10/03/2011 08:27 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2011

Overcoming A Fear Of Water And Competing In Triathlons

By Deborah Dunham for

Why does the Discovery Channel always air Shark Week during peak triathlon season? Yes, I know there are “only” 30 to 50 shark attacks reported each year and “only” five to 10 prove to be fatal. Yes, I know you have more of a chance of getting bitten by a person than a shark. And yes, I know you are more likely to die from hornets, wasps, bees or even a dog. But still. After watching reruns of Shark Week recently, the thought of getting into the open water to train for an upcoming triathlon is terrifying me. And I only have two weeks until race day.

I wasn’t always afraid of the ocean and the creatures lurking in there -- or at least not as scared as I am now. But one morning when I was out there doing a training swim with a group of fellow triathletes, something kept bumping into me for several strokes. I thought it might be one of the guys I was swimming with (because they know that freaks me out), but when I picked up my head and looked around, there was no one around me. So I did the natural thing: I got the hell out of there. After I hightailed it to the shore and the rest of the group got out of the water, one of my friends looked at me and said, “Geez Deb, we didn’t know you could swim that fast.”

That was last summer, and I haven’t been back in the ocean since. All of this presents a dilemma for my upcoming triathlon -- where I will be swimming in the same waters. In fact, I’m more afraid of something touching me out there than I am of drowning (which is a more rational fear, I suppose). For all I know, that “thing” bumping me could have been a swarm of jellyfish or a perfectly harmless grouper or sea turtle. But in my mind, it was a shark. So, what to do?

Well, I could continue to fret about my impending early demise. I could continue to run along the beach and look out into the murky ocean waters wondering what exactly is out there. I could continue to listen to my teenage son who is a surfer and kindly tells me about all the creatures (including some baby sharks) he sees out there. Or, I could ignore all of that and just get back out there. Like I said, I have a better chance of getting eaten alive by a swarm of bees (which doesn’t sound very appealing either) and yet, I don’t freak out every time I see one. (Well, maybe just a bit. There was that one occasion where I was running around my front yard like a lunatic swearing at a bee who was chasing me, all while our new neighbor stood there and stared, but that was an isolated incident.)

So, after carefully considering my odds of a real shark attack, here is my plan:

1. Meditate. This is probably a good time to enact all of the yoga and meditation I have been doing. Slow down my breathing (which can get pretty fast when one almost has a panic attack before diving into the sea, like I have also had happen) and focus on slow, rhythmic, controlled breaths. Some people do walking meditations; I shall do swimming meditations.

2. Get rational. True, most fears are irrational. And the funny thing is, I’ve done dozens of triathlons and dozens more training swims in the ocean, and you know how many times something has happened? Once. That was a jellyfish sting (which did feel creepy when it wrapped around my wrist, ew), but I didn’t die or even have to pee on myself. I survived.

3. Wear a wetsuit. This may sound silly, but when the water is cold enough and I can wear my full wetsuit, I feel protected. Yes, people graciously remind me that a shark’s teeth could easily bite through that (I have such nice friends), but I still consider it my shark suit.

4. Swim like hell. When all else fails, swimming really fast never hurts. Maybe I can turn this fear into a positive and use it as an incentive to set a new personal record out there. You never know, right?

All of this sounds like a solid plan, and I am going to make myself do a practice swim to test it out. That is, until I just turned on the news and heard about a man who got attacked by a shark in South Africa yesterday! So if you don’t hear from me next week, at least you’ll know why.

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