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Salty Triathlete: Swimming Is Weird

As triathletes, can we ever be at one with the water?


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One time (pre-COVID) I stopped swimming for nine months. I just wasn’t interested. It sounded cold and wet. Then, the first day back in the pool, randomly showing up at Masters, I swam the fastest 100 yards I’ve ever swum. Sure, I had to lay down in my car for 15 minutes before I could catch my breath enough to drive home, but still.

Swimming is weird.

You just need to swim more, they say. It’s all about yardage. No, no, don’t grind out bad form. It’s about technique, become more efficient, they say. You need a feel for the water, I hear, so I sit in the hot tub and feel the water. Pull longer, pull harder, pull faster, pull better. Kick more, but not that much more. Kick less so that you time your kick right. I have a secret: I still have no idea what a two-beat, four-beat, or six-beat kick is.

In some ways, swimming reminds me of my stint as a theater director: “Just do it again, but better this time.”

What is it about swimming that mystifies us triathletes so? I didn’t know how to ride a bike either when I started, but that seemed so much more straightforward: Put your feet on the pedals; try not to crash into anything. I didn’t succeed at that either, but I ploughed on with confidence. And I only hit a few parked cars.

There are subtleties to swimming, beyond the turn of your hand or the angle of your elbow. You can be an amazing pool swimmer and simply mediocre in open water. You can nail drafting and pacing and sighting in a wetsuit, but struggle when it becomes non-wetsuit and your legs sink. You can be terrible at ocean entries or excel in messy crowded conditions, like I used to, where it’s brutal enough for everyone that no one really rises to the top. Maybe the problem is many triathletes are just not subtle athletes. We lack finesse. Why is this not something we can simply force ourselves to be good enough at?

I’m an OK swimmer now. I’m actually a very good swimmer in the scheme of the world because, as my husband says, I swam “enough” as a kid. But such is the world of swimming that I still think I’m terrible. There’s always some random 60-year-old guy at the pool who can lap me. Even if he doesn’t, we both know he could. Because swimming is weird.

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