What open water swimming is teaching me about fear

Last weekend I stood on the sands of Fort De Soto’s North Beach in my dorky little tri suit and my goggles and felt like I was going to throw up.  I had signed up for a triathlon the week before, and so I figured it was time I learned how to swim in the open water.  Brian decided that a good way to start was to swim out to the buoy that represented the line of demarcation between the swim area and the boating zone, and then to turn left and swim to another buoy before returning to shore.  I can’t deny, the prospect terrified me.

I have lived in Florida for over eleven years now, but my formative years were spent first in the mountains of Utah, which didn’t exactly provided me with many opportunities to become comfortable in large, non-chlorinated bodies of water.   The Great Salt Lake may have once been the backdrop of charmingly vintage photos featuring ladies in bathing suits floating about like desert mermaids, but for as long as I’ve been alive, it’s smelled more like a bouillabaisse of rotting brine shrimp and seagull shit.  No thanks.  My other choices were lakes and reservoirs that were home to huge slimy bottom-feeding carp and catfish.  Again, no thanks.  It wasn’t even so much that I envisioned a Jaws-style tableau in which my body was chomped in half by a bloodthirsty fish. I couldn’t even bear the thought of scale-to-skin contact of any sort.

The last decade of my life as a Floridian has been a gradual process of coming to terms with the ocean. I waded in first up to my calves, then my knees, then my waist and finally my chest.  I tried not to panic when I saw fish swarm around my legs or when tendrils of sea grass wrapped around my feet.  I learned how to body surf.  I went snorkeling a couple of times, even though I spent most of my time in the water contorting my body so as to avoid making contact with any fish.

And then about four years ago Brian and I went on a cruise for our honeymoon, and one of our stops was in Belize.  Brian is an experienced scuba diver, and every opportunity he had to dive, he took. This time, the opportunity was too tantalizing, so we signed up for an intro to scuba class so we could dive together.  That was a pivotal moment for me.  After a two-hour class in which we learned about the equipment and the procedures, they took us out to sea and had us jump into the water with all of our rented gear on.  I floated in the water, my lips shivering so fiercely with terror that the instructor asked if I was cold.  “No,” I said.  “I’m scared shitless.”

I was tempted to say the hell with it and climb back up onto the deck of the boat, but my desire to go underwater and see a coral reef in person was so powerful that I decided I would try anyway. I told myself that if it was really so awful, I would go back to the surface right away, but that I had to at least try.  I didn’t come all this way and strap myself into scuba gear just to bob around in water for a few minutes and then wuss out.  So I took a deep breath and started pulling myself down along the rope anchored to the ocean floor forty feet below.  I pulled myself down and waited for my ears to pop, then pulled myself down further, each time willing myself not to panic, hand over hand until finally I was standing on the ocean floor.

I stood on the sandy bottom in my flippers and looked at the sun-dappled water above me and the wide expanse of blue all around me, and I was overcome with gratitude and happiness and awe.  It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, as close as I was ever going to get to visiting another planet, and the only reason I was seeing this exquisite part of the world is because I had confronted my fear of the ocean head-on.

That day I realized that I may not necessarily ever be fearless, but that it doesn’t matter.  Bravery is not never feeling afraid.  Bravery is feeling afraid of something and then going and doing it anyway.  I may never be fearless, but I can certainly be brave.

In the past, whenever I have felt afraid of something, that was reason enough for me to turn around and run away.  The sensation of being afraid was so overpowering – heart pounding, hands sweating, face flushing – that the only way I could ever think to survive it was to back away from whatever was causing me to feel that way.   No doubt this saved me from a lot of the common childhood injuries so many others have experienced – broken bones, stitches, concussions, the like.  But that mindset meant I was not terribly likely to talk to new people or speak up in class or ride roller coasters or a lot of otherwise harmless things that most people take for granted.  (This changed as I got older, but not without a lot of crying and tears first.)

