OWS in OWS: Overcoming Weenie Syndrome in Open Water Swimming

Aquatic Park Source: Flatstar Design

Aquatic Park, my open-water nemesis (Source: Flatstar Design)

“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne

A few months back, when I signed up for my spring Olympic-distance triathlon, I figured I’d let “Future Jennifer” deal with figuring out all the swimming and biking details (i.e. the parts that confuse, intimidate and occasionally terrify me as a runner). Of course, this included the fact that I not only lacked the endurance and technique to complete the swim distance, but also the ability to do so in open water without having a full-on panic attack…so I knew I’d have my work cut out for me.

Fast forward a few months, and “Present Jennifer” now has the endurance portion covered and the technique in-progress, thanks to some time at the local pool and the patience of Hubby and our swimmer friends. But the open water part has been something I’ve been avoiding. Like the plague.

I eased into the process with the purchase of my first wetsuit, which I wore around the apartment one evening before promptly packing it back up and stashing it in the corner of my closet. Then I read a book on women in triathlon, researched training plans and even extended my swim sessions, but every time Hubby brought up the idea of a dip in the Bay, I’d conveniently come up with any an excuse.

That is, until our local pool closed for repairs, the weather spiked to 70 degrees, and I seemingly ran out of reasons not to go. So before I knew it, we were packed up and headed out for a swim this past Saturday in Aquatic Park.


Pre-swim: Trying to channel “heart & courage,” but not so sure about this…

Now, I’ve done a few short swims (i.e. two sprint tris) in the quarry near where we used to live in the East Bay, but there were a few things that were especially concerning to me during this new foray into the unknown, including:

  1. Water temp, which was an ice-cream-headache-inducing 52 degrees
  2. Wet suit, as in I’ve never used one before
  3. Wildlife, meaning I love sea lions, but only from behind the glass at a zoo
  4. Visibility, or complete lack thereof
  5. Water quality…I’ve heard rumors of rashes, conjunctivitis, earaches and more

Nevertheless, I knew I had to saddle up sooner or later. So amid stares and comments from tourists (“I can’t believe there are people swimming in that water; it’s freezing!”), we readied ourselves on the beach, and Hubby gave me one last piece of advice before we set foot into the water: “You know it’s going to be cold, so whatever you do, don’t stop. Just walk in as fast as you can, and dive under.”

As he started toward the water, I found myself fighting the “flight” urge to turn and run off up the beach. But A) I can’t make a very quick getaway in a wet suit, B) I already went through the struggle of tugging it on, and C) I’d never forgive myself for letting fear get the best of me (not to mention, Hubby would never let me live it down). So into the water we went.

Aquatic Park: Can't complain about the scenery! Source: Marathonswimmers.org

Can’t really complain about this scenery, though (Source: Marathonswimmers.org)

My feet, hands and face were cold during the initial plunge, but it wasn’t unbearable. The temperature actually became less of a factor than some of the other items on my list — namely the lack of visibility and (the possibility — aka imminent threat — of) wildlife. After tracking the black line on the bottom of the pool for the past few months, losing all sense of sight in the murky green water really threw me.

But aside from a flock of birds floating on the surface of the water, there were no other signs of wildlife, thank goodness. Although that certainly didn’t stop my imagination from getting the best of me; I half expected to see a sea lion face emerge from the cloudy depths. As a result, my breathing was erratic, shallow and out of control, and I flailed around clumsily after mistaking a large stick for a snake, which Hubby found particularly amusing.

But I did eventually complete the down-and-back loop (1/3 mile) that I set out to do, despite an overwhelming and near-paralyzing level of anxiety. All technique was abandoned as I entered pure survival mode, alternating 10 swim-for-your-life crawl strokes with five breaststrokes in an effort to try to catch my breath (which I never succeeded in doing).

Post-swim: I survived!

Post-swim: Smiling; I survived!

The only small victory of the day was discovering that wet suit swimming, as it turns out, is awesome! I loved the added buoyancy, warmth and compression.

And now that I know I can handle a few of those factors (temperature, wet suit; the jury’s still out on water quality…), I’m hoping my anxiety levels will be a little lower the next time around. The trick will just be figuring out how to calm myself down enough to actually focus on proper breathing and form, which I’m guessing will come with time, repetition and familiarity.

