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Fear of Open Water Swimming - What is the cause?

Determine an Intervention Strategy for a Fear of Open Water Swimming


Updated April 20, 2011
What happens when you start a triathlon or open water swimming race, with an unprecedented sea swell, chop, cooler than expected water, and about 800 other swimmers trying to clamber on top of you to get to the swim finish before you? How do you deal with those open water swimming distractions?

When I was back in Perth we had access to some of the best beaches for opwn water swimming I have ever come across, which meant open water swimming was that much more inspiring (despite the shark risk). The average annual water temp. is 18 degrees C (about 65 degrees F, which to some of you guys might sound like a bath but still cool enough for wetsuits) and the water clarity is normally excellent. Despite all these positives though, a couple of the ladies I used to coach had suffered for years with an innate fear of the ocean and open water swimming.

When I first met both the girls they could just about complete a 200m freestyle swim in the pool, taking about 5-minutes. Over the course of a winter we worked to develop their technique and specific fitness to a point where one was able to swim 1000m in 18:50 and the other in 20:35. A massive step forward and both were looking forward to a good season's racing. However, come to race day, despite doing some basic familiarity sessions for open water swimming in the lead up to the race, disaster struck.

One girl ended up doing head-up breaststroke and unable to put her face back in the water after being bashed at the start and swallowing loads of water and came out of the 1000m swim in just under 30 minutes, hysterical in the process, unable to go onto the bike leg. The other only made it to the first 150m marker before feeling she was totally out of her depth (her thoughts) and couldn't go any further. She returned in a rescue canoe.

Very disappointing for all concerned. As their coach, it was up to me to develop an intervention strategy to help. It was my first ever experience with how working on your technique for 6 months in the pool is all well and good, but if things fall apart psychologically, then all the pool time could be viewed as wasted, at least in this open water swimming race situation. Of course by intervening, we were able to then go on and eventually utilise this fitness and technique at a later date.

So what did we do to help these swimmers overcome their fears of open water swimming?

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