Open Water Swimming, A Journey Well-Traveled

Open Water Swimming, A Journey Well-Traveled

There is something primordially satisfying and profoundly enriching by swimming from Point A to Point B: there is the start, the struggle in the middle and the celebratory finish.

But the journey begins well in advance of the start and continues well past the finish. A swim involves not only the physical preparation, but is also incorporates the psychological worries, wonders and hopes that we carry within ourselves day and night.

This is not to imply that preparation for a 100 butterfly, a 200 breaststroke or 400 freestyle in a pool is easier, but the uncertainty of the effort in the open water puts this discipline in a completely different realm. There is never a doubt that a pool swim will be finished. The stress in pool competition is focused on your time and performance. Will I do my best time? Will I hit my turns? Will I even split my race?

In the controlled environment of a pool with a fixed distance and fixed water temperature swimming alone in a lane protected by turbulence-reduction lines, the stress is entirely self-oriented. The uncertainty of a swim is imposed upon yourself by yourself. Did I train well? Did I hit my taper right? What swimsuit will I wear?

In the open water, uncertainty is a combination of your own preparation and the whims of Mother Nature, including biological (i.e., jellyfish and water acclimatization) and climatic (i.e., wind, waves, and tides) elements. While most pool swimmers can guess their time in a 100 butterfly or 200 breaststroke to the second, few open water swimmers can accurately predict their time to the hour.

So this uncertainty in the open water intensifies the struggle and elevates the finish. Without a doubt, a great effort in the pool is marvelously rewarding. We remember our fast start, our powerful turns, bursting lungs and burning lactic acid in the second-half surge, and our fast finish into the wall. We look up at the clock and raise our fist or point up at our teammates while our best time is celebrated. Most of us can describe these life-time bests in extraordinary detail. We remember our split times and the way we felt in the races of our lives.

In contrast, much of a great open water swim is remembered but in a much more vague manner. These memories seem to be engulfed in a mental fog where broad generalities are more identifiable that any single arm stroke or wave. Caught in an aquatic world away from terra firma, there is just TOO much water and not enough human. We remember the cold, the turbulence, and the currents as broad-based barriers to overcome that represent a continuum. Those vague generalities become branded in our minds with many of the minute details lost…or perhaps conveniently buried in the recesses of our minds.

Specific fleeting moments in an open water swim become deeply etched in our memories: the sting of a jellyfish, the first sighting of land, the encouraging words of a coach and the taste of hot chocolate are what we remember in 3D vibrancy for the remainder of our lives.

But few things are as memorable as those final strokes to shore and your first steps up on shore. Your legs are weak and your footsteps are unsure as you struggle up a rocky shore. Pebbles bite into the soft flesh of your soles but it feels so very pleasing.

Unlike the pool where you finish strongly, laid out like a streamlined laser coming in fast, the open water finish is slow and unsteady. It allows your mind to absorb everything, to envelope yourself in the joy and satisfaction of a journey well-traveled.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source
Steven Munatones