A Mountain Biker’s Swimming Anxieties and How to be Cool at the Pool

A month ago, on Christmas morning, I dug my hand into my stocking to see what my husband… err Santa… had decided to give me. To my surprise, he had remembered my verbal commitment to complete an Xterra triathlon in 2016. In a pile on my lap, I looked down at my loot with what I am sure was a puzzled expression: swim cap, goggles, orange inflatable buoy, lots of chocolate and an airplane bottle of vodka. I only knew what to do with the chocolate and vodka.

After we rang in the New Year with some beer and mountain biking, my husband reminded me that my swimming supplies were still in a box by the Christmas tree. You see, my husband was on the swim team in high school and enjoys boasting about the height of his swimming career, when he competed with guys that would end up swimming in the Olympics. I usually yawn, roll my eyes and continue doing whatever I was doing when he brings up this worn-out subject. But now that I had somehow bound myself to completing a tri and I had no idea what I was doing, it suddenly struck me: Will could teach me how to swim!

“Will, do you want to be my swim coach?” I asked as we sat at the kitchen table over breakfast. I think I could see his ego grow with his smile and I almost immediately knew I would regret this.

I was instructed to order a swimsuit that morning so we could begin training the following week. I picked a suit that reminded me of one I had when I was a kid growing up in the early 90’s and then asked, “Will, which one do you want?”

“I already have a suit,” he replied. To my quizzical look he said, “I still have my Speedos from high school.”

Oh God, no. In my head I pictured my husband with his boyish good looks at the YMCA pool, flaunting his worn-out and all-too revealing man panties as the elderly members looked on from their water aerobics class. “No.” is all I said.

Somehow we landed on a compromise between a Speedo-style suit and jammers. They look like booty shorts. Whatever.

Caught up in shopping for the gear I would need, I neglected to think about how you actually train for the swimming portion of a triathlon. It wasn’t until the day we had set aside for our first swim practice that I realized I had never done anything like this before. I never had a membership to a pool growing up. I had never swum in a lane. I knew how to float around in the lake behind our house, not the protocol and etiquette of swimming with other people (that actually knew what they were doing).

“Hmm, it looks like one of the local middle schools has swim practice when we are going to the pool. There will only be two lanes open, so we will probably have to share the lane with other people,” said Will with his nonchalant manner that somehow always irritates me a little.

Whaaaaaaat?!? Share a lane with someone? I have no idea what I’m doing! What if I run into them? I don’t know how to swim in a straight line! I felt my chest tightening. Did I really have to train? Maybe I could just wait until it got warm and swim in the lake.

Nerves

“You don’t even know how to do a basic stroke?” Will asked, with a pretty perplexed tone. NO! I don’t know anything! As we got closer to leaving, the questions started bubbling out of my mouth. “Wait, do I need to bring a bag? Do I wrap a towel around myself to walk to the pool? Do I need to shower? Do I wear flip-flops?”

I was nervous. Really nervous. As I walked through the door to the pool, the movie of what I thought would happen played in my head: Will sees me and dives in the pool with flawless technique. He does lap after lap while I flail around, looking like the novice I am. The middle schoolers giggle to themselves as they watch me struggle.

It didn’t happen like that, of course, but both free lanes did have people in them. Will hopped directly into the water to share a lane with an older woman, but instructed me to watch him swim first. I stood next to the lifeguard, obviously uncomfortable. She leaned over and said that the woman in the first lane was almost done, so that lane would be free soon. Relieved, I decided to tell her my life story. “This is my first time. I’ve never swam in a lane before. I don’t know what I’m doing. My husband is a really good swimmer. I think I’m going to do a triathlon. I’m a mountain biker…”

It wasn’t too long before the woman in the first lane left and I felt comfortable enough to get in the water for my first lap. The questions started again: “How do I put this swim cap on? Does this look right? How tight should my goggle strap be?”

Ok, I can do this. I submerged myself under the water, pushed off the wall like I had seen Will do, kicked a little with my arms pointed over my head, came to the surface, turned on my side to suck in my first gulp of air, turned my head back down, took a couple strokes, and then IT happened. I started freaking out. I can’t breathe! I made it to the other side of the pool and wiggled my way through the water back to Will. “How do I breathe out?!”

“What?” Will chuckled.

“When do I breathe out?!” I demanded, still coughing a little from the water I inhaled.

It has been a long time since I have been so far out of my comfort zone, but putting myself in that position made me stronger. I jumped over the biggest hurdle on my way to completing a triathlon and for me, that was just trying something new, not quitting and not getting frustrated with myself or with my amazing coach/husband. I had a little personal victory that day and it felt so good, that I cannot wait for all the other victories that are waiting for me on this triathlon journey.

Swim gear

There is a point to my slightly humorous narrative of my first swim training session. Out of all the triathlon forums I have read and all the stories I have fielded for Try a Tri, no one has ever talked about how nerve-racking that first swim can be. I felt alone in my seemingly inconsequential worries (that were actually a big deal to me). And, honestly, I don’t think I would have embarked on this step alone. So, here are some things that I had no idea about before my first indoor swim sesh:

  1. Yes, you should bring flip-flops or you will be walking around the showers and slippery pool deck barefooted.
  2. Step in the shower with your bathing suit on to rinse off before you go into the pool. It makes jumping into the pool a little easier.
  3. Don’t try to put your swim cap on before you get out of the water. Get your hair wet, get the cap wet, and then slide that puppy on. Likewise, don’t try to take your cap off after you get out of the water or you will rip all your hair out. Take it off in the pool or in the shower.
  4. Yes, you do have to share lanes with people or you will be waiting on the bench forever. Size up the people who are already swimming to determine which person’s pace is best matched with yours. Then, ASK THEM if you can share their lane. Surprising people in the pool= not a good thing.
  5. There are generally two ways people swim in a lane at the pool: splitting the lane or circle swimming. When you split the lane, you stay on your side, no matter what. Circle swimming is when everyone stays to the right of the lane, much like driving in traffic. With circle swimming, one lane can accommodate quite a few swimmers.
  6. When swimming, you breathe out of your nose in a steady stream underwater. (I was trying to breathe in and out at the same time, resulting in a mouth full of water. My other mistake was breathing in and then expelling all my air super quick once my head was underwater, which brings me to my next point)
  7. Take it easy. Relax. Don’t try to swim too fast before you really know how to swim. Nobody is judging you and you definitely aren’t racing anyone.
  8. After your swim, take a shower with your bathing suit to rinse out the chlorine. Also rinse your swim cap and goggles. Chlorine is a powerful chemical that doesn’t do good things to fabric.
  9. The YMCA had this super cool swimsuit dryer in the locker room! I would have never known to look for it if I hadn’t asked Will, “But what do you do with your sopping wet bathing suit?!?!” Apparently, the suit dryer is a pretty standard thing.
  10. For your first time, go to the pool with a friend, take a swim lesson, or join a class. If you are like me and try to go it alone, you more than likely will never go.  
-Caroline Washam, Liv Global Team (current mountain biker, future triathlete)

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