January 26, 2012

Panic Attacks

I printed an article from the Washington Post back in November, titled "Death in triathlons may not be so mysterious; panic attacks may be to blame," and have been carrying it around since, but just finally read it today (my inability to get things done is a whole other post...). Most of you likely read it, but it struck a cord so deeply within me that I still wanted to talk about it.

When I started this sport in 2008, I had never swam a lap or taken a swim lesson in my 33 years of life. And it terrified me. I wasn't afraid of water, and in fact loved playing in the ocean and being in pools. But that's a far cry from donning a wetsuit and swimming in the Hudson River with a few hundred friends, which is what I was signed up to do about two months from my first swim lesson. I worked so hard to be prepared and felt I had nailed it, but at my first race, a small local sprint I signed up for last-minute as a practice, I panicked on the swim and ended up backstroking the entire thing. I was ok in the warm-up, and ok treading at the start, but when the gun went off I couldn't breathe, I felt like the air had been pulled from my lungs. I spent the entire .25 miles swim flipping back-and-forth onto my back. I was never more relieved to see land.

I know I was not alone in that reaction and this article shows the issue is perhaps bigger than we thought, particularly as the sport gains popularity. It's a reminder that we compete in a sport with risks that require a real dedication to preparation.

I joke a lot about not training for my Ironman swims, but I'm referring to my lack of commitment to improving my times. I don't log enough volume to improve, but I do enough training to be able to safely and comfortably complete the swim. I may be in the lower tier of my age group but I'm fine with that. But I would never advocate doing a triathlon with inadequate swim training. My sister competed in her first triathlon last season and I was right there with her. I remember looking over at the start as I was nearing the end of my swim and seeing her wave start. Suddenly I was worried and I spent the entire bike scanning the sea of women on bikes looking for her. Turns out she rocked the swim because she worked hard and prepared, but my irrational worry goes to show just how important it is to be ready.

Sometimes I don't feel like that same person who got into the pool on a rainy day that May and started this journey. But I'm so glad I did it, and I'm saddened for the families of last year's victims. As advocates of this sport, we can help new athletes prepare and hopefully make it safer for everyone.


  1. The swim is certainly the most intimidating part of triathlon for most people. But I nearly bit the head off one spectator as I was getting out of the water once, who said "the hard part is done". He didn't know the swim was the easy part for me.

    Oh, and I tagged you. Just fate you were at the top of my blog roll at the time. http://keithsodyssey.blogspot.com/2012/01/2x11-again.html

  2. I totally can relate... I still have panic attacks in the open water, but I think I have trained myself on how to get through them a bit more. And when I say that I haven't done enough swimming... it's not a matter of will I survive a rough start or a panic attack, it's a matter of how fast I'll get the heck out of the water.



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