Vintage Pacific NW: We’re revisiting some of our favorite stories from some of our favorite former magazine contributors. Check back each week for timeless classics focusing on food, fitness, gardening and more.

Originally published July 27, 2012
By Nicole Tsong, former Fit for Life writer

THEY WORE WET SUITS, and the sun shone through the clouds, but the swimmers-in-triathlon-training still shivered as they sank down to their shoulders in Lake Washington. “It’s like brain freeze,” one swimmer says. “Like ice cream without the calories.” 

The high at the end of a triathlon must be really, really good. 

Every summer, droves of people feel compelled to jump into cold water with hundreds, maybe thousands, of other people, at risk of getting thwacked by the arms and feet of others racing to be first. Then they all get out and bike and run, too. 

For most new triathletes, the swim in open water is the scariest part. Seattleite Ursula Deelstra, training for her third triathlon with open-water swim sessions at Seward Park, says the first time she stepped into the water, she thought, “This is going to be terrible. I’m never going to make it.” 


I have been reassured you will survive and perhaps even enjoy the swim. The proper training, i.e., switching from the swimming pool to open water, is key. The event will be chaotic, so it helps to get a handle on how fast you are, compared to everyone else, and start with other swimmers at your level. 

“If you’re a real slow swimmer and get at the front, people will swim over you,” cautions Brad Williams, a coach with training group We Raise the Bar. 

But with a few tips, you also can learn to swim well with others. Or, at least, not get yanked along the way. Here are a few tips from Williams and to move ahead of the writhing, thrashing pack: 

• Train in open water, and practice sighting. In the pool, lines and walls help you go straight. In the open water, swimmers must learn to get their bearings from what’s going on in and around the course. Williams recommends finding the highest point on the horizon, which is easier to see than the buoys marking the course. 

• Wear a wet suit that fits. Wet suits, legal for most races in cold Pacific Northwest water, lend natural buoyancy to a swimmer, helping with body position so you go faster. But make sure it fits, with good flexibility around the shoulders. 

• Breathe on both sides. Learning to breathe on both sides when you swim will help when another swimmer’s armpit or hip is in the way. 


• Have a good pair of goggles. Put them on extra tightly so they don’t get knocked off. And put the goggles on underneath your swim cap for extra security. 

• Work with your adrenaline. Williams often will train triathletes to go out hard on their first 50 yards, then use the next 25 yards to settle into a comfortable pace. 

• Stay warm. A wet suit is a huge part of staying warm, but experts recommend wet suits with long sleeves, plus earplugs and two swimming caps for extra warmth. 

• Know your course. Swim it ahead of time if you can. If you can’t get in the water, walk the course and find points of reference to help you stay on track during the race. 

• Learn to draft. Swimming behind or just off to the side behind someone is helpful if you know how to do it. But practice ahead of time to get comfortable.