In Hot Water: Lessons from the Open Water World Championships
A U.S. swimmer reflects on her FINA World Championship raceAugust 2, 2011
Photo from this year’s 25K swim/FINA
At the conclusion of the FINA World Championships held this month in Shanghai (July 16-31), I began reflecting on everything that occurred leading up to the race and after. I hope that sharing my experience of pursuing a lifelong goal (making the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team) will give new insight into the sport of open water swimming.
For those who don’t follow the sport, qualifying for an Olympic team is a long and difficult process. An athlete must finish in the the top two at the U.S. Nationals 10K in order to qualify for the 10K Olympic qualifier event, which was held on July 19 in Shanghai. To make the Olympic team, a swimmer then needs to place in the top 10 in the world. FINA rules state that if both swimmers from a country fail to qualify, they will be able to attend the second qualifier in Setubal, Portugal in June of 2012. USA Swimming rules state that a swimmer must re-qualify in the top two in the USA in 2012 to attend. The top 15 finishers in Portugal get an automatic berth to the Olympics and only the top American can qualify.
Races can take many twists and turns and swimmers must expect the unexpected. This past month I’ve swum in two different races, each with very different outcomes. My confidence differed from one race to another, but not my determination. Leading up to the U.S. Nationals, I couldn’t wait to get past that first hurdle of finishing top two in the country. Approaching race day, not once did I think the task impossible. Even when race day came and everyone realized we’d have to swim in four-foot waves for over two hours, my confidence soared. I was able to take the waves and the fear they evoked in my competitors and use them to boost my confidence. Even that small boost was enough to topple most of my worries of not finishing at the top, allowing me to focus on what I do best. My determination to win grew with the confidence I gained from facing the task.
“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” – Michael Jordon
The second instance happened one week ago when I faced the world in the 10K open water marathon swim in Shanghai. The first Olympic qualifier turned out to be an extremely brutal race, both physically and mentally. Water temperature at eight in the morning was 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and the air temperature was 84. At the end of the race the water was 86 degrees, with the air nearing 88 and the humidity ranging from 75 percent to 85 percent. As one who performs better in cold water and struggles in warm water, I was afraid. But all I could do was prepare to the best of my abilities. Another issue was that with 56 women vying for 10 spots, the race had the potential to turn into an all-out war! The race became very physical with red cards thrown, one for a girl clocking another girl in the face, and several yellow cards for grabbing and pulling. And that was just what could be seen above the water. The unseen included underwater elbows, kicking, and pushing other swimmers down on turns and throughout the race. Besides racing, swimmers were forced to defend themselves and try not to get drowned on a turn, as well as face hot water and air temperatures. All this leaves very little energy to expend during a 10K race.
“Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.” – Carl Bard
My final place was 13th; the other American came in 30th. No Americans qualified for the Olympics. Despite the many disappointments, many victories occurred that day. I was happy I placed where I did considering. It felt all odds were against me, with the hot water, large pack, taking several hard kicks and jabs, and missing two vital opportunities to feed (Gatorade with gel and water on a feeding pontoon). Yes, I wish I could have finished in the top 10, but I performed exceptionally well during that race. I’ve never given up and I wasn’t about to start then. When I was taken under and kicked around a turn in the last 1200 meters (going from being in the top 10 to 20th) the finish looked bleak.
Is your glass half empty or half full?
The motto NEGU or “Never Ever Give Up,” has resonated with me for months now. NEGU is the motto of a 13-year-old girl named Jessica Joy Reese, who has an inoperable brain tumor, and is part of my team, Mission Viejo Nadadores. We must continually learn from our battles, whether it be in sport or in our personal lives. Even in the last 50 meters heading into the finish of the World Championships 10K in Shanghai, I pulled up a whole body length to catch four girls. I was swimming lights out and drafting very skillfully as I worked my way up that pack. No matter the pain, everything I had, I gave. Once I hit that pad and finished, I knew I was sitting 12th or 13th, but I had the strangest smile on my face—I was proud of what I did.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. – Winston Churchill
Turning to the present and the upcoming year, the pressure is on again. How am I handling it? Knowing I lost my first chance and the fact that I have to do it all over again—with even more odds against me—presents a daunting challenge. After the race I had kept telling myself that I can’t do this for another year, all this pressure for one more year? Some things are best not known, because sometimes even better things are still yet to come. In the end, the question that came to mind was “do I want to finish my race?” And yes, the challenges that are to come will be exacting, but nothing is impossible when you believe.
“The spirit, the will to win, and the will to excel are the things that endure. These qualities are so much more important than the events that occur.” – Vince Lombari
Christine Jennings is originally from Colorado and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. She has been on the USA National Team since 2007, and took gold in the 10K at the 2010 Pan Pacific Open Water World Championships. Her aspirations are to win an Olympic gold medal in the 10K marathon swim event in London. She currently trains with the Mission Viejo Nadadores under coach Bill Rose, and writes on open water swim techniques for LAVA.