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Learning to Swim with Danielle Lewis

Danielle Lewis finishing 2nd at 70.3 Dubai in 2020 Photo from Danielle Lewis

“Swim how far?! How many times is that to the other end?!” These were the panicked questions my six-year-old brain asked when the swim coach yelled at us very small humans to swim a seemingly impossible distance. Watching my lane mates take off like they understood this alien language caused me to feel like, “What the hell am I doing here?” Perhaps I was not that brash at six years old but that feeling is one that I am still battling as a professional triathlete learning to swim.

Later that day, I told my mom I didn’t want to do swim team anymore, which made swimming the only sport I ever quit out of pure hate (Well…I guess I did quit cheerleading, but I wouldn’t consider nine-year-old chants of “Be Aggressive” a sport.). Today, considering my chosen profession, I wish I stuck with swimming. However, if I did, I would not have had the wonderful opportunity to attempt the hardest thing I’ve ever done: learn to swim as an adult.

Before diving into the lessons that adult onset drowning…I mean…swimming…has taught me, I’ll tell you a bit about how I became a triathlete. In high school, I ran cross country, did track and field, and played basketball and volleyball. I loved the team aspect of the ball sports, but managed to excel at running earning four state titles in the 800m and two in relays. I received a full scholarship to run at Baylor University where I earned several All-Region, All-Conference, and All-American honors. I wanted to run professionally after college, but mononucleosis, vitamin D deficiency, and subsequent depression at the abrupt ending of my collegiate running career led to a 50-pound weight gain in one year. 

Steeplechase race while at Baylor Photo from Danielle Lewis

To get myself out of this funk and back in shape, I picked up cycling. At this time, the thought of triathlon grew in my mind. I started training and placed second overall in the TriWaco sprint distance race in 2011. Yet, shortly after this brief glance at triathlon, I fractured my shoulder in a cycling accident. Because I could not swim during the post-surgical healing and rehab phase, I rode my bike more. For the next three years, I raced my bike locally, regionally and eventually with a domestic elite team at the national level.

However, in August of 2014, another bike accident caused a course redirection. I was racing in the master’s men field of a local race when, less than four miles from the finish line, two guys directly in front of me hit the deck going downhill at 40+ mph. I ended up flipping over my bars and landed flat on my back fracturing my sacrum and the transverse process of my L4 vertebra. Laying on the ground in excruciating pain, unsure if I could move my legs, was the scariest moment of my life. After that accident, I decided to hang up the racing bike and focus on my career in public health.

In the hospital after my crash Photo from Danielle Lewis

While I enjoyed my work, I felt like something was missing. It felt like I quit on a dream I had since I was a little girl: to be a professional athlete. But I was scared. I was scared I was getting too old. I was upset at how I got close a few times but my chances were taken from me. I was mad at myself for giving up. All this fear and anger festered inside of me. Although, from the outside, I appeared happy and was excelling professionally, inside I was slowing dying. I gave up on my dreams and I hated myself for it.

That had to change. Enough was enough. In early 2017, I decided it was time to take back what fear had stolen from me. “This is my year” is the mantra that fueled my drive to earn my elite license. That year, I won all three USAT Duathlon National titles, place third at USAT Olympic Distance Nationals, and place first overall age group female in my first IRONMAN 70.3 race in Cozumel. I earned that elite license and am currently in my third year racing as a professional triathlete (although, do we count the year of The ‘Rona? Perhaps, a question for another day.).

The reason for the extensive (hopefully not too boring) backstory is because it paints a picture of Why. I went all-in to pursue a professional triathlon career. I was (and AM) driven to make it work because I believe in my dreams and goals. I know what it feels like to ignore a calling and I never want to experience that again. Going all-in in triathlon meant going all-in at swimming. I can have the best cycling and running combo in the world, but if I can’t swim, it will all be for naught.

