As I've said before, I started this triathlon adventure completely backwards. To recap, I signed up for Ironman, then I bought a bike, then I decided to learn how to swim. The first trip to the pool was more than a little disconcerting, and I have a feeling I wasn't the only one that was afraid for my life come June 27th 2009.
I have a friend named Jeff Harris (aka Jeffy) who at the time was just coming off a year of teaching himself how to swim and had done a mighty fine job of it. The week prior he had completed the Alcatraz Shark Fest swim, where you swim from "The Rock" to San Francisco. He agreed to be my swim coach and teach me the ins and outs of avoiding drowning.
Fortunately Jeffy survived his sharkfest swim. This guy? Not so lucky.
We arrived at the pool, him in a pair of jammers and goggles, me in pair of board shorts, goggles and a swim cap. I know what your thinking. "Why were you board shorts AND a swim cap?" It doesn't make a lot of sense to me now, but at the time I was too embarrassed to be in spandex, however I did want to look the part of a swimmer (hence the swim cap). So into the pool we went with the small audience of my wife and a couple friends of ours who no doubt wanted to witness the emergence of the next Michael Phelps (didn't quite happen). Now I think its important to note that I knew I couldn't swim very well. Actually... "very well" is an understatement. I had been through swimming lessons as a child with my brother. He excelled, but it didn't seem to take with me. After 3 summers and only one level passed I quit decided my time would be better spent reading books in the bleachers with the other moms while my brother did the swimming.
This is a picture from our last trip to Hawaii. Thats pretty much what I looked like minus the snorkel.
My problem was that I thought it only took one arm to swim freestyle, and the other one just sort of got in the way. I knew my left arm somehow needed to get from my hips to the front of my body so I just drug it through the water. As you imagine with only one working arm it's difficult to swim in a straight line. But, I digress..... back to the pool.
So there we are standing in the shallow end and Jeffy says to me "Why don't we start out with you just swimming down to the end of the pool and back and I'll watch your "stroke" and give you some tips." Stroke? What stroke?
I snapped my goggles on, gave a big push off the wall and thought to myself "No one else knows you don't know what to do with your left arm. Just focus on getting that thing out of the water and you can fake your way through this."
As I started swimming I remember thinking "This is pretty easy!! I think I can do this!!"
That's when the momentum from the push off the wall dissipated (partially because of the parachutes around my waist, but also because I had failed to generate any additional forward momentum.) My legs began to sink, but I kept swimming as hard as I could. The good news is I was getting my left arm out the water a little bit. The bad news is I could feel my feet touching the bottom of the pool, and I was completely out of breath about 12 yards into the swim. For those of you that don't know 12 yards is half the length of the pool I was swimming in, and a 1/4 the length of the pools you see on the Olympics. Yeah.... not so good. The worst thing about only making it 12 yards is the decision you have make immediately after you stop. Do I try and keep going all the way to the end or do I turn back only to see the looks of shear disappointment on every ones faces? I chose to turn back. Humiliation is a better alternative than drowning.
My head came up and feet hit the bottom. I could feel there eyes buring into my back. I wasnted to dissapear. Alas, I had no other choice but to turn and see the looks of shock and embarrassment. However, as I turned I noticed that nobody had the look of embarrassment. It was much worse than that. They were looking at me with sympathy!! It was all a blur, but I'm pretty sure I was hearing phrases like "You did good honey! Dont worry about it you have a whole year to practice. You'll get it buddy." Thats right...somebody called me buddy. Everyone out there knows this is about as bad as it gets.
The lesson continued with me watching Jeffy glide effortlessly up and down the pool while I struggled to make it one length at a time, followed by 5- 10 minutes of rest. In total, I probably swam about 200 yards in an hour. Ironman is over 20 times that length, and I had heard that people would be punching and kicking me the entire way.
Yeah. Thats pretty much how it is.
I left the pool that day feeling a little defeated and scared. It was the beginning of July 2008 so I had about a year to figure this thing out. The rest of the the summer was filled with me flailing in the pool while 60 year old obese woman cruised by me. I was doing everything I could to figure this thing out. I bought books, spent hours on the internet researching, but nothing seemed to work for me. The biggest problem was that I I had signed up for an Olympic distance triathlon at the end of August and I wasn't progressing nearly fast enough. The swim would be 1500 meters long and by the time the race came around I was swimming about 300 yards at a time. After those 300 yards I felt like I was going to die. To make matters worse, my training partner John was swimming the full 1500 yards with relative ease.
Well.... I didn't give up. I showed up at that race at the end of August praying I would make it through the swim, but thats another long story that will have to wait until next time.
The point of this story is to show you that everyone has to start somewhere. Some people are great swimmers when they come into this sport while other are not. It's easy to forget how bad you really were when you first jumped into the pool, hopped on the bike or laced up the running shoes. So next time your sharing the pool or road with a beginner, just remember that same person could be challenging you for a podium spot in the next year or two. (so only help them if they aren't in your age group. Thats a joke, but seriously...only help them they aren't in my age group.)
Me after my third place age group finish at Lavaman in Kona last September