What To Say – Or Not – To An Open Water Swimmer

Courtesy of Coruja Filmes Produtora of Adherbal de Oliveira swimming the Travessia do Leme ao Pontal, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

There are lots of things that open water swimmers know, both instinctively and learned over time. They learn about how it is best to breathe in turbulent water; they learn what kinds of food are best suited before an open water race or a channel swim; they learn where to put on lanolin to prevent chafing, and they learn what goggles and tech suits fit their face and body best.

Swimmers also learn the lingo of open water swimming; terms like positioning, pacing, feeding, escorts, buoys, drafting, and dolphining. They become familiar with the mindset and expectations of their peers who enjoy venturing past the shoreline.

There are certain things that are specifically avoided in discussions among open water swimmers. These include:

1. Is that a shark?
Veterans neither point towards to shark, actual or perceived, nor blurt out is this question to a swimmer in the water. If the wave or the fin is not a shark, the swimmer is needlessly scared and fear creeps into their mind. In contrast, if there is a possibility of a shark encounter, then veteran paddlers and escort crew spring into action and either immediately remove the swimmer from the water or move into position to protect the swimmer like a Secret Service agent does with a president.

2. Does that hurt [when stung by a jellyfish]?
Of course, the jellyfish venom stings and burns. The question is unnecessary when a grimace or tears appear. Veterans and support crew immediately offer aid as appropriate to the type of jellyfish encountered.

3. Oh, wow, the water is really cold.
There is no need to make suggestive statements that can only emphasize the uncomfortableness of lower water temperatures.

4. Is that a cap tan?
With prolonged exposure to the sun, a cap tan especially after a long race or a long workout is a usual telltale mark of swimmers. With a clear division on a swimmer’s forehead between the skin of pronounced paleness relative to the rest of their sunburned face, swimmers need not be reminded of their temporary identification mark. Note: the same goes with raccoon eyes where the skin tone of the eye sockets are markedly different than the skin tone of the rest of the face, especially on the temples.

5. Aren’t you hungry?
The answer is nearly always in the affirmative, especially after a long or tough workout. Where do you want to go, or what do you want to eat are the types of questions that much more appreciated by open water swimmers.

6. There is no need to volunteer.
There is always a need to volunteer for various events and people in the open water swimming world. Helping out onshore, paddling or kayaking, serving as a pace swimmer or support crew, observing, answering phones, helping with awards, fundraising and administrative help are always activities that are underserved and always fall into the hands of too few.

7. That younger girl (or boy) or that older man (or woman) beat you.
Age, gender and pool swimming times do not matter in the open water. There is no shame in getting beat by someone significantly younger or older. It may even be the case that the swimmer is faster in the pool with much better turns and sprinting speed. But the game changes from chlorinated pools to salt and freshwater venues. Navigational IQ, comfort and confidence in the open water, and stamina (both mental and physical) take precedence in the open water.

8. I forgot your towel (or drink, goggles, ear plugs or swim cap).
If an open water swimmer counts on their family member, teammate or friend to bring them something during or after a swim or race, the expectations are 100% that their second will come through. Like sentries who exchange shifts in the middle of the night, each person is entrusted with the belief they will unfailingly come through.

9. Oh, no…what is it?!?
It is much better to act calmly rather than in panic; it is much more appreciated to speak in measured, analytic terms than by breathless, nervous tones when something is seen in the water.

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