Monday, July 25, 2011

Port Dickson Triathlon 1.5 km Open Water Swim: Taming the Fear


This post is dedicated to Cynthia Gan, who on 24 July 2011, against crazy odds, overcame her paralyzing phobia of swimming out to the deep unknown, and swam her first 1.5 km open water swim at the Port Dickson International Triathlon 2011. She went on to complete the bike and run and finished the triathlon (her first of what will be many) that day.

Summary of Post
I wrote this post for three reasons. As a written record of Cynthia’s first Olympic distance open water swim, as I remembered it, and corroborating with Misni and Lina’s account (they were on the beach). For Kash, because I know you wanted to be there in person for Cyn but could not. And also as an encouragement for those of you who are struggling with the fear of swimming in open water (sea/lake).

A Bit of Background
I first got to know Cynthia at the Hoohathlon 2011, a first mini-tri for us both. She was already an accomplished ultra-runner, but had floundered on the 150 m swim leg of the Hoohathlon. She had only learnt how to swim not long ago, and her water confidence was poor. I didn’t realize how terrified she was of deep water until the PD tri clinic, where together with Kash, we tried to encourage her to jump into the water off the jetty. She did get up the courage to dip her feet into the water, but no further. She did swim in the shallower water along the beach that day, but could not go deep.

That was the day I ‘adopted’ Cyn – I have three younger sisters whom I love to bits and you just gotta love this girl; also, seeing the fear written all over her face struck a chord in me because I myself am afraid of the water (I’m afraid of drowning, and although I love swimming, that fear has never really left). I was concerned because the PD Tri was only 2 weeks away. This girl had run 100 km – proof of her tenacity and mental strength. I know lots of people would think she wouldn’t have a problem overcoming any fear at all, but I understood that this Fear of Deep Water is a whole new other kinda monster.

Kash and I accompanied her to the Templer’s Park Natural Pool a week later, where she succeeded in getting into the murky water (visibility about 1 m) and even did a lap across the shallower end of the pool (4 ft). But she was too scared to swim across past the deep end (6 ft). She was taking baby steps, and doing everything right – going to swim class, coached, putting in time at the pool, doing 2 km distances even – and I knew she would get there eventually. I just didn’t know if she would get there on time for the PD Tri.

I was relieved and happy when, a few days before the Tri, she announced that she had gained her water confidence. She had been doing laps in the deep pool! What a huge step forward. At that point, she hadn’t yet done a deep water swim at PD. I had promised to Kash to take care of her, so planned to stay on after my Sprint event to give her moral support if needed.

I saw Cyn in the afternoon after my sprint race (race report here), and asked her how she was doing. She said ‘ok’, but something in the look on her face made me blurt out “I’ll swim with you tomorrow ok?” . She said ‘Thank you’ and hugged me. I could sense something was not quite right. Actually I was nervous myself because I hadn’t done 1.5 km open water swim either, and hadn’t covered that distance in the pool in two years. Speaking with my husband gave me confidence and I prepared  to accompany Cyn the next morning.


Before the Water
I woke at 6.30 am and saw that at 5.30 am Cyn had left a message telling me not to come because she would not be doing the race anymore. I messaged her back asking if she was ok, tried calling her, no reply. I went to the race venue to look for her. I bumped into her quite by accident and was surprised and elated to see her in her tri suit. She said she would try. She didn’t look too happy though. MAJOR STRESS VIBES. At the beach, swim start, heaps of friends came up to say hi and give her encouragement, and she tried to smile, but she broke down when Nurina hugged her. 

The girl was terrified. Reza (who came to take photos) and I just hung back, giving silent moral support. Nurina and I talked quietly and agreed that it didn’t matter if she didn’t do the whole distance, but I should definitely encourage her to go out at least 50 m deep and if she wanted to turn back after that, at least she would have swum in deep water.

Venturing into the Murky Depths

Photo by Reza Ali

We were in the second last wave of swimmers. We walked out slowly, letting the other swimmers go first. Cynthia wanted to be right next to the buoys. At waist depth (about 50 m out), she struck out in a slow breaststroke for about 25 m, then stopped at chest depth. We discussed briefly hanging on to the buoys to rest, but not enough buoyancy (small buoys). She came up with a good suggestion, to let last wave swimmers pass first. So we slipped under the line of buoys and waited for the swimmers to pass. Cyn pointed out a sole woman swimmer walking back to the beach. It looked like she had given up. I said ‘Cyn that’s not you’. We were the only ones left. I suggested swimming on the wrong side of the buoy line (i.e., on the left of the line), so she could see it as she swam. She bravely continued another 25 m and stopped at chin depth. After this, she wouldn’t be able to touch the bottom anymore. I know she was scared.

Cannot Touch the Bottom Anymore
Somehow she dug up the courage to forward crawl about 25 m, then started treading water and looking scared. She told me she was going to turn back. I pointed out to her that the kayak (seaward) was now closer than the beach (landward) and told my first lie of the day: “Cyn, why not you swim to the kayak then the kayak can bring you back to the beach. The kayak is only 25 m away”. Actually the kayak was quite far away, about 50 m. She seemed to think about it, then decided to swim towards the kayak. After another 25 m, she treaded water again and I took the opportunity to point out to her the big blue buoy marking 200 m. “Cyn, that big blue buoy, you can rest there! It’s so close, only 10 m past the kayak”. (Another lie, God forgive me, it was actually further). The buoy looked reassuringly huge and floaty, and she set her sights on it and kept going.

