Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
“If you can swim in Puget Sound, you can swim anywhere.”
That was a comment by open-water swimmer Heidi Skrzypek, one of the panelists at the Women in the Open Water: Awakening the Dolphin Within event in downtown Seattle on Thursday night, featuring swimmers with impressive accomplishments who happen to regularly train at Alki Beach.
The women on the panel shared their experiences and advice about open-water swimming, and answered questions from attendees during the 2-hour event (see a slideshow video on YouTube, which was shown prior to the event).
The event was co-hosted by Guila Muir, founder of Say Yes to Life Swims (which promotes escorted open-water swims including the 1-mile 8th Annual Awesome Alki coming up on September 28) and Melissa Kegler, a “Triple Crown Mermaid” who has completed three of the most recognized “marathon swims” in the world (visit her site at melissakegler.com).
Muir welcomed attendees and then turned things over to Kegler, who serves on the board of Northwest Open Water Swimming Association (NOWSA) and works at PricewaterhouseCoopers (where the event was held) when not in the water. Last summer, Kegler became the 175th person in the world (see the full list here) to complete the Triple Crown achievement, which includes the English Channel (33.7 km), the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, (48.5 km) and the Catalina Channel Swim (32.5 km).
Kegler said she was proud of the achievement but was also relieved the day she finished because “my training was over!” She said she still trains and swims, but was particularly excited to co-host Thursday’s event because, although she has had great working relationships with male coaches, “I never had a female mentor” but “these women here are THE group who are going to mentor young female swimmers” in the Puget Sound region. “I’m so proud of them because I’ve been where they are.”
Kegler’s advice for aspiring open-water swimmers? “Think about your obstacles and why you haven’t achieved your goals because it’s usually because we’re afraid” of failure, of missing out, of money we’d lose. “Don’t look at fear as a negative thing, but think of it as part of the journey; not something to beat or overcome, instead you’re expand your boundary of what is comfortable.” Of the marathon swimming, Kegler said “this challenge is the first thing I’ve accomplished in my life that I really didn’t think that I was going to able to do, but I did it.”
With that, Kegler and Muir asked each of the three panelists (described by Kegler as “the future of Puget Sound swimming,” including West Seattleite Rose Filer who swam from Bremerton to Alki Point last year) to share their stories and insights.
A common theme echoed by all of the speakers is that Alki Beach is one of the top spots in the region for open-water enthusiasts, drawing swimmers like themselves to the Alki Bathhouse on Saturday mornings at 930am (and sometimes Sunday mornings), although Muir stressed that these are “unsupervised, informal, not for beginners, swim-at-your-own-risk” gatherings, unlike the escorted events that her group promotes.
The panelists included:
- Heidi Skrzypek who lives/swims at Vashon Island and completed a relay swim across the English Channel that she described as “choppy, windy, swelly…if that’s a word” with a water temperature of 60 degrees “which was actually quite warm.” She reiterated that “Puget Sound is a really good training ground for cold water swimming” and that the swim took 17.5 hours: “I had never swum in the dark!” Lessons she learned: training is crucial, but you can only do so much and “you always have to be on your guard” (particularly for boats and other obstacles) but at the same time, “take advantage of the sights” and “be present.” She shared that despite several physical ailments including being blind in her left eye since birth, neuropathy and shoulder issues, she has worked hard and “am faster and tougher than I’ve ever been.” She said she started swimming as a means of pain management but now travels all over the world to swim, and “the swim community is special.” She also swam Dalco Passage in the south sound, and around Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay.
- Stephanie Zimmerman who has taken up swimming relatively recently (and quickly), advancing in one year from swimming 1 mile to doing a 10k swim with Muir, and is now training for a 20k swim around Mercer Island in two months. She noted that she has never been an athlete, moved to Seattle 3.5 years ago and “for the first 2 years was lonely and worked all the time and didn’t really have friends.” In an effort to get involved and active, she “started Googling random things” and came across the idea of swimming, nothing that “I had swum as a kid but not really since I was 12” and had done “very little exercise as an adult.” She found Muir’s website, signed up for half-mile swim, “jumped into the lake and was excited because I could see fish,” and “since then there has been only a week that I haven’t swum outside.”
