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by Marcia Cleveland

February 24, 2010

  • It can happen if you are experienced or a novice.
  • It can happen in any type of water: calm, rough, salt, fresh, ocean, river, or lake.
  • It can happen during a race or merely during a calm dip, and at any point in a swim: start, middle, end.
  • It can happen when you are surrounded by the Pack or when no one is near you.
  • It’s a basic survival instinct.
  • Even though I’ve spent thousands of hours training and racing in open water, it still happens to me sometimes.

What is it?

Panicking during an open water swim.

Your breathing gets shallow and rapid. You have either actually or perceived that you are losing control of yourself and your surroundings. You can’t get a hold of the water. You feel you may go under and this could be it. Your vision narrows and you can only think about getting air and grabbing at whatever is nearby so you don’t drown. It’s not funny to you at the moment because you just can’t get past this anxiety creating such panic in your psyche.

Now what?

Your number one priority is to maintain an air supply. Flip over on your back and breathe. Look up and point your chin toward the sky. Keep your hips up. Cross your arms over your chest or do elementary backstroke, like an insect skimming over the water. Maintain a flutter kick. Take deep breaths until you can get your breathing under control. Continue taking deep breaths and looking up at the sky if you are still panicking. If you are swimming within a crowded pack, try to get over to the side and/or get out of the traffic. If you can’t, you may get banged into a few times.

Once you feel you may be in more control, make a deal with yourself like, “I’m going to flip over from my back and take five freestyle strokes. If I’m ok, I’ll keep swimming freestyle. If I’m not ok, I’ll return to my back and keep repeating the above calming techniques.” If you simply can’t calm down and there are safety or escort craft nearby, get their attention and tell them you are feeling anxious and ask them to keep an eye on you. Do not worry about looking or feeling ridiculous.

Remember, the ability simply to complete an open water swim is a huge accomplishment and you need to give yourself a pat on the back that you made an attempt, regardless of whether or not you finished.

Marcia Cleveland, former chair of the USMS Open Water and Long Distance Committees is a renowned open water swimmer, coach, and author of Dover Solo, which chronicles her successful English Channel crossing and honestly addresses many of the difficulties she encountered in her training. Marcia trains swimmers all over the country and of all different ability levels for open water swims. She can be reached at Cleveland claims her number one goal of each and every open water swim is to return to terra firma when she is done.