Welcome Support and a Breakthrough
While she was swimming towards the buoy, I spotted a diver and swam over to him. I explained our situation and asked if he could accompany us for the rest of the swim. Since he had a BCD on (good flotation!), it would give Cyn some confidence just knowing that she could hold on to him if she got into trouble. He agreed without hesitation, and swam over to be near Cyn. I said “Hey Cyn, this diver is going to swim with you all the way, and if you ever need to rest, you can hang on to him. See his BCD is very buoyant one”. So Cyn seemed to gain a little more confidence.

When Cyn reached the blue buoy, I could she was floundering a little. She said “Grace, I can’t do this anymore. I lost my buoyancy. I’m turning back” and was starting to panic a little. The diver raised his hand and started to call the kayak over, while at the same time asking Cynthia if she wanted a life jacket. That was when Cyn surprised me by refusing the life jacket, saying she would swim back to shore without it. I was so proud I coulda cried. You see, at this point, we had already been in deep water for about 20 minutes and gone out 200 m. In my view, she had already had a breakthrough, and she was going to one-up it by swimming back by herself!

I don’t know why, but another lie just flew out of me (hey it gets easier!): “Cyn, do you know you’ve already done 400 m? (actually 200 m). That’s like one quarter of your 1.5 km swim done!......” . Cyn then asked the diver if he could accompany her because she was going to swim the rest of the way, and he said he would.

After that there was no stopping Cynthia Gan.

Gracie Almost Feeds the Fish
As for me however, my breakfast (hardboiled eggs) wasn’t digesting right, and I came close to losing some of it. ‘Feeding the fish’ as scuba divers fondly term it. This is where is gets a bit gross, so skip to the next para if you like hehe. In one of my burps, I had a second tasting of my breakfast, but kept it back down. Unfortunately, it went back down my airpipe instead. I started coughing and also accidentally took in a generous helping of Port Dickson sea water. Fortunately, I didn’t panic and burped very carefully the rest of the swim!

Land Ahoy!
With less than 100 m to shore, I could see Cynthia was ‘in the zone’. I spied on her underwater strokes, and they were in good form, especially her left arm, following through to her hip and propelling her forward. She actually sped up the last half km! I swam ahead of her and at 50 m from the beach, I stood up, waist deep, and waited, smiling. She didn’t even notice me till she was nearly on top of me. Then I asked her ‘Hey Cyn, you wanna keep swimming, or you wanna walk? Up to you.’ I was grinning like a chimpanzee. She looked up at me and I could see a couple different expressions going across her face. Surprise. Disbelief. Is Grace standing?

Then she put her feet down and could touched the bottom. And she stood up. I couldn’t stop smiling. When she realized she had made it, she burst into tears and we hugged tightly. I shed a few tears myself (tears of joy).

She had the presence of mind to turn around and thank the convoy of kayaks and divers that had accompanied us for the second half of the swim.

Then she was off for the bike and run!

There is no stopping Cynthia Gan.

Photo by Reza Ali

Cynthia, you are an inspiration, and your story will encourage others who are facing the fear you tamed that day at PD.

p.s. Cynthia said later she knew I was lying about the distances, but had no energy to argue with me. So I lied and sinned for nothing! :p And I don’t think she heard much of what I said in my attempts to motivate her anyway because she was probably too busy trying to survive that whole traumatic experience! She told KC later that she just got tired of my nagging and ended up just going for it to get it over with! Hehehe. I like to think I helped a little, but I know Cynthia had it in her and she did this swim 100% under her own power. I’m privileged to have been part of her journey. Here is Cynthia’s recounting of that day at PD: Pushing Through Fear

p.p.s. Here's the PD OD Tri race report

p.p.p.s. One of the best series of articles I've found on overcoming fear of open water swimming is by Matt Hudson, a TI coach who regularly swims 10km distances in open water. Read his articles here.

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xo Gracie


  1. This is an awesome report on a memorable event Grace! And it is a wonderful thing you did! My wife Helena recounted what you did with Cynth as I was concerned and it really melted my heart.

    This is why I do these events... to witness the amazing human spirit arise and do amazing things in the face of challenges.

    It was really good to meet you and I hope to catch up again soon!

    Paul Lee

  2. Hi Paul, thanks for stopping by! Cynthia is such an amazing person and it was the least I could do to write down her stupendous achievement so that she can show to her grandkids next time :). You are the real reason why she changed her mind about doing the race - your words to her were why she was even at the start line that day. I'm so glad to have met you. I hope to see you and Helena at future events!

  3. Hey Cynthia! Congratulations on your achievement! You rock!

    Bloke from Bukit Jalil swim class

  4. Hi Anonymous Bloke From Cynthia's Bukit Jalil Swim Class! Thanks for the warm congrats to Cynthia - I made sure to pass on your message to her :)

  5. Reading this... makes me to thinks again.. she learned swimming not long ago.. now she is a much better swimmer, a lot better than me now..

  6. Eldred, you're progressing awesomely ya know. Cynthia is an inspiration to many of us.

  7. Just found your blog site after I googled Total Immersion. Touching story, and you have a warm heart. Hope to meet you soon.

    You're awesome!!!

    1. Hey Esther thanks! Hope to meet you some time too!


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