Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ducking sucker punches

A couple of weeks ago, a group of us traveled to California for an ocean-swim clinic in San Diego. Another first for me - swimming in the ocean - despite having lived in West Palm Beach, Fla., for nine years.

I spent plenty of time on Florida's beaches, but my purpose was more of a bikinied decoration in the sand. Yes, I went INTO the ocean, but my feet always touched the ground. My most athletic experiences then were trudging through the sand to the tiki bar to order another rum runner.

The woman who's been teaching me to swim, Anne Wilson, led the clinic. Eight of the 18 people in attendance were from my fitness community here in Phoenix, and all of us are novice triathletes of varying abilities looking to improve our skills. For many of us, this was a first ocean swim.

The clinic was divided into two parts, a morning swim at La Jolla Cove and an afternoon swim in Carlsbad at the beach.

California's mild temperatures were a welcome relief from the triple digits we've been experiencing here in Phoenix, but 60-something-degree water was less inviting than the Atlantic temperatures I knew in south Florida.

We began our morning in La Jolla Cove, a popular spot for scuba divers, swimmers and seals. We suited up in our wetsuits and after everyone introduced themselves, Anne talked to us about what to expect when we hit the water.

The wetsuit was wonderful. Not only does it add buoyancy, but it really does insulate your body. As the water fills the space between your skin and the wetsuit, your body quickly warms it. If you want a little added warmth, release your bladder. Sounds disgusting until you're standing in 60-degree water, teeth chattering, lips blue and toes numb. Yep, I thought, sounds good to me. It took a few tries, but once I was able to relax, I filled my wetsuit and tried not to think about it as the warm liquid worked its way down my legs and up my torso.

Anne divided us into groups - advanced, experienced and novice. I hung back, thinking for sure I'd be in the novice group. "Noelle, why don't you go with them," she said, pointing to the experienced group.


If Anne has confidence that I can swim a half mile in the cove, then she must know what she's talking about. I joined the group and slowly made my way, trailing behind everyone, to the .25-mile buoy. The cove is packed with sea and plant life, which makes for an interesting swim as you watch bright orange fish dart around the leafy plants. I stopped a couple of times to catch my breath and found myself getting a little seasick, which surprised me. Though the cove has no waves, the water steadily undulates, which threw off my equilibrium. Keep swimming, I told myself. You will not barf in the ocean.

Our afternoon swim was at the beaches of Carlsbad, which is very popular for surfers. So, the waves are rougher. With Anne's coaching and the comfort of having seven friends with me, I was dolphin diving under the waves. Diving under the waves was like cheating them from knocking me off my feet. Ducking sucker punches!

With knowledge comes power. Learning how the water shifts and how to position my body in the ocean took away the fear I've carried with me my whole life. As much as I've loved the ocean, I've always feared its vastness and strength. I have never had so much fun in the ocean, and I can't wait to go back.