Taking the Plunge: Trying out Open Water Swimming

By: Elise Crane, originally published in January, 2018

“I would do triathlons but swimming in open water terrifies me.” This is the most common explanation I’ve heard from friends and strangers who seem perfectly poised to excel in tris. I get it—especially for the “Jaws” generation, open water is daunting. But once you embrace the darkness and churn, open water swimming can be the biggest thrill of a tri.

I learned to swim before I could walk. By age nine, I was swimming competitively, and at 11, I transitioned from summer league to year-round insanity. For years, my life revolved around daily (and sometimes twice daily) two-hour practices and weekend swim meets, where I wound myself into a ball of anxiety. If I didn’t get a best time in any one of my events, I felt like a failure and would throw myself back into the pool with a vengeance on Monday. Back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball, clocking tens of thousands of yards every week and always chasing the next level. By 14, I was utterly burnt out. I quit my year-round team and spent the next 13 years learning to love swimming again. And I found it in the open water.

At 27, I did my first triathlon. It was a sprint held in early May at a lake in Massachusetts. The water was frigid and I’d never actually trained in open water before race day. I did backstroke the entire 750 meters to avoid putting my face in the icy water. But despite that inauspicious start, I was hooked. I loved the feeling of community and brimming energy of all the swimmers around me, fording their own paths through the wide open water.

Since that first tri, I’ve devoted much more time to open water training but my message is this: if you can swim in a pool, you can swim in open water. I t’s easier than you’d think to make the transition. Here are my top three tips for moving from the pool to open water: