Overcoming a Fear of Open Water, by triathlete and open water swimmer Helen Dickens

We each have a unique relationship with the water. In this guest blog, Helen Dickens describes her swimming journey from someone who was bereaved by drowning and scared to put her face in the water to triathlete, open water swimmer and chasing turtles in the ocean.


When the PR people for London 2012 coined the phrase “inspire a generation” I don’t think that at 37 I was their target audience. But it was whilst watching the Olympic women’s triathlon in Hyde park that I decided that I was going to complete a triathlon.

I was already cycling a lot and had run competitively at school so I “just” had to nail the open water swim. I felt that my breast stroke Granny- style (head out the water, keeping hair dry) was not going to cut it. Actually my granny is another swimming inspiration – 91 and still swimming in the sea .

Helen celebrating her first Olympic Distance Triathlon (and a PB)!

Helen celebrating her first Olympic Distance Triathlon (and a PB)!

Making some investments

I booked a series of 121 sessions with a swim coach, which is possibly the best £100 I have ever spent. By the end of August 2012 I could swim 100m of front crawl but it was baffling how I could cycle for miles quite happily but swimming left me completely exhausted!

An open water induction session was also invaluable, covering basics such as getting your wetsuit on, safety, deep water starts and drafting.   I found it immensely rewarding to be able to cross a beautiful piece of water, which felt so much more challenging than covering the same distance in a swimming pool.   I loved swimming outside and compare the difference between pool swimming and open water to the difference between being on an exercise bike and cycling in the open countryside.

The last investment was a wetsuit, which I got at a discount in the Wiggle end of season sale.

The tart of Helen's first openwater swim at the Tri20 Lake

The tart of Helen’s first openwater swim at the Tri20 Lake

Facing my fear

In the changing rooms at my lake there is often someone new stressing about their first open water swim and being reassured by the regulars. (I always wonder whether these conversations happen in the male changing rooms?).

When I started open water swimming I also had some fears to conquer – my dad drowned whilst wild swimming in 2008 and I had a lot of drowning nightmares after his death.   At the time of his inquest my research showed that it was very rare for someone who had planned to go swimming and entered the water sober to drown. Most incidents happen with people falling in, injuring themselves falling in, being intoxicated or rushing in to rescue someone or something.   Whilst this did not explain why this had happened to my dad it was reassuring to know that this was not a frequent occurrance.

It took me three visits before I could get round the 750m loop at my lake without having a moment freaking out.

I was determined to master open water swimming and the dream of being able to do a triathlon and the money that I had already invested were strong motivators to keep going.   I made a deal with myself that I could stop at any point and do breaststroke but only swim 10 strokes before I started crawl again. This gave me some time to get calm but also prevented me from faffing about indefinitely – This is also my top tip for the newbies stressing in the changing rooms.  As breast stroke is tricky in a wetsuit, it quickly became easier and more enjoyable to do longer stretches of crawl until I was able to get all the way around the loop without stopping.

As my confidence and strength as a swimmer has grown I don’t feel that panic or concern anymore and I always feel safe at organised open water events where they have flotillas of kayaks looking out for you.

Celebrating her first open water swim at the Tri20 lake

Helen celebrating her first open water swim at the Tri20 lake

Milestones and Progress

I have found that with swimming you get out what you put in and there has been a steady and rewarding progression.   I don’t have such a satisfying relationship with running where I get injured easily or my cycling which is highly erratic and seasonal. I put it down to consistent training –pools enable a structured approach where plans are not scuppered by rain or wind!

My first swimming milestone was covering 400m as part of a pool triathlon in March 2013. That summer I completed a 1500m open water swim event and an open water sprint triathlon.   In 2014 I stepped up to Olympic distance triathlon, came third in a local aquathlon (swim + run) and also reached my ultimate swimming goal the iron man distance of 3.8K.

Whilst it was enormously satisfying to cover this iconic distance I did find the last 750m really hard mentally as much as physically.     Afterwards I could hardly stand and needed reviving with hot tea and jaffa cakes and there was the dawning realisation that I would never be an iron man [We’ll wait and see Helen!]

Enjoying tea and jaffa cakes after The Big Dog swim

Enjoying tea and jaffa cakes after The Big Dog swim

My swimming home

I am lucky to live very near to the Tri2O open water lake where I did my first open water swim and who run great events.   The boys that run the lake are always very encouraging and friendly and the other swimmers are also usually very chatty. I was really apprehensive before my 3.8K and being in an environment that was so familiar to me and with such supportive people there on the day made all the difference.

My best swims

This year I started a new job, which involves a lot of travel and I have had to scale back my training and dial down my goals to match. I have focused on one discipline – swimming and stepped back to sprint distance triathlon.

As it was not going to be a year for PBs in time or distance I focused on events that were challenging but different.   I took part in the historic Boulters to bray swim which is an early morning 2.8K downstream in the Thames. It was my first swim in a river and I loved the scenery and the achievement of going from A to B instead of round in circles. It was a perfect distance for me – I finished in 56 minutes and had reached the point of being ready to get out before total exhaustion set in. This was fortunate as the tea was a short walk away, upstream to race HQ.  I enjoyed it so much I entered another Thames swim, the Henley Club to Pub .

Helen at home in the Lycean sea!

Helen at home in the Lycean sea!

This year is also memorable for one of my best swimming experiences: in the crystal clear waters off the Lycian coast in Turkey.    All those early morning swim drills really paid off when I was chasing turtles across the bay. It was a great feeling to know that I was strong enough to swim out into deep water for some distance and see such amazing animals in their natural environment.

Thank you for sharing your inspiring swimming journey with us Helen!

At A Lotus Rises we’re celebrating  women in open water, from your first splash, through to wild swims and marathon swimming.

You can get involved via the BlogFacebookTwitter and alotusrises@gmail.com. We want to share your stories, so we can support you and inspire others!

2 thoughts on “Overcoming a Fear of Open Water, by triathlete and open water swimmer Helen Dickens

  1. Great stuff. We just buried our dear Auntie last week (aged 90), and only at the funeral mass did I discover she was an avid open water swimmer! By the by, us blokes do chat in the changing rooms and offer each other advice, especially the newbies. We’re not all monsters, ya know! 😉

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