This summer the impossible happened...during a triathlon, I was afraid, no, terrified to put my head in the water. This is not a good thing when you are in the middle of a lake surrounded by other crazy athletes thrashing around. It is especially not good when you are an experienced swimmer and the swimming portion is your strongest event. I had no idea what was going on, I was having an anxiety attack and all I wanted to do was get out of the water and I had two choices, work through it or grab the nearest kayak to drag me to shore and not complete the triathlon. It took everything I had to finish the triathlon but I had too, and I came in dead last but I finished it.
So what the heck happened out there? This was not my first triathlon, I am a seasoned swimmer. I don’t remember learning how to swim. I have always known how to swim, I taught swimming and was a life guard for heaven’s sake, what was I doing having an anxiety attack?
Luckily, I have two terrific coaches from SplashnDash, Christiane Martin and Rob Gamberg and together we analysed what happened. First thing is to get back in the open water. We were doing open water training and so I got back in the water. Hoping it was just a glitch, I waited for the horn to go and half way to the first buoy, I looked up and the anxiety started. My wetsuit felt like it was strangling me, the buoy looked a million miles away, my heart started to pound through my chest and I all I wanted to do was get back on shore. The part of my mind that wasn’t focused on the anxiety attack was perplexed, this was crazy, the water was calm, I am a swimmer damn it, snap out of it.
Suddenly, there was a yellow kayak and Rob’s very calm voice saying: “You’re fine, it is just you in the water, you have lots of time, just relax.” I got to the first buoy, great just a million miles to the next buoy. Rob in the yellow kayak glided beside me, I actually managed to put my head down for half the distance and I raised it and the second buoy looked further away. At this point it was just Rob and I, the rest of my fellow swimmers were out of the water and drying off. In fits and starts, I finally finished the swim.
It turns out I am not the only experienced swimmer that has suffered from anxiety attacks in the water but as Rob pointed out “no one wants to talk about it.” So what do you do? Well, my coaches were correct first...get back in the water. Second, examine the situation. I had abdominal surgery that summer, so I hadn’t been training in the open water that season and in the first session back in the water I had come dangerously close to getting kicked. This combination of factors lead to the anxiety attack, so I went to see Helen MacKinnon, counselling therapist at “A Holding Place” in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Anxiety can be triggered by factors in the environment around you and once triggered your irrational thoughts and the physiological responses can escalate until you are incapacitated.” says MacKinnon. She explained that in open water it could be caused by the depth, cold, and having other swimmers in close proximity, or in my case, the fear of injury after surgery. Helen commended me for pushing through and finishing the race and for getting back into the water for further training because she said “giving into anxiety reinforces the fear”. She suggested I practice using “distraction, focus, relaxation techniques and positive self talk to help reduce the anxiety and stop the cycle from recurring.”
My next triathlon is nine months away. I am back in the pool, three times a week and working to get as strong and smooth as I can, and focusing on breathing...just breathing.
Contributed by Shannon Fisher