So perhaps the first thing I had to learn was that just because I felt afraid of something, it didn’t necessarily mean it could harm me.   I had to stop conflating my anxiety over new experiences with genuine fear for my life and safety.

The next thing I had to understand was that fear itself could actually cause me harm.  Nowhere was this more apparent than when I was forty feet below the surface of the ocean.  As long as I was calm and kept my wits about me, I would be safe.  The moment I panicked, though, was the moment I put myself in danger. Fear would no longer serve its evolutionary purpose of protecting me from harm, and would instead become the thing that most threatened to harm me.

The last thing I understood was that every accomplishment in my life that I hold dear was once something that scared the shit out of me.  Everything from running a marathon to leaving a terrible relationship – all of these things terrified me, and yet in retrospect they are the things I am most proud of doing.  Perhaps it is because I was so afraid that makes these accomplishments all the more valuable, like the suffering I faced made the sense of pride all the sweeter.

I recalled these three lessons as I waded into the warm, blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  I thought about how badly I wanted to compete in a triathlon, and how this was the only thing keeping me from it.  How the only thing keeping me from it was me.  I thought about all of the things that could open up to me if I could just learn to quiet these fears.  And maybe most importantly, I refused to let myself think about the fish in the water below me.

The buoy seemed so far away every time I looked up, but I knew that if I tried to thrash my way there as fast as I could, I would do nothing but tire myself out, and then I would be in some actual deep shit.  Instead I thought about my technique and the warmth of the water and the blue of the sky, and I tried to remember how blessed I was to even be able to do what I was doing, and I tried again not to think about the fish in the water.

Then suddenly, there was the barnacle-covered buoy, shiny and white and taller than it had ever seemed when I was standing on land.  It was right in front of me.  I could have reached out and touched it (but didn’t because, ew, barnacles).

I shouted, “I did it!  Look!  I’m at the buoy!”  I had made it to the buoy under my own power and I was in water that would have covered my head. I was a little freaked out and breathless, but I was also insanely, wildly proud of myself.  I put my hand up so Brian could give me five, and then we turned and swam to the other buoy, before heading back to shore.

When we made it back to the sand, I caught my breath and took a sip of water, then we ran back into the water for another swim to the buoy.  Just because we could.  Just because I could.

10 responses to “What open water swimming is teaching me about fear

  1. Very inspirational post. Overcoming fear is perhaps the biggest lesson of our lives. I’ve just started trail running, and kept tripping and falling until I realized I needed to let go of the fear, that it was actually creating the most danger. It doesn’t mean I won’t fall again, but I can’t let the fear keep me from doing what I love.

  2. Oh this may be my favorite post yet! You captured the feeling of fear so perfectly, but also the wonder that is being under 40 feet of water. I have never in my life felt so calm as when I am diving.

  3. I’ve never beeing diving, and never swam in open water. Both things that I am scared of. Even after reading this, I’m still shaky from even thinking about it. But one day I will overcome that fear, someday. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I second Laura, my fav post as well! I love reading about your courage.

    I was born in FL and while I didn’t grow up here, I spent plenty of summers at Cocoa Beach NOT LEARNING HOW TO SWIM. I’ve been swimming (badly) for about 10 years now but I still rarely leave the shore even though I know what I’m missing out on.

  5. Thanks so much for this post; I’ve forwarded it some friends at the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club in San Francisco. We swim year round in Aquatic Park, where winds and currents are strong, air temperature is usually in the 50s and 60s, and water temperature ranges between 48° and 62° F. I have never swum in a wetsuit. Fear is my steady companion — but so are exhilaration and awe. And beauty: a glimpse of Alcatraz or the Golden Gate Bridge, a rainbow after a winter shower. When I finished swimming my mile a couple of days ago, a snowy egret was there to greet me, standing calmly and regally at the water’s edge. No pool in the world can provide that feeling.

  6. I don’t think I’ve ever commented here before, but I had to tell you that I love this post! So inspirational and relevant to my life in general! Thanks for writing!

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