The fears of the open water debut

I can’t drown, this was my first concern on my inaugural triathlon. Although a valid concern, there are obviously better things to focus on in preparation for the open water debut which will lead to the end goal of remaining safe and reaching T1. But one thing is true, you should definitely prepare adequately. The beginning of a race in the water can be tense even for experienced athletes and it can be very scary for who is not used to the environment.

my open water debut – São Vicente, São Paulo, Brasil. Circuito Netuno

The gun goes off, I rush to the water along with a bunch of hurried swimmers, after skipping a few waves, I dive in and voilá – i can not breath! i can´t put my feet to the ground because it is too deep, my heart is racing mad and I can´t submerse my head because of a state of panic. I stopped and looked up, there was a boat a few meters distant. At that moment I was certain: I am going to drown! When I saw the boat, I figured it was too far and other swimmers would trump me on my way to it – that was not an option. So I looked at the horizon, did 2 or 3 breast strokes just to prove myself I was able to remain above water. Then I shut my eyes and started to swim crawl slowly, focusing on the arm strokes. I thought: ‘I practiced in the pool, this wasn´t any different – it is the water and myself – i know how to do that’. Then slowly my heart rate stabilized and I looked at the beautiful shore line, taking in the view and just enjoying the rest of the course to complete the 1,500m. There are two vital aspects to this day, the first is that I practiced the emergency way out of a panic attack, I trained specifically in the pool to increase my heart rate and then to close my eyes and focus on the stroke to calm myself down (almost like a meditation). This was the tool that gave me the confidence to turn the situation around when my mind took over in fear. The second aspect is that, this was not a full triathlon, it was an open-water challenge without any self-pressure for performance, therefore I was able to enjoy the experience without having to worry about doing anything else afterwards.

I had mess-up before by a lack of preparation, the truth is that I had underestimated the stress of the open water swim when I entered my first race and I was lucky to get out of it without having to swim.

Rio Triathlon Endurance 2015

It happened in Santos, February of 2014. After a full year of training, I was more than ready, so I thought, for my first triathlon. That morning, after leaving everything ready in the transition area, I went to the water to warm-up, as a beginner I didn´t own a wetsuit. The waves were tall and when I entered the sea I was in shock, it was very, very rough, and the tides were very strong. It was going to be a true challenge. The day before I had gone for a jog at the beach and a guard told me that the sea was not safe for swimming and it would remain like that for the race – He was right. We were lined up on the beach for the start, the first wave was the pro men, then pro women, finally some of the age groups setout. But before my group was allowed to hit the water, the swimming was cancelled. Firemen decided the situation was too dangerous, by that time I saw the waves wash the age groupers back to the beach. Floating on the water, colorful swimming caps swayed at the will of the waves back to the shore. We ended-up lining-up at the beach and did a running start to the transitions area, my debut became a duathlon and I was given the chance to prepare myself adequately for my first triathlon a couple of months latter.

Right now, after a few experiences, I am quite at ease in the open water battle, in fact, I usually like to place myself in front of the group and charge to the water fightning for space. Since my swimming is subpar I need to squeeze-in every single inch or seconds I am able to. The funny thing is that even before these swimming events I mentioned, even as a kid, I was not afraid of waves or tides, I used to swim in rough waters, such as those in Itacoatiara, Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro. What happened was something more entrenched in my mind, an irrational fear that took over.

So what did I learn that I could share with my fellow triathletes?

  • do not go into your first triathlon without open water experience, preferably having experienced a crowded start, where you need to fight for space
  • practice ways to calm yourself down if a panic attack hits you
  • get a wetsuit – they will help you float and give confidence
  • remember to have fun and enjoy the experience
  • warm-up in the water before the start of the race
  • know the ground you will encounter when entering and exiting the water, if there are roles and sharp changes of depth, rocks, and others.
  • forget the 3×1 or 4×1 breathing you practiced at the pool – go 2×1! at least for the start this is a valuable tool
  • become more efficient by learning three ways of progressing through the water: running, diving\launching, swimming
    • running: legs high-up, almost like jumping through the water
    • diving\lauching: when water has become too deep to run, but still shallow enough take a dive towards the sand, then propel yourself back up. repeat until water depth is too high making the gliding and launching inefficient.
    • swimming: when exiting the water, gauge the time to stop swimming and going on the vertical (or into the dive\launch approach) by your stroke: When near the shore exagerate your arm stroke as if you were trying to reach for the bottom. Once your hands touch the ground, get-up, it is time for T1!


featured photo by Maivan Fernandez – Brazilian Championship 2015. Campeonato Brasileiro de Triathlon CBTri, Joao Pessoa, Paraiba. <>


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