In the fall of 2017, I began swimming twice a week as part of my triathlon training. Like a lot of novice triathletes, this was the part of the race that made me nervous. It wasn’t that I couldn’t swim, just that I didn’t – at least, not very often and not very far.
Finding a race that required a swim of just 300 meters in a pool was what made me decide to go through with it. The security of swimming in a pool, where lifeguards would be on the watch, made the whole thing a lot less daunting. Three hundred meters was still farther than I’d swum in a long time but it seemed doable.
For the first session of training, my goal was to swim 50 meters. That’s just two complete lengths of the pool, up and back.
I didn’t make it.
Upon reaching the far end, I grabbed the edge and gasped like a salmon plucked from the river and tossed onto the bank. After five minutes spent sucking air, I swam back to the other end of the pool. Slowly.
That inauspicious beginning could have marked the end of my triathlon dream but three days later, I decided to try again. This time, swimming much more slowly, I was able to go the whole 50 meters without stopping.
After building my endurance gradually, I now swim up to one thousand meters in a session. Though I’d never have believed it possible on that first day when I was doing my gasping salmon impression, swimming 300 meters in a pool is a piece of cake for me now. I do it so often that it’s become routine. And kind of boring.
All that changed this week.
My husband and I are in Hawaii on a working vacation. Keeping up with my training schedule has been a challenge because the resort pool isn’t designed for lap swimming. However, as the concierge pointed out, we were just a short drive from the world’s biggest swimming pool – the Pacific Ocean.
Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that? Problem solved, right?
Most triathlons are swum in open water. But the idea of swimming in a lake, or reservoir, and especially the ocean – was frightening for me. That’s part of why I eliminated those races from my consideration. The race I picked wasn’t just about the distance, it was about the location – a pool. With lifeguards. And edges to grab. And clearly marked depths.
Swimming in the ocean comes with none of those safeguards. What it does come with are currents and tides. And fish.
Squid are fish. So are sharks. I am frightened of both.
Even so, the day before yesterday, I found myself standing on a beach in Kailua-Kona, getting ready to take the plunge. The presence of other swimmers and buoys to mark off the distance from shore was somewhat comforting. Still, even though my husband would be watching from shore, this was the ocean. If I got into trouble out there, I was on my own.
There’s a reason that shorelines are dotted with signs saying “Swim At Your Own Risk.” When you swim in the ocean, that is exactly what you’re doing – taking a risk.
Knee deep in the surf, I turned to my husband and yelled, “If I don’t feel comfortable out there, I’m coming back in. And I’m only going to the third buoy and back, okay? That’s 300 meters.”
He gave me a thumbs up, as I knew he would. He’s been a great cheerleader but this whole thing was my idea, not his. I was just trying to give myself an out.
I won’t lie to you. Diving into that water was scary, really scary.
Swimming in the ocean was a lot more work. Swells kept pushing me away from the buoy markers, which were my security blanket. The sea floor dropped off quickly and the water got very deep, very fast. And there were fish. Lots of them.
Those first few minutes in the deep end were heart pounding. But as I swam away from the shore and my comfort zone, I reminded myself of the things I’d done to get to this point. I recalled how, slowly and over time, I had pushed my limits, building strength and endurance, progressing from swimming half a lap to forty. Suddenly, a thought popped into my head.
I am a strong swimmer.
It’s true. I wasn’t always but I am now. And, when you think about it, water is just water. Five feet or fifty, you can still float in it. Yes, the current makes it tougher but when you’ve built up your strength, learned to endure, it’s nothing you can’t handle.
And the fish? They were beautiful! But I would never have known that if I hadn’t decided to push away the fear and dive in.
A sensible caution is definitely one of the benefits of life beyond fifty. But sometimes, as we get older, we can also develop a surplus of caution, a fear of trying new things and stepping out of our comfort zone. Here are some things to remember when you’re ready to dive into the deep end.
Comfort zones can be too comfortable
Comfort zones are safe, but they can also be boring. When I was pushing myself to reach new goals – fifty meters, one hundred, three hundred, a thousand – swim training was fun. But once I’d leapt over the milestones, it became just another obligation.
Pushing your limits and learning new things makes life an adventure. But you can’t learn something new if you won’t try something new.
When you’re heading someplace new, remember where you’ve been.
Swimming in the ocean was definitely a new thing for me but that experience was built on those that came before it. Looking back on the things I’d done before – swimming 50 meters, then 100, and so on – helped me push through my fear and keep going.
Even if you’re trying something new, you’ve probably experienced other challenges with lessons that can be applied to your current situation. Recalling how you met those challenges will boost your confidence and help you keep going, even in the face of fear.
Setbacks happen. And they aren’t the same as failure.
When you’re pushing past your comfort zone, you’ll probably experience setbacks. That’s completely okay and to be expected.
Being unable to meet my first training goal showed me I needed to slow down. It was a setback, not a failure. The only failure would have been in allowing that setback to discourage me to the point where I gave up. Look at setbacks as teachable moments, course adjustments on the road to your ultimate success.
Get a swim buddy.
When you’re diving into unchartered waters, having a support system can make things less frightening, and more fun. Though I am training alone, my husband’s encouragement has been a big help.
Recruiting a supportive friend or family member as your cheerleader will help you push through moments of doubt. Better yet, find a friend or support network of people with similar goals and cheer each other on!
You can’t see the fish if you don’t get off the beach.
A key part of living an exciting and meaningful life at any age is to keep pushing yourself, to swim to the deeper water, the places and experiences as yet unknown.
When I dove in and started swimming away from safety and the shore, I was not comfortable. But I’m so glad I didn’t turn back. I learned a lot about fish. And even more about myself.
Tomorrow, I’m going back. And swimming further.