Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Newbie Volunteers at the Encinitas Tri.

This was posted to the list on Monday May 18, 2009 3:30 pm

Yes, this is yet another FIRST TIME EVER newbie report!

The Encinitas Tri was my first time being a Swim Buddy. Considering that I was a non-swimmer only 8 months ago, I was a bit apprehensive, wondering if I was pushing it just a bit in thinking I was ready to become a Swim Buddy this soon. After all, I had only completed my first triathlon competition just last month, at Spring Sprint.

My concerns were quickly addressed by John Flores, who laid out our Swim Buddy responsibilities as he handed us our fluorescent orange swim caps. John told us Swim Buddies are not life guards, we aren't even coaches: Our job is to keep our swimmers company, to try to keep them focused and encouraged, and to call in a lifeguard if anything goes wrong. Fortunately, the Encinitas Tri had about a zillion lifeguards: I've never seen more!

Still, I was nervous as the first wave prepared to start. Since I was surrounded by nearly two dozen other Swim Buddies, I decided I would be a "backup" Swim Buddy. I was oddly relieved when none of the Elites requested a Swim Buddy. Subsequent waves needed one or two Swim Buddies, then more. When several waves simultaneously in the water, the number of available Swim Buddies soon started to dwindle, and I knew there would be no "backup": I was going to become a Swim Buddy.

I noticed that, in general, female swimmers were more likely to request a Swim Buddy before the start of their wave than were the males. When I mentioned this to another Swim Buddy, he told me there also was a general tendency among novice triathletes to over-estimate their swim and entry skills. The experienced Swim Buddies allowed for this by following each wave into the surf, looking for swimmers having difficulty.

I figured following a wave would get me into the water, and would let me watch senior Swim Buddies in action. So in I went behind the next wave, and moments later another Swim Buddy was pointing at a swimmer next to him as he passed her with his swimmer. I was the closest Swim Buddy, so I immediately had my first Swimmer!

For this swimmer, a fast run to the water followed a difficult surf entry had tired her out, and she couldn't "find her stroke". She was huffing and puffing with her head held high, and was ineffectively pulling at the water. I immediately identified her breathing pattern with my own introduction to open ocean swimming: "Neoprene Smothering", where the pressure of the water, the mild constriction of a wetsuit, and a touch of anxiety combine to make catching your breath much more difficult, something that happens even to experienced swimmers.

She was tiring, but had not yet reached a panic state. So I asked her to ease up a bit, and let her wetsuit hold her up. She held her own, but wasn't recovering her wind. I suggested she roll onto her back and breathe while fluttering her arms and legs. She rolled over and started doing an effective back-stroke. Clearly, she was an experienced pool swimmer.

In just 30 seconds she had caught her breath, so she rolled back over, put her face in the water, and started doing a freestyle stroke. At which point it was immediately clear her surf entry had pushed her goggles up her face, and the lower seal was open to the ocean.

She was still a bit overwhelmed by the swim so far, so she didn't immediately see what was wrong as she returned to her head-high stroke. I suggested she reset her goggles, which also gave her a moment to collect her thoughts.

When she next put her face in the water, she took off with a strong, smooth freestyle stroke, and was zig-zagging toward the turn buoy. However, each time she lifted her head to spot the buoy, her forward progress halted, and she had to do a significant push to get going a gain, which clearly tired her.

Since she was consistently turning to the right and she also breathed from the right, I moved to that side, and suggested she guide off of my position during each breath, and I would keep us both headed toward the buoy. That worked well, until the first time she bumped into me, at which point she stopped to apologize. I told her we were both covered in foam rubber, so we won't bruise easily. With a chuckle, she was off again. She maintained her steady stroke all the way around the buoy. She bumped against me only a few more times, smoothly correcting her course after each.

As we headed back toward the shore, I started wondering what I should do about the impending exit. You see, I had thought plenty about the surf, and I had thought of the most important things to tell a swimmer about going through the waves. But here I was next to a swimmer with her head in the water, and I didn't want to stop her to talk about the exit.

Since she was swimming strongly, I simply decided to deal with situations only if they arose, and to not interrupt her focus. Fortunately, we reached the shore between sets, so the exit was uneventful. She thanked me, and I surprised her by thanking her for being my VERY FIRST swimmer!

On my way back to the Start, I thought about that swim. First, despite having just covered 750 meters in "full alert mode", I was exhilarated instead of being tired. Second, I realized my first Swim Buddy experience had been a total, 100% success. Basically, all I did was let the swimmer show me what she needed, and otherwise not distract her from her swimming.

Full of new confidence, I followed the next wave of swimmers into the surf, and soon exited after they all made it through the surf and were swimming toward the buoy.

I made it back to the start in time for the very last triathlon wave, the Super Sprint. The announcer made the call for anyone wanting a Swim Buddy to raise a hand. Two did, and two other Swim Buddies paired up with them. The call went out again, and when no other hands went up, I figured I would be following this wave. Then the announcer made a third call, and one more hand went up. I was the closest Swim Buddy, so I went to meet my swimmer.

