July 13, 2015
June 2015 I found myself in San Francisco supporting my husband Adam Younger, who was competing in the iconic Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon to be held on the Sunday. 1100 Friday morning we discovered that there was a test swim at 0700 the following day and the organisers had opened up an extra 10 places. Loving open water swimming and a challenge – and not wanting to miss out on what might be a once in a life time opportunity – I signed up.
With less than 20hrs to prepare myself I started to reflect on just what this meant. Approx 1.5 mile swim from a boat just off Alcatraz Island to San Francisco. The water is notoriously cold and the currents notoriously strong (the majority of the swim is across the current). I’d swam in the sea (England) about 5 times this season for up to 25 mins/swim in temperatures from 11C – 15C (no pool swimming) – so I wasn’t swim fit and was relying on my general fitness to get me through. On the plus side I had my open water swimming kit with me (in case we found some great swimming spots during our holiday after the triathlon), I’m used to swimming off the Isle of Wight where we also have strong currents and the early season sea temperature is similar, this was a test swim for the organisers, with professional swim coaches/guides swimming with us, so no pressure to swim fast or even complete as they even wanted to test their rescue/recovery systems! I realised I would be somewhat out of my comfort zone and this was definitely to be one of those ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ (Susan Jeffers) experiences.
0615 the next day we were given an very thorough briefing and loaded on to two boats before heading out to Alcatraz. We were a really mixed gang of experience, confidence and anxiety levels. Some obviously very nervous, and as we got further from the San Francisco waterfront, I too was becoming increasingly anxious about the size of the challenge I’d taken on. We had a short delay waiting for some very large ships to clear the shipping channel we were about to swim across – which only added to the nerves and the wind had now increased so instead of a calm sea it was reasonably choppy with wind against current.
Then it was time to jump off the boats and start our swim……I’m not one to prolong the agony of ‘pre-start anxiety’ so was in the first wave of swimmers to jump in. The first pleasant surprise was the water temperature wasn’t as cold as I was expecting (I later discovered this was due to a lack of snow melt in the Sierra Nevada). For the first 5-10 mins I was really excited to be started on my journey and loving my challenge. I was struggling to get my breathing under control and relax into my swimming. I usually breathe alternate sides, every third stroke and can easily settle into this within a few minutes. I put it down to the initial excitement and choppy sea.
However after 10-15 mins I found myself in a cycle of negative self-talk which was increasing my anxiety levels and not only preventing me from getting my breathing under control but making my breathing worse (short, shallow, almost hyperventilating).
‘Alcatraz still looks very near and the city a long long way’
‘have I really got the general fitness to do this?’
‘the sea is getting really rough…not sure I can tough it out’
‘I could just stick my arm up and get hauled out – but I don’t want the embarrassment of being the only one not to finish or to be last’
‘I’m not sure I can do this’
‘what if the current sweeps me past the beach we are aiming for?’
‘if only I could get my breathing under control, it’s all over the place….’
oops – time to remember I’m sport psychologist – and to be my own client. What would I recommend to a client in this situation? Focus on my breathing and use positive words/phrase about what I want to be feeling and what I want to achieve. So on my inhale found myself saying ‘Now I am calm’ and on my exhale alternating between ‘I am really enjoying this swim’ or ‘I can complete this swim’. I also remembered the advice from the briefing about taking time to take in the scenery from the unusual sea-level perspective – noticing Golden Gate Bridge, the waterfront, various iconic buildings, Alcatraz becoming more distant and San Francisco closer. Having switched myself into this more positive and mindful attitude I found myself really relaxing into the swim and thoroughly enjoying my surroundings.
And then time passed quickly and I was on the last push across a back eddy to land at the scheduled landing spot, the beach next to one of the St Francis Yacht Club. A few high fives and emotional hugs with my fellow swimmers before looking back to Alcatraz Island and taking a few moments to reflect on how great it felt to have taken on the challenge, overcome my self-doubt and negative demons and retaken control of myself to enjoy what was an amazing and most likely once in a lifetime swimming challenge and journey.
What a fabulous reminder and lifetime memory of successfully feeling the fear and doing it anyway!