And if all else fails, I may just have to perfect my dog-crawl technique…

Have you battled open-water anxiety? How did you cope?

16 thoughts on “OWS in OWS: Overcoming Weenie Syndrome in Open Water Swimming

  1. You did awesome!! Look at you, all suited up and swimming in the big puddle!! Personally, I find that concentrating on one thing at a time while I swim helps me focus and stay in the moment… I look at my hands, concentrate on making bubbles, try to decompose my stroke and imagine that I swim inside a bubble, like inside a force field. Too geeky? I imagine that everything is calm inside my bubble and nothing can get to me. I try to make swimming as much of a meditative experience as I can. Disclaimer, I never meditate somewhere else, haha. It gets easier with every swim. I would also suggest not to kick at first. It reduces the amount of exertion and makes it a more “manageable” experience.


    • Thank you, Irina! Those are great tips – and something I didn’t even think about doing: Getting comfortable first. Hubby likes to take the plunge, but I’m definitely more of an “ease-in” kinda gal, so next time I think I’ll try blowing bubbles (do you just put your face in the water?), and I LOVE the idea of imagining you’re swimming in one. I was sure something was going to swim up from the depths and grab me, so getting in the right headspace first will probably help with that. And I’ll try the no-kicking, too…thank you! Having all this to concentrate on will probably help distract me next time, as well 🙂


  2. Wow, am so proud of you! I really like Irina’s idea of being in your own bubble and in your own world–I think that may help with the anxiety and help to concentrate on the positive. You go girl!


  3. Love Irina’s ideas! For me, I just focus on the sound of my breathing and maintaining a rhythm. Helps me keep the panic at bay. Also, I like bringing a thermos of hot water or tea to AP and leaving it with my towel. I feel a teeny bit better knowing that even if I get miserably cold, I can warm up quickly once I’m out of the water.


  4. love the blog, Jenny! and you look so tough in that wetsuit! Open water can be pretty terrifying even for people who’ve done it a lot so know that everyone else with you is a little on edge, too. We swim all summer in Lake Michigan (which has some of the same issues you have – cold, dubious water quality. But no sea lions). My advice to new swimmers is always: 1) practice sighting a lot – it builds the strength you’ll need to do it in the race and gives you a chance to have your head out a little bit/can calm you down and 2) learn a recovery stroke floating on your back – you won’t be able to cover much distance and you definitely can’t go straight but you might tame the panic and recover enough to try freestyle with sighting again. Go you!!


    • Beth, this is great – thank you so much! At least I look the part, even if I was feeling quite the opposite – haha! Have to admit, I was a little jealous when I saw all the other swimmers calmly gliding through the water (seemingly w/o a care in the world)…but to know that everyone else is dealing/has dealt with this, too, helps a lot. I like your advice of focusing on sighting, along with getting comfortable with a recovery stroke – both things that will help me concentrate on the task at hand rather than letting the fear take over. And I appreciate the kind words & encouragement!


  5. Congratulations on not letting fear get the better of you!! I always “play” Dory’s song in my head (from “Finding Nemo”)…”Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.” I alternate that song with my swimming mantra “long, smooth, long, breathe” with each stroke I say each of the words with a reminder to breathe at the end. This combination helps keep me focused and relaxed in the water 🙂


    • Thank you! I will have to make that my rallying song, as well. I like your suggestion of alternating that with a mantra…might just do the trick to help me focus on something other than the sheer terror!


  6. I always meant to do an open water swim there but I never got around to renting a wet suit and all that jazz! You rock, lady! Maybe next time I am in town I will jump in!


  7. I giggled a little at the stick/snake part… mostly because I can imagine hubby laughing at it. Also, when you were walking around the apartment in the wet suit, were you just chilling? or were you being productive? I imagine jen in a wet suit, sweeping the floor… or jen in a wet suit laying out her clothes for the next morning. 🙂


    • Being totally unproductive, of course! I was so excited to try it out (mostly to make sure it fit), and then proceeded to do all kinds of crazy moves (squats, leg swings, swim strokes) to check out the range of motion. That is, until I started sweating – those things are WARM! I’m sure I looked all kinds of ridiculous; still feels so odd to have all that gear on when we’re used to the opposite for running…


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