Photo: Arcady Genkin, Flickr Creative Commons
For the rest of my adolescence and into adulthood I was able to swim face down and going under the water was okay, but I didn't really enjoy it. In fact, once I quit the swim team from being burned out on practicing after 7th grade, it was common for me to go years between visits to a pool. In fact, I'm pretty sure there was at least a decade of consecutive years in 17 years between my last swim team practice and my first day training for my first triathlon as a 31-year-old where I never had a reason to put on a swimsuit. I am, and was, a competent swimmer. My form is reasonable. I'm okay with my face in the water, although it REALLY helps to have a pair of goggles on when I swim. I forgot them once and it was the most miserable 15 minutes of training ever, but I have always had an issue when something happens to disrupt my breathing, even temporarily. A hiccup, or a threatening burp that stops my exhalation in the water, a wave breaking on my as I take a breath, just mistiming my breath for a fraction of a second, all of these can leave me with water up the nose and a flash of panic.
In the last two years, I dealt with this the same way, pull up, switch to the breast stroke, where I feel much more confident, but it's a slower stroke, catch my break, clear my nose and then go back to the crawl. It worked, but it was frustrating and inefficient. Suddenly, this week, I'm finishing up to six-tenths of a mile (currently my longest sessions) without having to switch strokes once, even though I have those moments of botched breathing (although rarely). At some point this training season I've managed to keep that flash of panic back. I'm able to, without breaking the rhythm of my stroke, clear out the nose and get back to my breathing rhythm easily. I haven't needed the breast stroke to get my composure back. I just don't lose it to start with. That's a huge victory and a huge boost to my confidence, which is much more important (at least to me) during the swim than on the bike or on the run.
It still doesn't mean I like the water. The swim is still my less favorite and the hardest to motivate myself to practice. In fact, if I ever give up triathlons, it will be because I'm just tired of swimming. It does mean that I expect to drop at least 10 minutes off my swim split at the Bandits Challenge this year. Last year, I panicked early in the race and had a disaster of a swim. I didn't even choke on the water. I simply got freaked out by the increased distance (1.5K versus my regular 400M). I ended up resorting to the breast stroke frequently and they way I'm going right now in practice, I should be able to really hang with the pack this year on that leg.