What I Learned in the Open Water


Commentary by Kat Hall, Swimming World Contributor.


Photo Courtesy: Kat Hall

A few years ago at the Santa Cruz Wharf the August sun was hot, the noise of hundreds swarming around me unbearable. The air smelled of neoprene and sunscreen. Tottering in the sand, I dodged bags of sports jelly beans, electrolyte powder, and the detritus of obsessive sports regimens. Groggy from my 4:30 alarm, I squeezed between amped triathletes yelling over 80s music, stretching their limbs in all directions.

Although I ran cross country and bicycled everywhere as a teen, I’d never wanted to take part in a triathlon. My parents had been so preoccupied making sure I had achieved more than the other kids through music lessons, theatre camp, and the math team, that they had forgotten one important thing. They had forgotten to teach me how to swim.

It wasn’t until graduate school out west, passing outdoor pools on campus that I finally decided to take swimming lessons. The beginner class was an amalgam of other weird adults, social pariahs who had somehow missed this critical childhood checkpoint. I didn’t ask how the others got there. It was hard enough getting my face wet. I did so poorly the instructor made me repeat the class twice, but eventually I had the basics, and that was good enough.

I didn’t swim again until a year later when I started dating an endurance athlete. He had spent his thirties setting personal records in iron men, double centuries, half marathons, death rides — “pursuits of punishment” — I joked with my friends. He showed no signs of abating in his 40s, but I saw this as virtue. When he asked me to sign up for the Santa Cruz triathlon with him, I was thrilled. He wanted to share the biggest part of his life with me. I had never practiced in the ocean, but he assured me the distance was insignificant. “You’ll be fine,” he said.

The morning of the tri I was crammed shoulder to shoulder in a starting chute with faceless women who looked like aliens that had been cloned. The smell of hot synthetic rubber churned my stomach as they towered over me, screaming, laughing, high-fiving. The countdown began, and my heart rate soared. The siren went off. I lunged forward, trampled by swimmers pushing from all directions, and fell onto the sand. I stood up on my knees and walked into the water, freezing as I was in to my waist. The water piled high until it grew into a wave, several feet above the surface. Suddenly I was pushed under by one powerful stroke from another swimmer. Gasping in the cold water, I couldn’t breathe. A wave grew overhead. I turned to go back to shore, thinking I would make it in time, but was sucked from behind, my legs suddenly swallowed as I tumbled upside down. Water surged into my nose and my body was flung against the bottom of the ocean. I struggled to come up but was struck down again by a powerful force of water. There was no way to scream for help underwater. I was going to drown.

My shoulders were yanked by a pair of hands and I was carried to the first aid tent. I no longer had my goggles and swim cap, and coughed, my throat burning from saltwater. A medic told me I suffered from cold shock, uncontrollable hyperventilation and tachycardia, and had been shorepounded, caught in a wave set that bashed me a few times in its whitewash. I began to cry. It was the first time I had experienced paralyzing fear. As I waited for my boyfriend to finish the race, I replayed the turmoil in my head, trapped at the bottom of that wave, panicking underwater. Unable to breathe, it was the closest I had come to death. Why hadn’t my boyfriend warned me? Why hadn’t he mentioned the 6-foot waves?

“I think I was faster than last year!” he beamed in the car home. Still shaking behind the wheel, I told him what happened. “Yeah, right. You probably threw your goggles into the ocean because you wanted to go back to bed!” he said. I tried again. But he interrupted, eyes glued to his phone, announcing his segment times. He pored over his most prized possession, a spreadsheet where he recorded stats from his decades of competitions. I was trapped, his internal drivel as destructive as the whitewash.

During the next week, I was consumed with insecurity. I retreated from the world, stayed inside, suffering private shame. I buried myself in articles, books, and blogs on hypothermia, currents, and shock. I learned about a navy diving instructor with greater than 20 years of experience, who became stranded and was lost in the ocean alone for 75 hours. He experienced deep peripheral muscle cooling, lost consciousness multiple times, suffered severe dehydration, and was found covered in sea parasites subsisting off the exposed parts of his skin. The more I read, the more I realized there was only one alternative. I had to practice.

The thing with fear is the worst part is often starting. So I joined an open water swimming clinic that launched me into a routine, and began by practicing head dunks and long breaths, slowly overriding my body’s protective survival mechanisms that blocked my success. It took months, but the water became a mystery waiting for me. I craved its wildness. What would the current, the wind, the swells bring? How would I work through the choppy conditions, when so far from land, and there was no shore to turn back to? At what moment would the sunshine steal through the clouds, and make the water appear green instead of blue?

Plunging into open water was like passing through a mental membrane. The cold was healing, an opportunity to practice breathing through the fearstorm of panic, the salt a reminder to relax my way through the thoughts, emotions, and people that weren’t serving me. It allowed distance in my own life, and a way to touch a source of strength outside of it. I let go of my instinctive response to fear, whose tightness inhibited my breathing, and my boyfriend, whose selfishness degraded my spirit. Learning open water swimming allowed me to get in touch with myself deeply, and show up, even though there were days I felt like a mess, days that were cold and dark outside, and days with water temps that dipped below 50.

In no time, I took on swims from Alcatraz, Berryessa, and Donner Lake. Each one was more fun than the last. Just one year later, I finished in the top three in my age division in the Pacific Master’s Swimming Open Water Championships. I even met a woman who would become one of my closest friends. As we stood in the ocean one afternoon, side by side, a wall of water just inches in front of my face, I buckled as I saw the white froth gathering at the top, five feet above me. It’s going to crash over my head, I thought, remembering Santa Cruz. But at the last second, my friend reached out her hand and grabbed mine. I didn’t have time to think. “Duck!” she screamed. We flattened like pancakes as her strength pulled me to the bottom of the sand. But that time, the wave just soared over me, and I ended up giggling as I realized we popped out of the other side unharmed. We played in the waves for hours that day like mermaids. Sometimes letting go of the things that scare us the most means holding on to the things that give us life.

We’re stronger than we think.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    John Pool

    This is hilariously similar to when I wanted my girlfriend to enjoy the experience of ocean swimming! I’m a Santa Cruz local and swimming around the wharf or out and back without a wetsuit is the way to fully feel the elements, lol. When my gf ventured out from the Cowell steps into the vividly cold water, she suddenly had ‘that look’ of fear. I’m like, Oh you’ll get used to it, just keep swimming! When the fear look turned into actual panic, I assisted her back to the shore, and we both agreed if she was going to do this ocean thingy, then a wetsuit would be in order. After a few more short swims after that, including having an otter approach us and saying Hello, she got hooked into the excitement of ocean swimming and wanted to do the Round the Wharf swim, and finished she did, albeit one of the last ones out of the water, she Loved It! I bought her a decent bike, and she picked that up quickly, and she has done the Santa Cruz Tri and loves Tri’s whenever she travels. All this after the age of 50 btw!