The Richmond Triathlon Club helps swimmers overcome open water fears

Posted at 3:35 PM, May 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-26 23:38:18-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Richmond Triathlon Club turns athletes into triathletes. While the running and cycling portions of the sport come naturally to some participants, the open water swim requires some additional training. While some races allow competitors to swim in a pool, many require open water swimming in a lake or river. The experiences are vastly different.

Lilo Navales has done more than 40 triathlons, yet she is still not a fan of being in the water.

"They've been used to swimming in the pool where they can watch the black line," Navales said. "In open water, there is no black line and there are a lot of other things that float around to get used to."

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Triathlete Howard Kohn has competed in several triathlons and said he has experienced paralyzing fear and disorientation during some of his swims.

"It's psychological. When you're in open water, you can't stop, and stand up and rest. And there's no line at the bottom to keep you on track," Kohn said. "It's not frequent but you can have a panic attack in the water and not really know which direction you're going."

It got so bad for triathlete Victoria Morales, she onetime quit in the middle of the race.

"As soon as I got out of the water I was so angry," she said. "One of the kayakers was, 'Oh how are you doing?' He knew I was the last one and he stayed with me. I was like I don't know why I signed up for this."

All three athletes now take taking part in the Richmond Triathlon Club's open water swim practices on the James River.

For those not used to swimming outside of a pool, there are hazards one might never have considered until they unexpectedly pop up during a race.

"You have people rubbing on your shoulders, touching your feet," Navales said. "Some might swim over you. Some might swim under you in a race. You have to be prepared for that."

"When you're swimming in a group and you're getting kicked," Kohn added.

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"I've got friends who have sent me articles about what's in the James River," Morales said. "As long as I don't think about it and I just have to get from point a to point b, I'm good."

The club trains between 15 and 25 new swimmers each year.

Kayakers are in the water every few feet to not only offer support but encouragement.

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"They're very supportive of the newbie, the slower people. There's no shame. You just show up and you're going to get encouraged," Kohn said.

"Everyone is so great in the tri-community," Morales said. "They cheer you on even if they're passing you. They're like, 'great job.' I was just riding my bike at West Creek and a whole group was riding past us and they were like you're doing a great job and they didn't even know me."

The real payoff comes at the finish line.

"When you finish a triathlon, you have such an immense sense of achievement. I just felt great when I finished," Kohn said.

"I was much slower six months ago but as you have somebody telling you what to do and helping you train, it gets easier. It does get easier," Morales said.

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