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Facing my fear of open water

This blog was reposted from CBC Sports with permission from Julia Wilkinson. The original post can be found here. 

You probably won't believe this, but I'm afraid of open water.

I know: it's a contradiction, a hypocrisy even, for an Olympic swimmer to be afraid of any kind of water. But that's why, for me, swimming in the ocean is my personal phobia: a phobia is something that you're afraid of no matter how often you're reassured or how irrational the fear may be. That pretty much sums up how I feel in water over my head.

My mother is absolutely terrified of spiders, which is known as arachnophobia, something that is actually fairly common. I learned at a young and deviant age that if I simply raised my eyes to the ceiling suspiciously as if I had seen a spider, she would shriek, cover her head with her hands and dart awkwardly away. I grew up in Southwestern Ontario: lots of spiders there, especially in cottage country, but none that can cause you serious harm. Watching her squirm was comical. But put me in a lake or ocean where the water reaches over my head, and I know exactly how she feels.

I'll never forget: when I was about 14 years old, our cottage neighbor wanted some large rocks to frame her garden. Her two grandchildren, my sister and I volunteered to go out into Lake Huron in a rowboat, dive to the bottom, and collect them for her. I swam in the lake all the time as a kid, but was never comfortable venturing past the second sandbar, where the water turns black and the bottom disappears into the abyss. But I didn't want to be left out of the rock scavenging adventure, so I climbed aboard the rickety wooden boat and we rowed about 75 metres from shore.

When it was time to start rock diving, I jumped out of the boat like everyone else, but the moment I hit the water and looked down through my goggles at what seemed to be miles of water between the bottom and me, I panicked. I mean real, pure panic: my heart rate went up, my throat started to tighten, and before I knew it, I was swimming as fast as I could to shore. I didn't even tell the others I was heading in because all I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as possible. When I could finally touch the bottom again, I was relieved and exhausted, and in hindsight kind of wish someone had a stopwatch.

Phobia getting worse

I'm not exactly afraid of "water" per se. I'm fine in pools (obviously) and it's not as if every shower I take is like the famous scene from Psycho. I'm afraid of deep water and the unknown that lurks below. Maybe it's because I watched Jaws when I was seven (thanks a lot, Dad), and my years of Shark Week and other Animal Planet shows haven't helped.

My phobia has only gotten worse with age and, whenever we travel to oceanfront destinations for training - Australia, Florida, and now Hawaii - I sit out while my teammates frolic in the waves. You can only imagine how much flack I catch for this.

We arrived in Hawaii about a week ago, and with the Olympics coming up next month, I've been thinking a lot about fear and how to conquer it. Fear of failure this summer could consume me if I let it, but without the risk of failure I have no chance at success. So I live, every day, toying with my fear of failure. I took one look at the ocean on day one and I thought, "This time, I'm going to conquer you."


I started off small. I played in the waves at Big Beach here on Maui, the sandy bottom and shoreline well within my reach. It was no different than playing in Lake Huron with my sister when I was little, just a little saltier and with bigger waves. My real test came when our coach, Randy Bennett, organized a snorkel tour out to Molokini (an island and reef out in the ocean). When I told my teammates that I wanted to brave jumping off a boat into the ocean, they were surprised but supportive.

Our first stop was a fairly shallow area on the reef: probably only six to 10 feet to the bottom. I jumped in, goggles and all, and swam around looking at fish and coral. I was pretty nervous at first, but to tell you the truth, once I stopped thinking about it, I was able to relax and enjoy the views. Luckily, I was close to the boat when I heard someone yell "Shark!" and was up the ladder faster than you can yell "Where?" And, no, it wasn't a joke. Two small, and apparently harmless, White Tip sharks swam under me just as I was preparing to get back on the boat.

Our second jump was on the other side of Molokini, which is 300 feet deep. Needless to say, I jumped in on principle but got out as soon as I was wet. Closer to shore and in significantly shallower water, we stopped and snorkeled with sea turtles, and I came within a metre of a huge, beautiful turtle. If I had been too afraid to jump off the boat, I never would've had that amazing experience.

To most people, a fun snorkeling excursion has absolutely no relevance to my Olympic journey. But for me, this was about so much more than overcoming my fear of open water. I probably won't ever be the first person to jump off of a boat or suggest an early morning ocean swim, but I now know that I have the power to face what I'm afraid of.

After all, you're going to miss a lot if you don't jump in.