Swimming in Open Water Vs. Swimming in a Pool

Swimming has never been my thing.

My first memory of swimming involves sputtering water and struggling to breathe as I almost drowned at Slashdown Park as a toddler. I vividly remember the feeling of water up my nose and seeing my cousins try to help me as I almost succumbed to the depths of the kiddie pool. Apparently what really happened was I stuck my face in the water and didn’t pull it out. But I call bullshit.

A few years later my parents decided to put me in swimming lessons. Still traumatized from the incident at Splashdown, I wasn’t too keen on putting my life in the hands of some 13 year old swimming instructor. My fears were confirmed when I was tossed into the deep end of the pool, I guess in an attempt to force me to float? What kind of sick human does that?

Needless to say my swimming lessons ended there. And from then on it was the good old doggie paddle for me. Go under water without plugging my nose? Forget it. Open my eyes under water? Noooo thank you.

I rarely went in pools, A) because they were scary, and B) because they are disgusting. Everything from the wet floor with hair on it to the naked ladies wandering around as they dried themselves was awful. Even now my heart sinks when the bottom of my carefully-rolled up Lululemon pant comes undone and touches the disease-infested floor of the change room.

Lakes, rivers, and oceans were a bit of a different story though. They were still scary and it would still take me upwards of 20 minutes to actually submerge myself in the water, but as long as there was no seaweed touching my feet and no visible fish I was okay. Once I got comfortable I’d have no problem jumping off a pier into the water, dog paddling my way back, and doing that over and over and over again.

What possessed me to do a triathlon is beyond me. I think when I registered I was so focused on having to learn how to swim that I forgot how much I hate swimming pools. But here I am, less than five days away from my first sprint tri.

It took a few months, but I no longer panic when I head out for my first lap. I’m sure my front crawl is all sorts of ugly, but it gets me from one side of the pool to the other in the medium lane without any of the other swimmers yelling at me, so it must not be too bad. Breathing is another story, but it is what it is.

Like I said in my last post, I go through phases of terror and confidence. I’d been in the “terror” phase for the past couple of weeks. It takes a good 7 or 8 laps before I get the hang of breathing, and I had yet to enter the world of open water swimming. I heard stories of panic; stories of how difficult it is to swim without seeing the bottom of the pool; how cold the water is and how gross it tastes.

I’d been toying with the idea of using a wetsuit but decided against it a couple of weeks ago. Then last week I had numerous people tell me that was a big mistake. But by that point I hadn’t had any practice in a suit and had no idea if I’d be able to rent one with such short notice. So I headed out for an open water swim with a friend this past Sunday to “test the waters” if you will.

It was of course pouring rain on Sunday when I headed out. Part of me was grateful for the practice in case it rained the day of the tri, but for the most part I was just pissed off and not looking forward to the swim. I didn’t (and still don’t) even have a proper bathing suit.

photo 1


I have a cute halter one-piece that I’ve been training with in the pool and my bikinis. And let me tell you, if you think shopping for a bikini is a miserable experience, try shopping for a swimsuit meant for sports. My short body needs a small suit, but my big butt and wide upper body would benefit from something larger. Trying to squeeze myself into a small suit meant for a lean swimmer was pretty horrifying, and I’ve accepted the fact that I might be the only noob doing the triathlon in a halter-top suit meant for lounging by the pool.

Anyway, back to Sunday. Armed with my bikini, goggles, and trusty friend who was crazy enough to spend her Sunday afternoon in the rainy ocean with me, I ventured in.

And it was cold. Like super cold.

But it didn’t take long to get used to it, and to my surprise, I actually didn’t mind it that much! I got mouthfuls of water a few times and didn’t feel the need to throw up. I couldn’t even see my hands in the water in front of me and didn’t panic. The current rushing over my head made breathing a little more difficult, but I already sucked at that part so no big D, right?

We didn’t stay for long, but I felt WAY more confident afterwards. And with today being a beautiful sunny day I decided to head out into English Bay for another test swim. The hot sun made the water slightly less cold so it didn’t take as long to get acclimatized as it did on Sunday. The tide was coming in pretty hard so it was hard to stay in a straight line, but I might be so bold as to say I actually enjoyed myself!

photo 2

Sure, after 20 minutes I took a 15 minute tanning break. And when I went to head in for my second dip I walked to the edge of the water, looked at the size of waves and thought “fuck it” and turned around. But I forced myself to get back in and swam back and forth in my safe little line where I could still touch the bottom for another 20 minutes. I’m looking forward to heading back out and doing it again on Friday!