- Rose Filer of West Seattle who last year spent 4.5 hours in the water to complete the 10.4-mile Amy Hiland Swim (named for the first person to complete it in 1959) from Bremerton to Alki. Filer is one of 6 people to complete the swim (see the list here), which she described as “a calm, beautiful day” with water temps in the mid- to upper-50s. She said her fellow panelists Zimmerman and Kegler were among the supporters on the boat that escorted her, and she has also swum Alcatraz with Skrzypek. Lessons she has learned: “the body is capable, it’s the mind you have to convince” because for the Hiland swim, “I got cold and tired and hurt but still did it.” She said she’s been an athlete for her entire life, including the rowing team at the University of Washington, but “started swimming as an accident.” She shared that she became depressed after finishing at UW because she had a back injury and “lost purpose; I wasn’t an athlete anymore.” She said her sister convinced her to sign up for a half-Ironman race, at which point she realized “oh, I can’t really swim, this might be a problem!” A friend from the gym took her to “jump in a lake in November,” which she described as “maybe my last chance to try to feel something again… and I felt cold!” She described swimming as “meditative; makes time slow down” and the water has been a new experience for her after growing up in Colorado. Another lesson learned: “You’re not invincible,” saying that a few weeks ago she was hit pretty hard by a log while swimming near Alki, and that “the closest I’ve been to hypothermia was when I was wearing a wetsuit” (she no longer wears a wetsuit for swims like Hiland).
The panelists then took Q&A questions from attendees, see notes below:
- Q: What about having panic attacks in the water, which has really crippled me from doing longer swims? Answer from Filer: “I am an excellent panic swimmer” and I hate seaweed, “every time it touches me I flip out,” but then I realize that “fear is good, I’m OK,” and I recommend counting breaths like doing yoga, and “go to your happy place.” She said if you’re panicking, take a minute, tread water, count to 10. Zimmerman: haven’t had panic attacks but definitely have had fear (I don’t like deep water and the dark and creatures with teeth); recommend doing things to make yourself more comfortable and to mitigate risk. This segued into a follow-up question about sharing the water with boats: Zimmerman said some of them were swimming at Alki on the morning of the 4th of July and were almost hit by a boat (which she describes as “a reasonable fear”), she recommends being visible and aware of boat traffic and try to see the shore. Skrzypek: be visible, stay coastal, be aware of markers (which she said is especially crucial for her because “I can’t see on one side.”)
- Q: What is your training schedule, and the ideal amount of practice to prepare for swims? Answer from Kegler: managing schedule can be challenging, she said she probably averaged 35hrs/week when actively training for swims like the English Channel. She works at PwC in accounting and definitely has a busy season, and does coaching and mentoring, but always tried to allow for a “Friday night movie” to break up the week. Since completing the Triple Crown last year, Kegler said this year her longest swim is 2.4 miles, and she tries to swim twice per week. When I think about women who have families with young kids and still manage to train, “I can’t even think about how that happens; I have 2 cats.” Kegler added that for women swimmers, mentorship is especially important, because “females get asked those kinds of ridiculous questions” about being in shape and not having kids and relationships. Zimmerman: doesn’t have a regular training plan, is learning from other people, mostly just “making it up as I go along.” There’s the physical component of being prepared for cold and poor weather conditions, but mostly the training is to build up confidence. She said she works 50-55 hrs week, is married with no kids, and is swimming 5 days a week to train for a 20k swim, and encourages people to “look at your life and see what you want to do,” and go for it. Filer: she said she likes feeling prepared for long swims, but as a former athlete, I “train until the wheels come off” but is happy when she trains, and recommends getting a coach if you’re getting into it. She said she is dealing with shoulder injury, spending a lot of time going to the doctor and physical therapist. When training hard in the past, she swam 5-6 times per week. She added that while she tried dating while she was training, it “stressed me out” and she instead focused on training. Skrzypek: since swimming the English Channel, she said she prefers the shorter “sweet spot” of 2-mile to 5-mile races, noting that she typically swims 3-5 times per week. She recommended Masters Swimmer programs and interval training, and noted that CrossFit has been a good option for her.
