By Lisa Ingarfield
I am one of those open water swimmers who clings to her wetsuit like a safety vest. The very first wetsuit I owned was purchased with zero research or understanding. I think it created more drag than it did anything else. The next two, I spent a little more time thinking about, but my fourth wetsuit has been a gem. I can breathe, it doesn’t chafe, and I don’t feel like my arm movements are constricted. A few seasons ago, I left my wetsuit hanging on the bathroom door and headed out to Boulder for a race. I only realized my error as I started to unpack in transition. After a minor panic, and several calls home to wake up my partner, he graciously agreed to drive it to me from Denver so I could compete comfortably in my first race of that season without worry of drowning. Rationally, I am fairly sure I would not have drowned without the wetsuit but in the moment, swimming “naked” was too much change and I wasn’t ready for it in early June. I now double, triple check that I have my wetsuit before every race.
The thing is, I rely on my wetsuit because I have never had to swim without it. All the open water swimming I have done has either given me the choice to wear the suit, or has been a wetsuit legal race. Wearing a wetsuit is a standard thing in most triathlons, it has therefore, always been a part of my routine. Until that is, this year. Early in 2017, I decided to accept my spot in the USAT Nationals and head to Omaha in mid-August to race with the best. At the time of registration, I didn’t give the midwest summer heat a second thought. I was just excited for the opportunity. As the race approached and the temperatures rose, the reality that the swim was unlikely to be wetsuit legal dawned on me. In mid-July, the water temperature in Carter Lake was 86F. It dropped to 78.6F a few days before the race and then jumped back up to over 80F on race day. Under USAT rules, no wetsuits are allowed for any athlete when water temperatures are over 78.1F.
Cue hyperventilation…To say I had immense trepidation at this prospect is an understatement. Several weeks out, when it seemed likely it would be a non-wetsuit swim, it was clear I needed to get in a lake and swim without my best and buoyant pal. And I needed to do it more than once. Here’s the thing–my need for the wetsuit is entirely mental. I know how to swim and I am not a horrible swimmer. I swim in the pool all the time without a wetsuit. While the wetsuit itself does give you buoyancy, it doesn’t create walls to hold on to and it won’t necessarily save you from drowning (a common fear among triathletes). The human body is already naturally buoyant so we can float on our backs for a breather fairly easily without the added layer of neoprene. In the summer months, the warmth gained from the wetsuit is also unnecessary especially when the water temperatures are in the 70s and 80s. So what is it that makes open water swimming so terrifying without one? Speaking for myself, I don’t have a good answer. I am just fearful and I can’t fully explain why.
The first time I ventured out sans wetsuit, I did so after a wetsuit swim. I had warmed up and the water no longer felt chilly. I swam a measly 200 yards because I felt completely naked and unprotected. I got out promising that on my next attempt, I would swim for longer. I understand myself well enough to know I had to conquer a mile before the race to feel confident. Next time, I did swim for longer. In fact, I swam 800 yards and then on my third try, I made it to the mile. On my 800, as I ventured further and further away from the shore, all those irrational thoughts about lake monsters (Colorado’s version of the Loch Ness monster perhaps?) came flooding into my head. I kept telling myself those same “threats” exist regardless of my wetsuit wearing status and that I swim without a wetsuit all the time. Ultimately, wetsuit or no wetsuit, if something grabs us from the deep dark beyond, we are likely going down. I am not sure that the wetsuit provides us with any additional defense against the creatures that occupy our imaginations.
Race day in Omaha came around quickly and it was, as predicted, a non-wetsuit swim. Each age group got a chance to warm up for a few minutes before the swim, and then dropped down into the water to hang onto the jetty for several minutes. As I bobbed there with 115 of my triathlete peers, that same mantra rattled in my head: I know how to swim and swim without a wetsuit all the time. Prior to every starting horn, race officials played this loud, and I would argue fairly ominous, reverberating bass drum sound. Duh-duhmmm, duh-duhmmm, duh-duhmmm….It certainly added to the drama and mounting tension of the impending swim for a lot of athletes around me. No turning back now. There I was, bobbing and waiting. My safety vest was in the hotel; my old friend and constant swim companion abandoned. Three, two, one….
I am sure you can guess how this story ends. Swimming without a wetsuit turned out to be no big deal. Lisa-1; Imaginary Water Threats-0. Other than the lack of buoyancy forcing me to think more precisely about form and drag from my sinking legs, it didn’t feel a whole lot different. I didn’t get bumped around any more than usual, nor did I feel unsafe surrounded by all the other swimmers. I still got left in the dust by all the speedsters and I still took in a good amount of lake water. But most importantly (clearly), I didn’t get attacked or chewed on by some ugly lake monster. Pretty much a regular open water swim race for me.
Now, will I make a habit of swimming without a wetsuit in open water as the season draws to a close? I don’t know. I am tempted to try because I actually think it could make a better swimmer given I really have to think about form. But my safety vest, still hanging in my bathroom, might really want to get back out there for another round or two – is it really fair to deprive it of that chance?
Lisa Ingarfield, PhD is a runner, triathlete, USAT and RRCA certified coach. She owns Tri to Defi Coaching and Consulting and provides one on one coaching for runners and triathletes and organizational communication consulting for businesses. She is a freelance writer specializing in issues affecting women in sport and in life.