Who is a REAL open-water swimmer?

Last week I met up with a couple from Lebanon. They heard about me in Antalya and invited me down to Kaş to give them an introductory TI lesson in the sea on their last day of vacation. I asked the gal if she liked to swim out in open-water. She started to explain how she was afraid of the deep where she could not see, and specifically the sharks. What I felt she was trying to say was, “No I am not really an open-water swimmer because I am too overwhelmed by fear of all these things.” (She had just made her first scuba dive the day before and was a bit intimidated during that experience by the thought of dangerous creatures- though there is little to fear in our region).

Here is the the assumption she may have been making- in her mind an open-water swimmer was some fearless athlete who could jump into any body of water and just start swimming along without care- cold, dark, deep and full of dangerous things- no problem. Anything less than that was not a ‘real’ swimmer, and she certainly did not consider herself qualified.

Not true!

I then began to explain that no swimmer needs to put herself into OW situations where she faces overwhelmingly fearful or dangerous factors. To enjoy OW swimming we don’t have to take on DEEP, DARK, COLD, and SHARKS all at once (or ever!). As intrinsically motived swimmers we have a say in what we expose ourselves to and the pace at which we go about it. Taking control of the experience and choosing to limit what factors we will face is not a disqualification from being called a ‘real’ OW swimmer but the very hallmark of a wise one.

We are thrilled and saturated with the stories and impressions of extraordinary OW swimmers doing these extraordinary swims, facing extreme challenges physically, mentally, and in the environment they are immersed in. But really, I am estimating that these people make up less than 5% of the OW swimmers in the world. They are the admirable exceptions, not the normal enthusiastic swimmers with real jobs, families to raise, limited access to OW, and a budget of time to train in. They are inspirational for sure, but not necessarily examples we can live our daily lives by.

I encouraged her to regard the stories of these extraordinary swimmers not as an intimidating standard she must try to reach in order to become a ‘real’ swimmer, but rather to use them as an invitation to just start exploring- to let their excitement sink in to her so she would be motivated to get out there and find her own personal thrills and adventure, to discover her own limitations and capabilities, then choose what she wants to work on next- however non-extreme it may seem. Many of these extraordinary swimmers have simply taken small step after small step to exploring new territory in their waterway, and within their own soul, starting on small things, and years later they find themselves working on extraordinary swimming projects.

I want to propose that an open-water swimmer is one who heads for their favorite stretch of wild-water as often as they reasonably can, and enter it with the intent to explore and to enjoy it. OW swimming is the practice of exploring, discovering limitations and capabilities, then looking for ways to push those boundaries out a bit further to increase the sense of liberation and satisfaction. In my heart OW swimming is not about being tough, but about becoming more skillful, more capable, more adaptable, more at peace with moving through a powerful and uncertain environment- it’s about being free

The practice of an open-water swimmer is to swim in open-water- water that is essentially wild, un-tamed by human engineering and climate control. And to swim there as often as they please. This does not mean that a swimmer must be able to swim in any body of water in any condition. It is much more practical (and safe) that a swimmer pick a body of water and start mastering it bit by bit. It could be as simple as swimming back and forth from the dock resting on your favorite summer lake, or doing 5 minute repeats along the bank of a river you are familiar with, or cruising out past the breakers and back on the local beach. It could be enjoying a brisk 30 minute swim in a Norwegian fjord, or a plunge in hot Caribbean bay while on holiday.

The attitude of an open-water swimmer is to want to explore, to learn, to grow, to expand the sense of confidence and freedom. Wilderness (yes, waterways could be rightly described as wilderness) presents a swimmer with an environment full of with wild forces that are much much bigger than the swimmer. It depends on how you want to view this environment: it is an inviting place to learn or a stressful place to avoid?

An open-water swimmer gets out there as often as they can and they like it, and they are doing things to deliberately get better at it.

I am an excellent swimmer by global standards. My skill, speed, and endurance may place me over 99% of the people on this planet. The elites in the 1% above me consume the media attention and admiration, though they make up but the mere surface-film of swimmers in the world. They are the exceptions not the norm. I swim regularly in a miniscule stretch of water- considering the millions of miles of shoreline around the world- along the southwest Turkish Mediterranean coast. I know parts of my little stretch fairly well and am on my way to mastering it. I realize that when I enter any new body of water as a guest I need to start the process of exploration and learning all over again. I cannot just jump into any water anywhere and expect to have the same performance, peacefulness, and safety as I have here in my home water- but I will eagerly embrace the process, start at the beginning and enjoy learning to swim with excellence in a new place. I just love to swim and love to explore open-water! This does not disqualify me from taking the identity of an OW swimmer but actually confirm it.

The point is this: it is not so important how fast we swim, nor how far, nor really in what kind of wild-water way. It’s that we get out there and enjoy expanding our abilities in it. We start small, and go a bit bigger when we’re ready for a new challenge.

So I want to encourage myself and others to look at extraordinary swimmers as those giving us permission to get out there and enjoy open-water for ourselves. We don’t have to swim the English Channel, or the Bering Straight, or chuck the wetsuit or shark cage just because the elites are doing so. But the funny thing is, once we discover the thrilling effects OW swimming has on our brain and on our heart, we just might find ourselves on one of those extraordinary swims one day. If we start by just loving to swim in our own humble stretch of wild-but-mild water, it might very well lead us to something bigger. When it does, we’ll be thrilled to be there.

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