A few Saturdays ago, I reached a turning point in my life as a #WannabeSwimmer: I dove headfirst (six times to be exact) into a wet world of intense adrenaline and searing pain at my first-ever swim meet.
Although I’ve been swimming with the NYC-based Bearcat masters for two years, I had yet to partake in a swimming competition. I really do identify as a wannabe swimmer—proficient in the pool thanks to taking swim lessons most summers as a kid, but not a “real swimmer” because I never did the sport competitively growing up (high school, rec meets, etc.).
So why am I all for the swim now? First, from my performance at races throughout the year and at Nationals, we confirmed: I’m a strong swimmer locally, usually exiting the water in the lead group; but, I’m extremely average for the outing we ultimately want to put together, logging a very solidly middle-of-the-pack split in Omaha. In order to improve my 1,500m open-water times, I would have to swim more. Crazy concept, right?
Chasing this feeling of being first out of the water. Is this what Andy Potts feels like all the time?
Second, I avoided the pool after the 2015 season for about three months because there was no concrete reason for me to be there. (And I take full responsibility for what happened—well, more accurately didn’t—during the off-season, and it honestly took several months to re-familiarize myself with the water.) I know myself: if I sign up for a race, then I am in 150 percent.
Finally, this triathlon off-season centers on building my portfolio as an endurance athlete and exposing myself to as many different experiences as possible. Basically, we’re building the foundation for long-course racing by taking on new challenges—and training for a swim meet was perfect.
It became officially official when I received my Bearcat masters swim cap.
Once this was decided, the next task was to figure out which events I’d swim at the 10th Bearcat Masters Invitational. The distances themselves would not be challenging; after all, swimming just 50m or 100m or 200m at a time would be doable since I swim 1500m during tris. Rather, the details intimidated me—those specific to the physical act of swimming in a competition and those regarding the logistics of the meet itself: could I dive off the blocks without losing my goggles? How many times should I dolphin kick underwater off flip-turns? Should I touch the wall with one hand or two when finishing an event? Also, how do I decipher the heat sheets and figure out when I was swimming each event? I had never even attended a meet in-person, and luckily, my coaches and teammates helped me navigate everything. Bottom line, simply attending the meet would be a new experience.
During our season review/off-season planning meeting, Earl and I identified which events to target: all the freestyle (50m, 100m, and 200m) was a no brainer, and we also decided an individual medley (IM) would provide a challenge because it demanded all four strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle). This also ensured I’d work on each during practice (a.k.a. not revert to freestyle). Although Earl was gunning for the 200 IM, the 100 IM seemed more “comfortably uncomfortable” to me, mostly because it called for only 25m of butterfly. (The joke was on me, though, because my masters coach put me on a 200m medley relay, and I had to swim 50m of butterfly!) In addition to these four individual events, I also indicated I was “available” for relays and was placed on the aforementioned 200m medley and 200m freestyle for a total of six events. At my first meet. Go big or go home!
With my race plan solidified, I discovered a greater sense of purpose, dedication, and connection to swimming. No longer was I just swimming to swim; I was logging laps with care, conviction, precision, constantly concentrating on technique, engaging the proper muscles, and aiming for efficient stroke after efficient stroke. By becoming more invested in the process, I grew to love it, and I found myself willing to embrace challenges. For example, after doing four, 100 IM repeats, it was tempting to revert to freestyle for the fifth. But my goal—surviving this upcoming competition—held me accountable; I needed to make the next repeat happen. Yes, it would be uncomfortable. Yes, it would cause some self-doubt. And yes, it would not be easy. But that’s what this sport and life is all about—persevering through the challenge in front of you and doing whatever it takes to come out the other side.
Hello. It’s me.
The masters coaches warned me the meet would be more mentally and emotionally taxing than I anticipated, and I aimed to act like a sponge throughout the afternoon: soaking up everything about the experience, learning as much as possible, and hopefully not belly-flopping off the blocks, losing my goggles, or finishing last. I arrived at the pool around 2 p.m. for the 3 p.m. start and immediately exclaimed, “I’m feeling a lot of feelings!” when one of the coaches asked how I was doing. That statement basically summarizes the entire day: I got swept up in the adrenaline, the happiness, the pain, the uncertainty, and I loved it.
My nerves slowly subsided as the day progressed, but my heart was in my throat for my first few events. I thought it would explode during the 200m medley relay, my first event ever at a meet. Not only did I not want to let my team down by doing something stupid (there are a ton of rules for relays), but I also had to swim 50m of butterfly. Yikes.
My senses heightened as I carefully stepped onto the blocks. My heart pounded, my teammates’ cheers reverberated around the pool. Amidst this sensory overload, I quieted my mind for a few moments. As I looked out onto the water, I couldn’t believe how I far I’ve come as an endurance athlete. When I started triathlon, I couldn’t even flip-turn, let alone swim 100m continuously in a pool. That’s the thing about this journey: there are no wrong turns, only paths we didn’t know we were supposed to take.
Heart racing and adrenaline surging, I reminded myself this uncomfortabilty was good: it was this feeling—raw, intense, and daunting—that hooked me on triathlon, and inherently, I knew I was on the precipice of something good here. This is where the magic happens.
My goggles stayed suctioned to my eyes as I hit the water cleanly. Muscle memory took over: I dolphin kicked, I broke the surface, and I swam with urgency, riding the excitement to the opposite side of the pool. I am doing it. I am doing the butterfly. I am a swimmer! Then the pain set in—as did my experience as an endurance athlete. I knew I could hurt. I knew I was supposed to hurt. I knew I could hurt more and longer. I knew I could hurt for 25m.
That’s how my six swims went: hopping aboard the pain train and refusing to relent even when my lungs were searing, when my legs were screaming, and when my arms were ready to fall off. My body was trained, and my mind recognized this pain and knew it could be endured.
Rocking a pink cap and catching a quick breather between sets.
Looking back, I’d describe my 2016 triathlon racing season as a culmination of repetitiveness. I’ve been doing the same Olympic-distance races for the past few years, and although it was my first season working with a coach, there was a sense of routine: we did the same workouts in an effort to best prepare me for the same “A” race I’ve targeted for the past three years. However, my experience training for and racing a swim meet rejuvenated my outlook on the sport. It was new, fresh, and so much fun, and these factors will be the driving force behind the rest of my 2016 off-season and beyond.
I guess I should include results:
50m free – 34.32
First in my age group!
100m free – 1:14.89
200m free – 3:09.97
Inaccurate because I did not hit the timing mat hard enough coming into the wall, and the clock wasn’t stopped until I exited the pool. A few teammates said I was closer to 3:04 or 3:05.
100m IM – 1:37.84