How in the World Did I Ever Get into Open Water Swimming? aka How Can I Improve My Own Swimming?

Come on… There are thousands of other activities a single gal in her earlier twenties living in Manhattan could be doing. What possessed me to “take the plunge” into those cool, dark waters, free of lane lines, without visible bottoms, inhabited with living things that had teeth? I guess I can blame some of it on peer pressure from my fellow swimmates at the time--everybody who was “anybody” was going to swim at Rockaway Beach in Queens on the weekends.

I swam in the wakes of some very accomplished open water swimmers at Rockaway. Some of it must have had to do with ego: when you’re young and you win a few prizes, you keep coming back for more. But I think the bottom line was I enjoyed the freedom of being in open water with no lanes, no lines and no limits. Up until then, no where in my life plan was there any calling to connect with wide-open aquatic expanses, much less in only a Speedo, cap and goggles. Yet, here I am, over a quarter-century later, still chugging along celebrating Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, a book by Charles Sprawson. Better yet, I have been able to spread the good word to and share in the actual experience with many other fellow swimmers about the beauties and glories of the open water experience, all the while expanding my personal involvement. Sure, I’ve ticked off some of the marquee swims: multiple laps around Manhattan Island, Chicago Skyline, The Channels: English, Catalina and Santa Barbara (so far), plus hundreds of races, so it must come easily and I’m a natural, right?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I have been swimming for nearly all of my 47+ years with the usual progression a lifer takes from age group, high school, college and adult programs. But for a decade after seeing “Jaws”, the farthest I ventured into any open water was up to my ankles, although there may have been a few daring risks to knee-depth. Once I started regularly making the aforementioned peer-pressure-induced plunges, there was the front and center panic to deal with: a truly unadvertised special that people think either won’t apply to them and/or as something to “macho” through. With experience comes the understanding of how real and debilitating this fear is. It took me about 20 years to realize I wasn’t the only one who panicked. In fact, as I started to articulate the coping mechanisms I’d innately developed, I discovered how to share these methods with others. Likewise during these years, I have come to realize that there are aquatic creatures--seen and unseen--able to sting/bite/tangle and inflict similar maladies to impede progress, but these beings live in the water and I’m only visiting, so I deal. And we’ve not even mentioned all the “man-made” junk in the water. But this jetsam, along with acclimation to swimming in cold water, is a topic for another article entirely.

The main point here is to get better at swimming in open water you have to practice practice practice. Sound familiar? You need to develop many different tools that allow you to engage mentally and physically with the water when the scene abruptly changes. For the bike and run, lots of devices have been created to help you be all you can be during these gravity-based sports. It doesn’t work that way in the fish’s world and hence the extreme nature of this third of the event. If there was a magic pill, I would have discovered it, but in lieu of any such wish, practice is the answer.

Now is the time of year to build your comfort and stamina levels in the water. Obviously, most of us are training in pools right now, so you minimize these hurdles when you get into the open water. Vision Quest offers lots of options: a weekly workout posted online, swim workout groups (check the VQ calendar to find one that suits your schedule), one-on-one instruction for those who feel this would best suit your needs right now or may be tentative to swim in a group.

Contact me at to set up a private session. My site,, contains more information on open water swimming than most mortals can stand, but it may be worth a quick view. And watch the VQ site for announcements of my upcoming pool clinics and a VQ forum talk, “What’sIt Really Like to Swim the English Channel?”

Looking ahead to this summer, we will be doing VQ open water clinics. So as soon as the ice breaks, check the VQ site for the when/where/what info of those clinics.

In the meantime, to improve your swimming, you need to swim!

See you in the water!


Can You Let Me in on a Secret? | Vision Quest Coaching
Can You Let Me in on a Secret? | Vision Quest Coaching
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