July 28, 2013

Giving Back: Being a Swim Buddy

A few weeks ago, my friend Steve got the great idea for a small group of us to practice open-water swims (OWS) most weekends.  I haven't been able to join for all, but did a few weeks ago for an ocean swim.  It's great, because I never do OWS by myself (too dangerous) and it's fun to hang out with my friends during and after.  For this week, Steve suggested that instead of our usual swim, we volunteer as swim buddies for the Solana Beach Triathlon (Tri Club San Diego had just sent out an email to its members asking for volunteers).  Sounded great to me!

I haven't seen swim buddies at all triathlons (definitely not the Oly or half-Ironman I did) but I've seen them at other sprint triathlons I've done, all volunteers from the Tri Club. Basically, a swim buddy is there for any swimmer who wants someone to swim with, usually people who are very slow or inexperienced in the open water.  They obviously aren't there to physically help a swimmer, and if there is any trouble there are myriad lifeguards all around on kayaks, paddleboards and jetskis.  But a swim buddy is there to talk someone through panic, doubt and other swim hazards.  I've never used one before myself, as I've always felt confident in the water, but lots of people do.  The email specifically said you don't have to be a fast swimmer (which is good, because I'm on the slower side) but you have to be confident and strong.

Getting up at 4:55 this morning was brutal, especially for a race that I really wasn't even racing!  But my friend T and I wanted to get there early, as parking is tough. I did this race last year and remembered how sparse parking is....so getting there early was key.  I picked up Ted on the way and we got to Solana Beach about 5:45.  We found the swim buddy people, met up with our friend Steve, got our special blue caps (to identify us as swim buddies), and received instructions from the coordinator.  Soon we suited up and headed down to the beach.  I joined dozens of triathletes in the water, ducking waves and warming up. I was nervous---I was afraid I'd get paired with a super-fast triathlete that I wouldn't be able to keep up with.  But, as Steve said, if they are that fast and strong, they don't need a swim buddy in the first place!

The swim, like last year, was 1/4 mile long, in a rectangular loop. There were several waves, spaced 10 minutes apart, meaning that we could potentially go out on the course more than once.  The race started, and I wasn't chosen as a buddy.  Soon enough, a woman in a green cap came over to me to ask me to be her swim buddy. Turns out she is a strong and fast swimmer, but she is 6 months pregnant and wanted someone with her in case she started having leg cramps or other pain. Her wave wasn't for about 20 minutes so I used that time to run back to my pack to change out my goggles (the goggles I originally chose were too dark...I swapped them out for a pair of blue-tinted ones that ended up being perfect) and run into the water to test them. As I exited the water, I noticed the green capped women lining up---whoops, I was late! I quickly found my pregnant athlete, but while I was gone she had talked to other swim buddies and they told her my concern that she would be too fast for me---and they ended up pairing her with T.  Fine with me, I didn't want to have to sprint during this swim!

As I turned around, another woman in a green cap asked me to be her swim buddy. I agreed, the horn blew, and off we charged into the water! At first I thought she would be good to go, the way she ran into the water....but she immediately stopped. She was afraid of the waves. I successfully talked her through the waves, and then she started swimming. Very, very slowly. I thought I was slow, but this woman was sooooo much slower. I had to slow my stroke down a lot, and even doggy paddle in order to wait for her.  She was nervous, even though she did this triathlon last year. "It's not a pool," she kept saying. I told her yes, it wasn't a swimming pool, but it was the world's pool.  I coaxed her from buoy to buoy, and kept telling her how awesome she was doing. She inspired me so much, and I told her so; it reminded me of the quote about how courage is being scared and doing it anyway.

Finally she exited the water, and I went to stand with the other swim buddies.  There were only a few waves left, and one was about to take off---white capped males. As they ran into the water, a few of us noticed that there were NO swim buddies with them! No one had asked for one (as one swim buddy said, typical of men--most triathletes that ask for one are women, even though men need them too).  A few of us, including Steve, decided to go in a "sweep", to see if anyone needed help. By the time I got my cap and goggles back on, the men had been in the water for a few minutes.  But I easily caught up to the stragglers, who were really having a hard time in the water. I targeted one and asked him if I could swim with him. He said yes.  Like the woman before, he was very slow---but in a way, even slower because when the woman got tired she would do the sidestroke or breaststroke or backstroke, anything to keep moving, but the man would stop. Literally, stop. He was very fatigued and was complaining about his wetsuit being too tight.  As I did before, I stuck with him stroke for stroke, coaxing and talking to him.  It was great to see him finally leave the water; I'm sure the swim wasn't fun for him.

One thing I had never really noticed in triathlons before were how encouraging the lifeguards were! I'm always swimming away, head down in the water, so I don't notice them. But I spent so much time just treading water that I was able to really appreciate the lifeguards. For both my swimmers, they would ask how they were doing, if they needed help, and cheered them on.  That was cool to see.

After that, I was done. My friends had each done three swims, and I had done two---I probably could have done a third had I not had to go back for new goggles.  Regardless, I was exhilarated. It felt so good to volunteer (I'd never volunteered for a triathlon before, only for two half marathons) and it was nice to give back to the triathlon community I love so much. More than that, I really felt like I did a good deed. Could these swimmers have made it without me? Of course. But I know that having me swim side-by-side with them helped them a lot; they both told me so.  I will definitely look into being a swim buddy at other triathlons. The morning finished by watching our friend Andrea cross the finish line---this triathlon was her first last year---and seeing her compete on her triathlon anniversary was fun.  All in all, a good day of giving back---and being inspired for my own triathlon endeavors.


  1. What a great way to give back! As someone who is not a big fan of water I'd really appreciate having a swim buddy.

  2. thats so awesome that you were a swim buddy! I had a swim buddy for my first tri. You know.. the Fearless Triathlon which we dont speak of. :o)


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