From Another Planet
In triathlon, very few, almost zero, people start off as triathletes. They/ We all come to the sport from another single-discipline. Triathletes talk like this. "I have a swimming background." "I have a running strength."
One reason is that there are no organized triathlon leagues. There are triathlon teams but it's a little different in the tri-world. For example, Buffalo, NY has a triathlon team/ club called the BTC (any guess what those letters stand for?). Rochester, NY also has a triathlon team/ club called the RATS. I do not know of a race where the BTC challenged the RATS in a head-to-head competition. Once in a while, a local triathlon will have a team prize, but it's not the norm.
Triathlon is not something kids do in school. High schools do not compete against each other in SBR. There is no triathlon little league. The only way most kids gain exposure to the sport is through their parents. Then, they may go to an event and participate in the kid's race. But, once school starts, triathlon is forgotten for most. Therefore, people become triathletes from some other discipline. (Aside: This is almost true. I am familiar with at least one HS that has a triathlon club. They are lead by a teacher/ coach at their school and compete in the open age group competition at a local triathlon. End Aside)
If you look at most of the race results by age group, you'll find a bunch of kids age 11 and younger in the kid's race. Then, on the average, less than 10 total participants between the ages of 12-20. The numbers don't pick up until after 25. The bell curve is at its apex around age 40 before narrowing back down to oblivion after age 60. Schools have swim teams and running teams. I am, to this day, still perplexed how people get involved in non-high school type sports; like cycling, luge, synchronized swimming, and (weirdest of all) soccer.
The fact is that most adults have had little to no formal training in the swimming discipline. Many have had some form of swim lessons but more so than not, they have not been extensively coached. This is most unfortunate as swimming is very technical. It takes a long time to master the proper technique to feel comfortable in the water. Even Olympic swimmers are constantly working on their form. Good swimming technique is something that few, if no one, can figure out on their own.
If I had it my way, all triathletes would come from a swimming background. This is a bit counter-intuitive as I have a swimming strength. This is the one stage of the sport where I am relatively confident in my skills and believe I have a benefit in the race over many others. Why would I want to take that away? The answer is, of course, safety (theirs, not mine).
My guess is that if you polled all of the active triathletes in America, which was at 135,000 people at the end of 2010, and asked them one simple question, "Which discipline concerns you the most?" You'd have an overwhelming percentage picking swimming. This is in light that very few have died in triathlon. Between the years 2006-2008, a grand total of 14 people passed away. Thirteen were on the swim leg of the race. Most (12) had heart problems. Triathlon and swimming remain a relatively safe sport, especially when you compare it to the number of people who die driving a car on a daily basis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 30,000 people die in a car annually. In further comparison, about 40 people worldwide get struck and die by lightening.
Recently, triathlon lost 2 of our own in the NYC Triathlon. Of course, their deaths happened during the swim. Below is a short video of that swim leg. From the shot, you can see several people in wetsuits swimming nicely, others are bobbing up and down with the current, and at the 13 second mark you can see a swimmer with a noodle-type flotation device (against the rules). Again, in the Banter's perfect world, all of those people in the video would be swimming. I can't imagine the stress welling inside someone that has to compete with a noodle. I liken it akin to having to do the bike leg with training wheels. This is where the safety aspect comes in. The race is stressful enough. I want all racers to worry about their time and performance, not their comfort in the water.
In a recent Twitter conversation with a couple of other twits, they admitted to me how swimming was a challenge. The Banter-In-Law, who started his triathlon career a year ago, has come a long way in his swimming progress. It has not been without effort. Most of those experiences were in a pool. Pools have nice black lines on the bottom, they have lines on the side, they have walls, and in most reputable pools you can actually see your hand in front of the face.
Swimming In Triathlon
Open water swimming has other challenges that a pool will never offer. For example, the water is rarely smooth. Natural pulses of energy, known as waves, are common in a lake or ocean.
The water tends to be murky. There are creatures underneath the surface. Your mind can play tricks on you, especially in salt water when you are dressed up like a wounded seal. Once in a while, a triathlete will find a surprise on the bottom of the drink.
The Imaginary Progression
So, back to my perfect triathlon world. Everyone would have exposure to a swim team as a kid. Not swim lessons, a swim team. The difference is in the practice time. Swim lessons tend to meet once a week for however many weeks the session schedule is held. The goal of lessons is comfort and survival. Swim team is 5-6 days. In most cases, not all mind you, the coaches of a swim team have a deeper knowledge of stroke technique. The goal of the team is competition. That's step one.
Step 2 in the progression is to practice open water swimming. This may be with a wetsuit. Wetsuit swimming is easier, faster, and warmer. In certain climes, such as NW New York, it's almost a requirement. Triathletes in other areas of the world don't need wetsuits.
Step 3 is to do the same open water swim without a wetsuit. It's so simple, even a teenager can do it. If you live anywhere around here, I'd suggest waiting to do it later in the season. Still, the body can adapt to some lower-than-you'd expect temperatures. My first open water swim was in water temperatures around 61º. I was chilly, yes, but I got over it quick enough. (Also, notice that I skipped in the progression. Then again, I was already comfortable swimming in open water.)
Step 4 is to be able to swim in open water under these conditions.
The point is that if you are uncomfortable in the water, uncertain about completing the distance, or unsure of your success in the swim portion of the race, it may be better for you to sit this one out. There are alternatives, such as a duathlon which features no swimming but is still challenging and rewarding. I know, it's not a triathlon. But, I don't want to do a post-humus blog write-up about you any time in the near future. Join a team, get comfortable, and meet me at the start. Just for the record, you're going down. (Sorry, bad choice of words.)