Open water swim panic, what to do

A few weeks ago I did my first open water swim of the season. I was ambitious. I thought to myself, “This will be super fun and easy. I’ve been swimming all spring, so I’m strong. I love lake swimming.” Well, as you might guess, IT WAS AWFUL!!!

A tiny bit of back story, I have a really profound fear of drowning. I even suspect that I drowned in another life. When I was two years old, my family tells the story of when I walked into the lake and kept right on walking until I just sat down in water well over my head. All the adults stood around on the dock watching, not getting it that I didn’t really know how to swim and that in record time I would drown. My dad got his wits about himself and in full clothing he jumped into the lake and pulled me out. I also hate watching any movie that’s about ships and storms. Even watching a preview of such a movie causes me to shiver and quake.

Luckily, early on I did learn how to swim. My mom had been a lifeguard, so she prioritized swimming for me and my siblings. I loved swimming so much that as a 7th grader I was on an organized swim team. And the one organized high school sport I did was swimming.

As an adult, I have even taken adult swim classes. A few times, when I lived in Colorado, I even went to a swim clinic where I got filmed and my freestyle stroke was analyzed for efficiency. You might even call me a bit of a swim nerd!

On that recent Tuesday evening at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, none of my new fellow YWCA triathlon training mates where there. Who was there were all these hard core Ironman triathletes. Yes, intimidation set in immediately. I checked my blood sugar, all was perfectly in range. No excuses, so into the water I went. What I had forgotten was that some days the lake can be wavy and choppy. That was happening this particular Tuesday.

As Mental Skills Coach Carrie Cheadle describes, I was feeding the monster. I was NOT feeding the athlete. Barely realizing it, I was listing all the things that could and might go wrong.

  • My expensive Apple watch is about to fall off (it stayed on)
  • My goggles are going to steam up (they didn’t)
  • Did I remember to take off my not waterproof pump (I had)
  • I bet my blood sugar is about to tank or skyrocket (it didn’t)
  • I am a terrible swimming (yeah right)
  • Everyone else out here is faster than me (ha, that’s not how it works)
  • I am so out of shape


Carrie describes this negative swirl of thinking as “feeding the monster.” About halfway across the lake, I realized what I was doing. I stopped swimming and just tread water, giving myself a few minutes to calm down and refocus. I decided to turn around and head back to the main beach, and not swim the whole way across and back.

At the moment I decided to turn back, as fate would turn, I choked on a huge swallow of water. WHOA. That caused a new level of anxiety and panic. Immediately every cell in my body went into overdrive. I was suddenly convinced I was going to drown instantly. Thankfully the panic subsided almost as fast as it hit me. I very, very, very slowly made my way back to shallow water and I climbed out of the lake. I sat on the shore for a while, noticing everyone else happy as can be. I went into problem solving mode.

I noticed that a few people had these swim buoy’s that they swim with around their waist. I asked one set of swimmers if they liked having it with them. Both were very enthusiastic about having the buoy with them. I decided to get one for myself pronto.

I also reflected on what things help me feed my athlete, instead of the monster. First on the list is to go to the lake WITH friends! I don’t need to swim the whole time with them, just arriving and having people to laugh and connect with before the open water swim makes everything easier and relaxed.

That’s what I did last Sunday and again yesterday, another Tuesday evening. What a major difference friends make! Open water swimming with pals is THE BEST! Brooke had a pink swim buoy with her, it matched her triathlon outfit, like my orange buoy matched my outfit. Nothing like a good laugh about coordination to create calm and relaxation.

For those interested, here’s the swim buoy I got.

And here’s Carrie Cheadle’s wonderful book On Top of Your Game, Mental Skills to Maximize Your Athletic Performance.

Do you ever have athletic panic?

Do you ever discover you feed the monster instead of feeding the athlete? What do you do?!

I love hearing from you! Thanks for checking in!!

And, happy swimming to all who swim!

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6 thoughts on “Open water swim panic, what to do”

  1. Thank you for sharing this story. I know many people find the swimming portion a big challenge. I admire anyone who takes it on.

    • Thanks for your vote of confidence Linda!! I went another time swimming and it went smoothly. Then went again and struggled. It’s a roller coaster for sure!

  2. Loved reading this story. It’s so true how that critical mind works—I love that you noticed it AND didn’t believe it (for very long) AND started using your strengths/problem solving mode to rewrite the story.
    This is so inspiring Mari—thanks for sharing!

    • Ara,
      Thanks for your vote of confidence! It helps to be affirmed! I was grateful I could get myself out of Feed the Monster mode quickly. It hasn’t always been that way. It always catches me off guard when the Monster rears it’s head. I suppose that’s the nature of the monster!!

  3. I am out of the water for at least 3 weeks following surgery. I think of all my exercise, I am going to miss swimming the most. But I remind myself that next summer, I will be able to lake swim!

    • Cathy,
      I love your “keep looking forward” attitude! Yes, next summer you will be lake swimming like a very happy fish! Hang in there through this surgery, know you’ve got lots of folks, me included, pulling for you healing up well!!

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