- Q: What about the cold water, how do you work through that? (note: water temps for Puget Sound range from the mid- to high-40s in the winter to the low-50s in the summer, while Lake Washington and other lakes warm up to the mid- to high-60s in the summer but are considerably colder in the winter). Zimmerman: “I love the cold now, but didn’t always.” She said Lake Washington or Sammamish is very cold in winter but pleasant in the summer. She noted that “all of us swim at Alki on Saturdays at 930am,” she had heard about “the crazy people who swim at Alki” and she had a scuba wetsuit that she wore when she swam, but she didn’t like the feel of it and worked out of that and “haven’t worn a wetsuit since.” She said it’s about time, it’s a process, just keep getting in the water without pushing too far, you need to know yourself. Muir: it’s helpful to have a partner you’re swimming with who can check on you during breaks and say “you’re slurring your words,” for some swimmers the sign to get out of the water is that they feel “the claw” in their hands (a stiffness in the hands that is common for cold-water swimmers), and a tense jaw. Kegler: it’s about knowing you and what “goes” first when you get too cold; she said “my speech doesn’t slur, but my ankles hurt so much that it makes my stomach sick, and that’s my sign.” Try to experiment close to shore, where you can get out when you recognize the signs. Zimmerman and Filer: try to have “tests” for yourself like remembering song lyrics or your parents’ address, to ensure your mind is still sharp (Filer said it took a year of training before she could be in cold water for more than 45 minutes). Skrzypek: one training method is the idea of “desensitizing your body to the cold,” spend 30 minutes in the water, get out and “shiver and have some tea and teach your body to warm up,” then get back in and keep doing it, she noted that she did this for 3 weeks leading up to English Channel swim.
- Q: What about feeding (eating) and going to the bathroom (a reality during long swims)? Filer: Personally, I can’t eat anything solid in the water, it makes me sick, so I use “Carbo Pro” tablets. When I have to pee, I have to stop swimming and float in the water, that’s just me. Zimmerman: Kegler: On long swims I typically say 300-350 calories per hour (use Carbo Pro and Skratch, with water), many marathon swimmers do that, so my nutrition is all liquid form with powder and water (some swimmers take breaks with porridge, chicken broth, peanut butter sandwiches). Kegler: For “going #2” in open-water swims, there have been real examples of competitors trying to prevent it from happening, getting nervous and clenching and getting cramps and having to be pulled from the race. To get through that, you “need to practice,” which can be difficult because of the stigma, but it’s a natural thing and during my English Channel swim I did have a “go #2” but it wasn’t an issue.
- Q: For female swimmers, what about the menstrual cycle? A: Several panelists agreed that swimming helps with managing pain (and that cold water is actually better than warm water, in that regard), and Kegler added that this was yet another reason why women swimmers need a female mentor to “ask questions like this” to remove the stigma, and to find something that works for you and that “you choose to believe” (for example, she once read that sharks can’t tell the difference between urine and blood, and “I choose to believe that” because it helps.) Skrzypek noted that an IUD has worked for her.
- Q: What about shoulder injuries — other than physical therapy, what are strategies? Kegler: I have ongoing lifelong shoulder injuries, don’t “sit on it,” be aware of it (plug for Delaney Farmer, “simply the best”) Zimmerman: I had tendinitis from work, but the more I swim the better my shoulders feel. Filer: have been doing PT and dry needling and an anti-inflammatory diet, which seems to help. Skrzypek: I had distal clavicle shoulder surgery and had to work my way back from it, but it can be done.
- Q: After a long swim you can feel great, but then there’s a letdown and depression, is that normal? Filer: yes, I think that’s a common thing with athletes, I try to set my next goal before I accomplish one that I’m working on now, to always keep looking ahead (may not work for everyone).
- Q: What about the “critters with teeth,” sea lions and seals? The panelists agreed that actual attacks are incredibly rare; the animals will come up to you and look at you, they’re big and scary but won’t bite you. However, Skrzypek said “sea lions are jerks!” and there has been one particular sea lion near where she swims by Vashon, but have only had an issue once. Filer: seals are great and are your friends, and you typically can tell when a sea lions needs to be avoided, around here we also have jellyfish especially in summer but they typically aren’t harmful. The panelists noted that Kegler is well-known for loving the area wildlife and has even given them names like Rufus, Buddy, Cookie, Horton (the nice one) and Orton (the antisocial one). Kegler also noted that she’s needed to get accustomed to being around the wildlife, and has even “self-stung” herself with jellyfish so she knew how it felt and wouldn’t be bothered by it during long swims.
- Q: I get horrible feet and calf cramps, how do you deal with that? Filer: sodium helps (like Shot Bloks), magnesium powder and potassium and lots of hydration. Skrzypek: during her English Channel swim they said “don’t do electrolytes” because we were already taking in so much salt water, so that may be a consideration.
- Q for Zimmerman, who noted that her short swim was much harder than her long swim a year later — why was that? Zimmerman said a lot of it was just those first-time experiences in the open water, it was really cold and my goggles filled up and I was only breathing on one side, didn’t know what I was doing. As I got better, things just got easier.
The event concluded with a raffle, and closing remarks by Muir, who thanked the panelists and encouraged attendees to go online and learn more about open-water swimming events in the region.