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How to Survive a Panic Attack While Swimming

How to Survive a Panic Attack While Swimming: Find Your Inner Warrior 

I was prepared for my first triathlon.  I was going to do exactly what everyone tells you to: do what you practiced and don’t try anything new the day of the race. So, when I had my toes in the sand of Lake Michigan at the Harbor Lights Sprint Triathlon I knew I was going to kill it. 

The gun went off for my wave and I sprinted into the water like a champion ready to win (I am a competitor and I love winning). That was, until I couldn’t put my face in the water without having a minor panic attack.  

Swim Panic

So my thoughts changed from, “I am going to win this thing,” to: “Oh goodness, when will I be back on land? How far is that buoy? Oh crap! What did I get myself into? 750 meters is really far. Oh no, oh no, oh no!”  

Then I had a moment of brilliance. I remembered it doesn’t matter how you swim.  So, there I was, doggy-paddling, attempting a breast stroke, flipping over to back stroke and back to the doggy-paddle again until I was safely to land.  

My definition of winning changed dramatically in those minutes I was in the water. I was just happy to be back on dry ground. The rest of the triathlon was an emotional relief. The bike was fun. The run was even more fun. There was even a nice man who told me to keep pace with him and we could run to the finish together.  I thought, “Wow, this sport is awesome. People care about me!”  

When I crossed the finish line I was elated and signed up for my next race that afternoon.  I was hooked.  But, I knew that I needed to make some changes because that feeling of complete panic in the water was not something I would wish on my worst enemy.  

At my second triathlon, The Chicago Triathlon, I had a new plan: start in the back. I waited for the gun to go off and let everyone else start swimming. By waiting, I was able to compose myself before the swim. I did not panic. 

One month later, I signed up for the Ironman.  But, I couldn’t get the thought of what happened to me during my first race out of my head. Over the next two years, I practiced a lot of difference techniques to overcome my fear that I would panic in the water again. I had done all I could do, but was I ready for the biggest stage, the Ironman World Championships? 

At the Ironman, everyone wants to win.  Everyone in the water is a secret MMA fighter.  It is not just a 2.4 mile swim, it is an athletic freak-show of insane competitors and I didn’t get to wear a wetsuit to help me stay buoyant.  

Battle For the Water

Within the first four minutes of the cannon going off, I was fully dunked in the water. I had over one thousand people chasing behind me and I had to crawl myself forward without the use of my legs, because people were behind me pushing them into the water.  At this point, my mental training was gone. I was not able to channel my inner Om and those thoughts and feelings of distress that I experienced in Lake Michigan two years prior came rushing back. My thoughts went something like this: “God, do not let me drown! This is not how this day is supposed to start. I wanted to set a PR. Please get me out of this madness. I’m so scared. This sucks. I have to get out of this.” 

I was going to worry myself right out of this race. Then it came to me: “This is not me. I believe everything is possible. I am strong. I can swim. I made it here. I can do this.” And there it was; I found my inner warrior. 

Your inner warrior is not always present. It takes practice to cultivate your thinking to find her. Training and racing are tools to discover the warrior inside all of us. We don’t always have great days, but we need the bad days—they build our character. When we are not able to see past the chaos we find ourselves in, we find our deepest warriors. 

The scariest and most exciting thing about triathlon is knowing you will encounter an obstacle in every race. You don’t know what the obstacle will be, but you need a mental game plan when the race doesn’t go the way you imagined. 

After this race, I discovered how strong I am, but I also found out I needed to practice my mental game. Here are a few things that have worked for me.  

 Finding Your Inner Warrior

  • While you are swimming, biking or running listen to your breath. Let your breath be your point of focus. You can only have one thought at a time, so why not let it be something that is real? Listen to the sound of it, feel the quality of it, play around with changing it—taking longer or shorter inhales/exhales. It will bring you back to being present instantly. 
  • Focus on form. The running leg is the last one, and where the fatigue starts to really set in, so pay attention to something that isn’t causing you pain. For example, your elbows. They don’t have to do much but move and their movement can improve your form, your speed and clear your mind. Focus on your elbows going straight back each time your arms move. Do this for a mile, and then focus on something else like spreading your toes. This will take you out of suffering and into the now. 
  • Prepare before the race by doing a few things:   
    • Night before: I write out how my race will go. I go into all the details. How I’m feeling, what I’m likely going to encounter and I create a plan for how I’m going to handle it so I am not surprised when it happens. 
    • Write out three specific, objective goals that you can control.  Don’t focus on what place you are going to finish—you can’t control who shows up.  But you can control you. 
    • Morning of: I have my favorite, uplifting songs on my phone and I jam out while doing a short running warm up and a few yoga sun salutations. Usually one of the songs is my theme song for my race and I am thinking of the lyrics often while I’m racing. 
    • Take a moment before you race to give thanks for everything that you have done to get you to the starting line. Whatever happens is going to happen. Let go of the outcome and tell yourself to just have fun.