Swimming in childhood memories

The swim leg of triathlons has always been what has kept me from even seriously considering attempting one. Ever. If you talk to my family, or take a look at my history it’s not terribly apparent why.

I love the ocean. I studied Marine Science at uni and became a PADI certified Rescue Diver. Photos from my childhood are likely to be me, usually naked, in a bath, or a bucket, or a pool, or a puddle of water, with a grin from ear to ear. If I am stressed or upset, the best way for me to calm down is a long shower or a bath. I’m more than happy, and confident, to swim in a pool or the open ocean. I know I am strong and fit enough to tread water, and I’m perfectly capable of breaststroke, backstroke, and that old classic, sidestroke. So, what on earth is it about the swim in a triathlon that distresses me so much?


The idea of freestyle.

When I attempt freestyle, I freak out. It’s not as bad as it has been in the past, but I hyperventilate. I used to only make it 20ms up the pool before I needed to stop, gasping for air and freaking out, for no reason. I’ve been working on it and can now maybe manage 200ms before it’s too much, but why does it become too much? I am strong enough to tread water, so I’m not going to drown. I’ve got enough seasonal blubber, so I’m not going to sink. I know that I can stop at any moment and take a breath, so why am I so freaking afraid?

It’s impressive how much of our experiences as we are developing through childhood impacts on our futures, often in ways we are not even aware of. I have a history of head injuries throughout childhood, and as such, I’m not terribly surprised that I don’t remember much from those times. I usually have to be told about specific events by others who were there to have any idea something had happened. I think this is the case with my issue with freestyle.

As a small (and accident prone) child, I drowned. I don’t remember this event at all, but my cousin pulled my limp body from the backyard pool and resuscitated me. I’d stopped breathing, was unresponsive, and he brought me back to life. This was kept a secret until I was in my mid twenties. I was at my aunt and uncles house, playing in the pool because I was a water baby, and after this event, they decided not to tell my parents for fear they wouldn’t let my aunt and uncle take me for visits again.

I don’t remember a thing.

That’s probably a good thing, I don’t have this overwhelming irrational fear of the water, I long for it. I don’t have that memory of drowning, so going diving, snorkeling, lazing at the beach, in the pool, it’s relaxing and exciting. However, it is now clear how much this experience has impacted on my relationship with water. Swimming in a competitive manner, pushing my boundaries rather than just relaxing in the water, that’s been difficult. I remember one dive I went on in Fiji that definitely gave me a panic attack and had me filling my BCD (buoyancy control device) to the limit and waving at the boat to come to get us. I was definitely scared then, but that was not as obviously related to a previous drowning experience as being in the pool doing freestyle. Being face down in the water, the bubbles rushing past my face in an aggressive and uncontrolled way, even my hair obstructing my view are things that I can’t handle well at all. No wonder though, as no doubt part of my experience drowning were exactly these sorts of things.

So, what next? It’s helpful to realise there is a link, but even if there wasn’t one, the way forward, I think, would be the same. It’s about slowing down, realising I am capable, I can stop if I want and I am safe. This is my biggest challenge in attempting a triathlon, and it’s scary, it’s outside my comfort zone, but it’s exciting. I will conquer and be stronger, and even if I swim the entire leg of my triathlon doing breaststroke, I’ll be more comfortable in the water than I ever was before because I’m putting in the effort to do that now. I’m aiming for progress, not perfection.


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