In Search Of A Silver Lining for Open Water Swimmers In Trying Times

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Photo Courtesy: Vanessa Lucas- Seychelles Tourism Board

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Micha Shaw won the USA Swimming national open water swimming championships in 2008, qualifying for the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim qualification race. She upset eventual two-time Olympian Chloe Sutton and a number of other top American swimming stars in the race – and thought she was on her way to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But Shaw was not selected, absolutely crushing her Olympic dreams after years of training and sacrificing to prepare herself for the race of her life. She performed, but her non-selection was a huge emotional let-down. It was an administrative decision that she never thought she would face. It was unimaginable. From her perspective as an athlete who put in her dues over the year, the decision was incomprehensible.

She shed many tears.

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Micha Shaw

But life continued and she moved on, now happily married with two children and working as a mindfulness mentor and model.

With the recent decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, combined with the greater global fight against the coronavirus, there are similarly many disappointed athletes. Some will retire, most will continue on for another year preparing for the Olympics, and all the pre-qualified Tokyo Olympic marathon swimmers will keep training.

But this time of lockdowns, quarantines and shelter-in-place regulations can also be a productively reflective time for athletes and coaches alike. It is tough – if not impossible – to replicate high-level aquatic training with purely dry land training. Physiologically, swimmers will not be able to maintain the same level of swimming fitness with a pool. But psychologically, swimmers can use this time to understand how lucky they are to be able to swim every day.

Swimmers often take swimming for granted; pools and shorelines are always there. But now with many pools, lidos, beaches and shorelines closed, we can more profoundly appreciate our sport and the joy and challenges it offers us.

When athletes train with teammates in the open water and pool, they form strong common bonds. They speak in a special code with their friends who share a common love of swimming. Now, without that daily or weekly interaction – forced separation – can make our hearts grow fonder for our swimming friends and lane mates.

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Open water swimming with Amnis Stream Photo Courtesy: Rob Carter

This is especially true for those swimmers whose competitions have been cancelled over the next few months.

It is also true that few athletes ever think, ‘I wish that I trained less for this race or this swim.’ With another year to train for the Olympics or more time to train for their next event – whenever that may be – swimmers and coaches can think about how they can improve their training and preparation. Improvements can be made in the areas of nutrition, sleep, strength training, technique, self-confidence, and time management. A renewed focus on speed or stamina can be mapped out now.

Without the ability to swim, at least in the short term, athletes and coaches can now think deeply about how much better, longer, more frequently or more strategically they can train when they DO return to the water. They can analyze and reflect on what is most important to them – and how best to show their deeply-felt appreciation, commitment and love to their teammates, parents, coaches, sponsors, mentors and benefactors.

In essence, this forced time out of the water can be well spent and productive.

When athletes and coaches return to normalcy, I think there will be a reinvigoration in the sport. Notwithstanding the short-term loss of the races and swim meets – even the major championships – swimmers will be more motivated and more appreciative of the value of competing and challenging themselves to reach their full potential.

Swimmers in the water at Barbados Open Water Festival

Swimmers at the ready at the 2019 Barbados Open Water Festival Photo Courtesy: Barbados Open Water Festival

In these difficult times when most athletes have much more time on their hands, they can also reach out to others who they may have neglected because of their focus on their own training or goals. They have more energy because they are not exhausted from training, and have the time to reach out to friends and family, supporting those around them and those who are important to them.

Now is the time to be patient, not frustrated. To be introspective, not selfish. To be self-reflective, not self-absorbed.

An optimist says the glass is half-full; the pessimist says it is half-empty; but the engineer believes the glass is twice the size it needs to be.

In other words, we have a unique opportunity to look at our challenges. We can feel sorry for ourselves or get frustrated – and that may be our first instinctive move. But, open water swimmers in a 10 km race or crossing a channel know that we can make the best of a challenging situation and move on, always with our ultimate goals in mind.

Copyright © 2008 – 2020 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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