So what did “all-in” look like? In 2017, I was still working full-time for county government and lived 45 miles from work and the master’s swim team. For nearly two years, I had the following schedule:

  • 4 AM Wake up
  • 4:30 AM Drive to Master’s Swim
  • 5:30 AM – 7:00 AM Swim
  • 7:00 AM – 8:00 AM Get cleaned up, visit the local Panera or Starbucks for coffee/breakfast
  • 8:00 AM – 4:30 PM Work (occasionally a run or strength workout at lunch)
  • 4:30 PM Drive home
  • 5:30 PM – 7:00 PM Ride or Run workout
  • 7:00 PM Dinner, stretch, pack bags for the next day
  • 8:30 PM Bed

Being “all-in” required a strict schedule, lots of patience, intense focus and celebrating the small victories. As a high performing athlete, it was very challenging to not be good at a sport. I could not understand why I would try so hard to get to the other end of the pool, but would arrive several seconds after lane mates who seemed to arrive without effort. This went against my knowledge of running and cycling: Harder is faster. In my case, harder was slower. Learning the technique took a great deal of patience. It was easy to become frustrated because progress was much slower than I wanted. It became important to focus on what I was doing in each moment. Whether that was on technique, holding form, staying on someone’s feet, or just not letting frustration get in the way of giving my best in that practice.

However, this was not always easy. One practice, in particular, I will always remember. My swim coach told me to swim continuously in the endless pool for 20 min. This was a very simple workout, but it created a great deal of anxiety. During the first few minutes, I pictured myself in my upcoming first pro 70.3 race in Mexico. I saw myself falling behind, unable to stay with the pack. As a result, I couldn’t keep up with the endless pool, became frustrated and allowed my fear of failure to become so distracting I quit the workout after seven minutes. I left the natatorium in tears and found a dark corner to cry tears of frustration.

Yet, in that moment I realized I had a choice: allow this fear to define me and hold me back, or embrace this challenge as an opportunity to get it right. I came back to practice  the next day with a greater resolve and acceptance of the long journey it would take to get to where I wanted to go. But I knew I would get there.

But let’s be real: I’m not there, yet! The vast majority of my time is spent chasing on the bike and in the run. It is not uncommon for me to move up 10 or more positions from the time I get out of the water to the time I cross the finish line. Yet, that time gap between myself and the lead swim pack has been getting smaller. In February of this year, at IRONMAN 70.3 Dubai, the first thing my mom and fiancé heard me say when I arrived to my bike at T1 was, “Oh! There are other bikes here!” (indicating I wasn’t last out of the water, per usual). I used that boost of motivation to finish second in a stellar field.

Tackling some rough open water swimming Photo from Danielle Lewis

It will be nice when the day comes that I am not giving up over six minutes in the swim! Yet, I am thankful for the lessons I’ve learned in my swim journey and will keep chipping away at that time gap. Here are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned: 

Stay present. It can be easy to focus on how fast you want to be or worry if all your work will be for nothing. However, the most important thing you can do to benefit your body and mind when learning a new skill is to focus solely on that skill.

Technique and speed. In swimming, when it is time to focus on technique, focus on technique, not speed. When it is time to focus on going fast, go fast. I found that when I was trying to go fast but my mind was thinking about hand entry, pull, etc, I was not going fast. If you want to focus on one aspect of your stroke when going fast, that is fine for a few reps. Just don’t think about too many things at once.

Fast 25s and 50s! At the end of nearly every workout, my coach has me do either 10 x 25 or 50 fast with 30 – 45 second rest. These have been a game changer for me. Learning to swim fast when fatigued will pay dividends in a race.

Lose the gear. If you are new to swimming and enjoy the speed that paddles and fins provide, it can be easy to become reliant on them. Don’t do this. There is a time and place for using equipment for technique or power work, but I caution on heavily relying on them for main endurance or power endurance sets. You will gain confidence in yourself and your swim when you show yourself you don’t need the equipment to finish a daunting main set. If you do not feel you can swim a certain distance without equipment, break that distance down into sizable portions you can complete.

Finally, when your six-year-old brain starts freaking out, just tell it to “Sit down and shut up.” You have work to do. (Just don’t be that rude to a real human 6-year-old.


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