This weekend we had a stand at Swim Expo in Manchester. We like events as they’re great places to talk to readers and potential readers. Swim Expo takes place alongside Run Expo and Bike Expo, so the event naturally draws in lots of triathletes and people thinking about triathlon.
Triathlon does a great job of introducing people to open water swimming, but a lot of those people are extremely anxious about open water swimming. These are some of the things we heard:
· “It’s too cold.”
· “I hate that I can’t see the bottom.”
· “I hate that I can’t see anything!”
· “I might get Weil’s disease.” (It’s actually very unlikely, see: http://h2openmagazine.com/guides/wont-i-get-weils-disease-from-open-water-swimming)
· “It’s dirty.”
From the perspective of many triathletes, the swim is an ordeal that must be suffered. Part of this, I think, stems from an unspecified fear of open water. The emergency services, local authorities, schools and owners of reservoirs and other water bodies repeatedly tell us that open water is deadly and that we should never swim there (see poster from Northamptonshire Fire Service for an example).
On the other hand, the swimming and triathlon press, as well as event organisers and groups such as the Outdoor Swimming Society, tell people that swimming in open water is a relatively safe activity provided you are sensible, are prepared and take appropriate precautions. This leads to some sort of cognitive dissonance. Rationally we can accept that open water swimming is safe but all the negative messages we’ve heard nag at our subconscious – and this makes things like the water temperature and limited visibility seem like more of a problem than they really are.
Secondly, we, as swimmers, can be guilty of doing our sport a disservice. We like the bragging rights that come with swimming in cold water, so we big it up a bit. We like to tell the story of the one time we got ill while omitting to mention the hundreds of other times we’ve swum in open water without any problem. We like to see the look of shock on people’s faces when we recount our encounters with jellyfish.
Those of us that do it, know that open water swimming is a wonderful thing – and can in fact be many different things at different times and to different people. It’s both challenging and relaxing. It can be serious or playful. One day it’s a source of adventure and the next a place of refuge.
If more people take up open water swimming then it will increase the pressure to keep our waterways clean and to improve access for swimming outside, so all of us who love open water have an incentive to be good ambassadors for the sport. There are lots of negative misconceptions we have to overcome about open water swimming so next time you’re talking to someone about it, think about the message you are sending out – and make sure it’s one that will make your audience feel positive about open water swimming and want to try it for themselves. And remember to recommend a subscription to H2Open Magazine too.