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FIRST PERSON

She Gets Along Swimmingly Despite Triathlon

October 07, 1994|RENE LYNCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"If you can run, bike and swim, you can be a triathlete," the article promised. "Follow our 12-week training program and cross the finish line, guaranteed!"

Looking for a good excuse to exercise, I was hooked before I finished reading about "mini" or sprint triathlons--a half-mile swim, a 13-mile bike ride and a three-mile run.

Sure, I can shuffle along for a few miles, I thought, even though I've never been much of a runner. And I love biking.

But there was the matter of The Swim.

I never learned to swim growing up in New Jersey because there was really no place to swim. Only one kid in my neighborhood had a pool, but it was the above-ground kind, maybe four feet deep--I once skinned my forehead on a clothes line while leaping off the side. And my parents rarely braved the bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to the Jersey shore.

But I blame my swimming fears on Steven Spielberg. Ever since "Jaws," I couldn't go near the water without watching for fins accompanied by menacing music.

It wasn't until I moved to Southern California that I realized what I was missing: snorkeling off Laguna Beach, bay kayaking in Long Beach or spending a Friday night aboard the Muckraker, a fellow journalist's rig.

I figured it was time to conquer my paralyzing fear. I began following my run-bike training program ( never call it exercise). That first weekend I went down to the Alamitos Bay, convinced I could teach myself to swim.

I was surprised the water was so clear and warm. I looked down to see--fish!

I sprinted back to the sand.

I willed myself back in, cringing, trying not to think about sharks as I attempted a freestyle stroke.

Suddenly, there came a voice: "You must be taking swimming lessons," said a girl in pigtails. I was astonished a little tyke could tread water so effortlessly. Then I realized I had drifted so close to shore I could kneel and still keep my head above water. I stood up and slinked away.

I signed up for private swim lessons with an instructor who stood slack-jawed when I explained I wanted to complete a triathlon, now just a few weeks away.

"We'd better start with survival techniques," she said. My lessons were in four-foot-deep water. First came treading water and the backstroke. Freestyle swimming followed, but I had trouble alternating strokes with gulps for air.

My instructor would walk beside me, chanting: "You're swimming, you're swimming, BREATHE! You're swimming, you're swimming, BREATHE!"

I trained hard and was giddy at my improvements. I began enjoying my pool workouts, which were remarkably calming. Even in a crowded pool, the quiet afforded by my earplugs and my red swim cap made me feel alone. I learned to trust the buoyant water and overcame my dislike of goggles, which allowed me to follow the soothing blue lane lines at the bottom of the pool.

Within just a few weeks, I could swim a half-mile. At my last swim lesson, my instructor urged me to postpone my triathlon plans until I spent more time--actually, any time--in the ocean, because the swim would be disorienting.

But I had convinced myself I would be fine. I recklessly waited until the day of the event to take my first ocean swim.

*

I entered a Danskin triathlon because it caters to first-timers and is just for women. The swim took place at the calm waters of the Newport Dunes, and the bike and run course covered flat land around scenic Back Bay Drive.

I had two goals. One: Don't drown. Two: Don't finish last.

At 7 a.m. on Sept. 11, I felt calm as I stood at the edge of the water, surrounded by hundreds of women of all ages and sizes. The men stood behind the starting line, yelling words of support and waving hand-made signs.

A whistle blew and my "wave"--swimmers grouped by age and ability--went rushing forward. I was astonished by my reaction as warm water enveloped me.

I was shocked by the sting and taste of the salt, and when I forced my face into the water, all I could see was pea-soup green.

I started panting wildly, unable to breathe normally, feeling the seeming crush of the water about my chest. I felt strangled and began to cry. Panicking, I tried turning back but was overcome by a second wave of women who simply swam over me. I was battered by the swinging arms and kicking legs that kept forcing me under the water.

I found myself facing the ocean again. Inexplicably, I began a frantic doggie paddle forward. In my distress, I began gulping salt water. I kept bobbing downward, irrationally trying to somehow stand in the deep water.

I knew I was near drowning.

I tried swimming across the oncoming path of women to reach land on the other side of the small lagoon but was knocked back again and again. One blow ripped off my goggles. I was desperately looking for a lifeguard.

Finally, I remembered my first lesson and flipped on my back and started kicking. But I forgot to use my arms. I was nearing the end when I finally came up behind a lifeguard kneeling atop a paddleboard in the water.

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