She was a first-timer, very excited, and more than a little concerned. She told me she had done some pool swimming, but this was her first ocean swim in "a while". She mentioned that as a kid she used to enjoy body surfing. I told her she may get to do some of that at the end of this swim!

In a moment of keen observation, I noticed she wasn't wearing goggles. I asked her about this, and she said she had never found a pair that fit, and the hassle of flooded goggles was one thing she didn't want to have to worry about. Well, I suppose I could also be a Seeing-Eye Swim Buddy, since my first swimmer had proven that steering by contact worked just fine.

Next, I told her that when the horn sounded, she should jog, not run, to the surf so she would have lots of energy to get through the waves. And that she shouldn't dive below any waves until she was in waist-deep water. Then I shut up.

The horn sounded, and I looked up to see the angriest-looking wave set of the morning! While the announcer had kept to his schedule, I wished he had also kept an eye on the water: It would have been considerate to delay the Super Sprint start for a minute or so. My swimmer didn't notice this as she headed into the surf.

She made steady progress through the waves, though twice she nearly had sand splashed into her eyes. Then she started swimming, or trying to swim, using a stroke I had never seen before: It was a head-high stroke like a dog paddle, but combined with her hands moving forward from the shoulder in a freestyle-like way, though her hands seldom broke the surface.

Her forward progress was minimal, and each set of swells pretty much halted it. After several minutes with slight forward motion, she looked at me and asked: "Is there a time limit?" I told her this was her race, and the course was hers for as long as she needed it.

While her stroke had negligible efficiency, she was clearly very strong, since she effortlessly maintained a steady stroke rate with no sign of fatigue. Ever so slowly the buoy approached, and by the time we rounded it, it was clear we were far behind the other Super Sprint swimmers. In fact, all but two had already exited.

On she went, gradually heading back to shore. The lifeguards, having nobody else in the water to watch, surrounded our path like water-borne paparazzi.

As we encountered swells nearer the beach, she looked back at the waves, which completely halted her slight forward speed. I suggested she focus on going forward, and I would count down the waves as they approached, letting her know the relative size. "Medium wave in Five, Four, Three, Two, One". Over and over again. And on she went.

We soon reached the outermost break, where some of the swells started to break near us and on us. I added this warning to my countdown, and she ducked under these waves. We finally approached the main break, and I told her it was time for her to show me her body surfing chops. This brought a grin and a new burst of energy.

The first wave she caught quickly brought her half the remaining distance to the beach. But this also was the first wave of a tight set, and we were pummeled by three more in quick succession. After surfing one more small wave, she was up and lunging through the waist-high water, waving and shouting to her mother who was waiting at the edge of the dry sand.

As my excited swimmer reached shin-high water, she stepped into a pit and landed face-first with an audible thud. I reached toward her, but she was up in an instant, a huge "Oh Well" smile on her face, running again.

I jogged with her to the base of the ramp up to transition, told her she had finished the hardest part of becoming a triathlete, and wished her the best on the bike and run. She flashed me a grin as she headed up the ramp. As I turned toward the showers, I realized that, on my first day as a Swim Buddy, I had just escorted the last of the day's triathletes from the water. Nice symmetry.

I thought about the weekend as I removed my wetsuit and showered. I had spent Saturday afternoon at the TCSD booth, which was a total blast. Then Sunday: Waking up at 4 AM, meeting the other Swim Buddies, my apprehension, John Flores' talk, and my two amazing swimmers. I realized I was more proud of myself at that moment that I had been when I crossed the finish line at Spring Sprint, my first triathlon competition.

I finished showering, gathered my gear, and headed back to the Expo area to change back into my street clothes. While climbing the ramp, I felt how, for me, giving back just feels so right. The thing is, until recently, I had generally been a loner: I have never been much of a joiner, nor a giver for that matter. Not only is triathlon still very new to me, but so are these extra dimensions of membership and contribution.

I started posting what has become a series of "First Ever" notes to this list because I wanted to share my newbie experiences while they were still fresh, in the hope that others would remember their own beginnings in triathlon, and hopefully "fall in love all over again" with this sport.

I doubt there will be many more posts like this from me, since it seems I've already done a little bit of all the major stuff. I'm not a newbie any more, despite still being very much a beginner, and having so many new things ahead of me. Going forward, I hope to do my part, along with the rest of TCSD, to help provide each future newbie with their own wonderful set of "First Ever" experiences in triathlon.

As I said in a prior post, there clearly is far more to triathlon than "Swim, Bike, Run": There is also the bigger picture of "Spectate, Volunteer, Compete". I realize that, for me, I've been getting as much satisfaction and joy from spectating and volunteering as I have from competing. Maybe more.

There are so very many of you within the TCSD family who have helped this ex-newbie over the past several months, all of whom I've mentioned in previous posts. Thank you again! However, one person stands foremost as both my primary encouragement for learning, and as my inspiration for giving back:

Thank you, Bobbie Solomon!

No matter what I achieve in triathlon, or what I give back, I will always be drafting behind your lead.

(Except on the bike, of course: That would be illegal! ;^)


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