathlon Coaching Services. I imagined some sort of incremental improvements, but with a private lesson in the lockdown days and regular weekly ET masters sessions, Coach Joe LoPresto has re-worked my stroke and breathing. That takes some habit-breaking discomfort and a lot of repetition, but it was such a relief to feel things starting to click. I think I previously imagined swimming to be akin to pedaling a unicycle on a tightrope. You have to be in constant motion while perfectly balanced or you’ll sink to the bottom. Now, having learned the concept of gliding and keeping the forward arm forward for a beat, I imagine myself a speed skater, letting each skate have its full slide before pulling it back to push again.
What a victory! I have definitely improved my pace in a 20 yard pool! (Let’s not get into numbers. You wouldn’t be impressed), so the training definitely hasn’t been for nothing. But swimming faster was only part of what I needed. Speed wouldn’t mean much if I still had to periodically stop, float on my back, gather my wits, and get my breathing under control. To cut to the chase, I can’t express the relief I felt at Leon’s this year, jumping off the dock, swimming out to the start line, and realizing I “belonged” there. I could control my movement. I could decide where to go and how fast. Gone was the sense that this was a stunt and as soon as I stopped “trying” to make the illusion work, I’d be exposed as a landlubber, out of my element and in need of extraction.
No, I wasn’t fast in terms of the field of competitors at Leon’s—I was about at the 75% rank, to be honest, but I finally felt like a competitor. I was racing in a lake. I kept up with other swimmers, sometimes passing, sometimes colliding–okay, so I have something to work on, but what a problem to have! So much better than trying to stay aware of where the nearest lifeguard’s kayak is. You know, maybe an Ironman isn’t such a crazy idea after all.