Coming Back From The Agony Of Defeat In The Open Water

Coming Back From The Agony Of Defeat In The Open Water

Laura Lopez-Bonilla, a two-time English Channel swimmer from Spain provides a perspective on marathon swimming after having seen the agony of defeat in three English Channel swimmers.

I have suffered the pain of being short of my English Channel goals a few times. Preparation is key, but sometimes the outcome may not match expectations.

Some swimmers have, what I call, a mental injury. What is that? You have to experience it yourself to know. Sometimes you are out there swimming and your spirit falters, for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter, your mind just feels out of sync on that particular day, and everything becomes dark. You go to a place you have never been to before. You fight on, and on, and on, but the tools you have prepared to deal with this possible scenario are malfunctioning on the day.

You climb up the ladder, defeated and broken hearted. Immediately, as you sit down in the boat heading back to shore, shivering with blankets and clothes on, you start analyzing, trying to find answers. As long as you can find the reason, you know that you can recoup, recover and re-try.

Mental blocks or mental injuries are different for everybody.

Many swimmers, like me, have succeeded on their first attempt. Others have tried several times before succeeding the first time; others have made it the first time and never returned; others try once and never go back to it.

The mental side is supposed to make up for 80% of the equation. But there are other possible permutations that may interfere with your desired outcome. The boat malfunctions, the tide turns, the forecast is not accurate or the weather worsens. These are things outside your control that don’t come into the 80% mental – 20% physical success equation. In any case, the agony of defeat is equally excruciating.

In regards to the 20% physical, things do not always go to plan. On the day of your swim, you feel fine, you are determined, your stroke is good, you are feeding like your normally feed. There are no changes or surprises. But things don’t work to plan and you run out of energy. You swim yourself to empty, or you experience an injury or cramp or in the beginning stages of hypothermia. Yet, you keep swimming as you look at your crew and supporters and perceive their worried faces. You pretend for a bit to see if you can get through the dip. On the next feed, it takes all of your effort to get closer to the boat, to hold your feed, to drink it. They have made the drink stronger and you notice that. Half an hour later, the boat stops and you are pulled out. You’ve given it your best effort and you couldn’t have done any more. Were you unprepared? No. Did you do all you could to fight on? Yes. You wonder if the outcome would have been different if you had done something else. Possibly, but you’ll never know.

Then the pain starts. Deeply, fully until it overcomes you like a some sort of a bereavement. Perhaps because if feels like you have lost part of your identity, because you do not feel like a swimmer anymore. Because most of the friends do not know how to deal with your defeat, with a fallen hero. So you feel isolated, surrounded by the solitude of the waves, the cold and the salty taste in your mouth of a non-victory.

Somehow, you find your inner strength. A piece of driftwood that helps you to float ashore, where you start counting the days to swim the Channel again.


Photos by Louise Kent of Marcy MacDonald (left) and Laura Lopez-Bonilla (right).

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