I talk about working to overcome fears and stepping out of our comfort zones a lot. It’s an important part of personal growth and something I try to do often, even though I don’t want to. Being afraid of something is a natural part of being human and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But there’s no harm in wanting to toughen up and face it.

The past few weeks I’ve let other peoples’ fears about open water swimming increase my own. I believe all these ideas about how awful swimming in the ocean would be before trying it, or even thinking about my past experiences with it. Being the anxious and worrisome person that I am, this is probably something that’s going to take some time to get over but I think it’s important to do so.

These people didn’t know what happened to me at pools when I was little when they told me about how scary the ocean was. They didn’t know how disgusted I am by pool water and hair and people. (And for the record, people are far more disgusting than sea creatures. Last week at Kits pool I watched a naked old lady bump into a little girl without batting an eyelash. Today a seagull was polite enough to fly away when I swam near him.)

They didn’t know how my body handles temperatures when they told me the panic of the cold water would far outweigh the panic of the restricted movement caused by a wetsuit (or “bitchsuit” as I referred to it on Sunday).

Most of all, they don’t know ME, and when they told me their preconceived notions about swimming in open water I took them to be facts and made up all these horrifying stories in my mind. It’s time to cut that out! I’m making a commitment to myself to work at not letting others’ beliefs and ideas increase my anxiety. I already create enough stories and scenarios in my own mind to do that 😉

Another great thing about swimming in the ocean? Laying in the sand suntanning and relaxing afterwards. You couldn’t pay me enough to lie on the disease-infested floor of a swimming pool.

So readers, time to fess up! When have you let others increase your already-present anxiety? Have you ever taken the beliefs of others to be facts without testing them for yourself? What do you think is more disgusting: human beings? Or animals? 😉

And now I will leave you with a disturbing video about how people are teaching babies to swim by tossing them in the water. Apparently they just float on their backs? I’d like to know who discovered a baby will naturally turn onto its back when thrown in the water..


15 thoughts on “Swimming in Open Water Vs. Swimming in a Pool

  1. I was thinking the same thing when I saw this video! I wanted to know where the parent was. When I was a little kid I was swimming before I was walking, I had crazy older boy cousins and I thought I could do anything they did- like jumping off of houseboats-not the best idea. Now open water freaks me out

    • Thanks so much! I’m glad someone shares my disdain for pools 😉

      It’s crazy how fearless we can be as children and then as we get older we let thoughts and anxieties take over, hey? As creepy as the video was, we could probably learn something from our toddler friend!

  2. I’m so glad you’re practicing in the ocean and liking it! Suntanning on the beach is the best too. I don’t like pools much either, but at least in this small town I know the 10 other people who swim in the pool so it isn’t too bad (I still wear flip flops on those floors though – yuck).

    • I would probably feel slightly less creeped out if I knew who else was swimming in the pool. But you never know in the big city….

      I’m finding that with open water swimming I’m focusing on my surroundings so much that I don’t have as much time to hate what I’m doing! But whatever works, right? Haha.

  3. Way to face your fears! I remember seeing video a long time ago of babies naturally swimming underwater. Crazy! My mom was a swimmer growing up, so she made all her kids take swim lessons from the time we could walk. Now she’s doing it with our kids. It’s pretty cool to watch them go!

  4. Great job pushing through your fear to try it out! I think talking to too many “experts” before any new event can freak you out more than it helps.

  5. I just finished my 9th swim from Alcatraz- with a wetsuit-altho people who live/train there do not. Wetsuits are NOT restricting and actually make swimming in lakes and oceans easier. I love open water and have done many lake/ocean swims. Keep it up.

    • Congratulations!! That sounds like such a badass swim; I had a spin instructor who did it once and I loved hearing her talk about it. I am going to give wetsuit swimming a shot in the future; I’m already thinking about doing a longer distance tri and while I know I’ll be able to handle the water temperature for a short distance, I’m sure it will come in handy when I’m in the water for a longer period. Thanks for stopping by!

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