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Sink or Swim - Caitlin's Journey in the Water

My journey to becoming a triathlete started in 2012. That was also the same time my journey to becoming a swimmer began.

Prior to 2012 I had no ‘real’ swimming experience. I went to a lot of pool parties when I was a kid and lots of family trips to the beach and I always enjoyed swimming and being in the water. But never in my life had I owned a swim cap or swam a single lap in a lap lane.

In 2012 a friend of mine suggested that we try something new and signup for a triathlon. We met up at the city pool and I quickly realized I needed help. And a lot of it.

Fate played a role and brought Tiffany into my life. She was my first coach and gave me simple techniques to work on. The first time in the pool with her I could only swim 25 yds at a time. I would hang onto the pool deck before making my way back and ask myself ‘what have I gotten myself into!?’

My first Tri was in August of 2012. A 200 meter pool swim. Short and sweet. Short it was, but not so much sweet. 6:06 was my time for that swim, putting me at 2:45/100 yards.

Slow swim or not, I just completed my first triathlon and I was hooked. That meant I needed to keep at this swimming thing.

Tiffany had amazing patience with me, or maybe it was the love that was growing between us, and kept working with me.

I managed my way through a few sprint triathlons over the next year or so and then I decided to up my game. I signed up for my first Half Ironman, Ironman 70.3 Texas 2014.

With this race came a swim cut off time of 1:10. Going into this race deep down I honestly did not know if I would make it. And to make the swim even more challenging, despite it being in a protected bay, the winds were so strong that morning that it was creating white caps.

Before my first Half Ironman - Galveston, 2014

I don’t know that I will ever forget that swim. Panic is a real thing when you are not comfortable in open water. There were many times my heart was in my throat and I had to come to a complete stop and doggy paddle to gather myself.

Also, being new to a wetsuit I had some serious chafing going on on my neck and the back of my armpit. Toward the end of the swim every stroke was painful.

One hour exactly was my swim time, 2:50/100yds. 10 minutes to spare. Yes, slow swim, but back then in my eyes I was so ecstatic that I had just completed a huge feat!

After my first 70.3 came more sprints. And also the crazy desire to become an Ironman. Tif and I volunteered at Ironman Texas 2014 and the morning after we were in line to sign up for 2015. Back then volunteers had priority registration and it had to be in person.

2.4 miles. Could I do it? I sure as hell was going to train the best I could and only time would tell.

At this point we were still living in a small town and the only pool was very unreliable. This meant that after working a full day we would then have to drive 45 minutes each way to the nearest, reliable pool. We did this three times a week. To reach your dreams takes dedication, and that we had.

Swimming was still very much a struggle for me. I disliked it. And it’s possible to cry in your goggles while swimming. Don’t ask me how I know.

But like it or not, I still had to get through it if I wanted that Ironman title. I wanted the red M-Dot on my calf. I wanted to show off a 140.6 sticker on my car. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do hard shit.

May 16, 2015. Ironman Texas 2015. I was about to begin the longest swim of my life. I had 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete the swim to be able to continue the race.

Ironman Texas, 2015

2 hours, 3 minutes, 18 seconds. I did it. And I was so happy to be done with the swim and out of the water. Just like Texas 70.3 in 2013, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But I proved to myself that I was strong and determined.

I did go on to cross that finish line and to this day I have never experienced such a feeling.

Shortly after this race we made a life change and moved to Austin, Texas. The opportunities are now endless for us!

With so much now available at our fingertips, Tif got me my first set of real swim lessons. I met with a swim coach at Austin Aquatics and Swim Academy and in only just a few lessons I learned so much. This is when I realized that there is so much technique involved and I had a long way to go.

In 2016 we did a couple 70.3 races as well as some local sprint triathlons. We also signed up for Ironman Texas 2017. Swimming was still not very enjoyable, but I loved triathlon and I was determined to go under 2 hours for the 2.4 mile swim so I knew I just had to stick with the swimming and get the workouts checked off.

Ironman Texas came around and by this point I had built up more confidence in the water so that open water swims didn’t make me panic as much. My swim form had improved some but I was still a little bit nervous about the length of the swim, but also anxious to see my time at the end and how much I could improve from 2015.

2:05:14 (2:58/100yd). I remember being very disappointed by this. I had worked hard to try to improve my time.

I can say that the struggle on the bike that day was because a front rolled in while I was on the Hardy Toll road portion and that headwind beat me down, but I have to admit that having that negative thought at the end of my swim played a role in the bike portion. I was not in a good space and it planted me on the front row seat of the struggle bus.

Like life, there are ups and downs. This was a down and I should have just acknowledged that it was a disappointing swim, accepted it, and moved on. If I had a better mind space going into the bike I believe it would not have been so difficult.

After this race I started taking in any and all tidbits that were given to me. But I knew I needed some more hands on lessons. A local pro triathlete pointed me in the direction of Casey Arendt with Go The Distance Coaching.

Swim lesson with Casey Arendt, February 2020

This. This right here I believe is what started to turn things around for me. I started doing weekly lessons with her consistently for several months. After each lesson she would write down notes for me to read and reread before each swim workout so that the cues would stay fresh.

This time period is when I went from disliking the swim to actually enjoying it! It’s amazing how you learn to enjoy something when you start to do it correctly!

Our next 70.3 on the books was Haines City, Florida in April 2020 and I was stoked to put my swim lessons to the test. I was 100% confident that I had made improvements.

But, 2020 happened. That race just like so many was cancelled. And like so many others, our training regimen fell off.

We enjoyed maybe a few too many to go orders and homemade cocktails. But we came around and realized we needed to get back on a workout schedule.

But we really wanted to get serious about it. Long story short that landed us with Natasha van Der Mere with NVDM Coaching and we haven’t looked back since!

With her guidance we are making gains in each discipline including the swim.

Through sending her video footage and also in person lessons, she has quickly observed several more areas in which I can still improve.

I am able to make these improvements and adjustments to my form but I will admit that not all the gains have been linear.

I go through periods where I’m just rocking it in the water, swimming my best times and feeling good. But then there’s times where my form falls apart and I get stuck in a slump for a month at a time. Maddening and frustrating.

Natasha is very aware of what all her athletes are capable of, and when she sees when I’m falling off she is quick to pull me in for a lesson to get back on track.

Since we began working with Natasha we have competed in four 70.3 distance races and one Olympic distance race. The swim in each of these races have widely varying variables. Short swim, long swim, horrible water conditions or a fast down river swim. So I don’t have a true 1.2 mile swim to compare to a prior swim, but I’m enjoying it now and that’s already a big win!

Even though there are still ups and downs to my swim journey, I can GUARANTEE I am now a better swimmer through the guidance of a coach. It’s a process and you have to learn to trust it.

Deep Eddy Pool, Summer 2021

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