Mark Danger Powers

Tri’ing To Overcome A Fear

Sometimes it’s quite acceptable to let time pass and allow yourself to be comfortable for a little while. There’s nothing wrong with kicking back a bit and enjoying where you’re at, appreciating how far you’ve come, and not beating yourself up about constantly striving to reach new goals and milestones. I have to remind myself of this from time to time.

But there also come points in your life when it’s time to get off your butt, face real fears and fight your way to a truly landmark achievement.

One of the most enormous personal challenges in my life begins today. I can’t swim. I know how to swim (and have had more than a couple friends try to assure me of this), but I can’t. Being largely left-brained, the technical process makes complete sense to me. But [what I suppose might be defined as] a fear of water keeps me from engaging in said process for more than about 25 yards. On a good day.

For most of my life, I have let myself be scared by the warning “don’t go near the water- you can drown,” rather than “learn to swim- it could save your life.”

I have yet to be able to cross the length of the lap pool at the gym more than one time without having to rest and get psyched up for the next go at it. And my last visit yielded a whopping zero passes straight across without a stop- usually caused by water in my mouth or a stupid mental freak-out. Sinking underwater and practicing exhaling through my nose doesn’t occur more than three or four times before my heart rate goes through the roof.

So how to force myself to overcome this? I recently joined my buddy Steve in registering for the sprint distance of the Portland Triathlon, which takes place on August 21st . . . exactly two months from today. And not even remotely close to prepared. Am I an idiot? Yes, yes I am.

Along with the [totally doable] biking and running, the sprint tri requires swimming 750 meters open water in the Willamette River.

750 meters ~ 820 yards ~ 33 times across the gym’s pool

I don’t intend to be the slightest bit competitive in August’s race, but I do fully intend to dive in, survive and finish. To that end, I have two months to go from being able to cross 1 time to being able to do it 33 times. Nonstop.

And, when I say I have to, I mean I have to. It’s time. In my travels, I want to enjoy all of the activities that the gained swimming skills will allow. I want to feel confident that I can indeed save my life (or another person’s) if the need should arise. And, more importantly, it’s time to slay this dragon that’s kept me cornered and fearful, once and for all.

My plan? Well, I don’t totally have one. But starting today, I’m committed to spending at least an hour every day possible in the pool. Right now, getting comfortable being in the water, under the water, is first priority. I’ve had a couple of lessons in the past and will make a point of getting a few more along the way to that sprint.

Would you care to help? Please?

• Keep on me and hold me accountable. Tweet me, Facebook me, email me, call me, text me- whatever it takes. I want and need this to happen . . . but I’m scared as hell. I need a hundred ruthless coaches leaning over my shoulder, breathing down my neck and screaming at me every morning.

Post a comment below and tell me about one of the toughest personal challenges you’ve ever faced. Or, one that you still need to.

And, lest I forget to say it in the midst of your shouting coaching: thank you, thank you, thank you!

(photo by jayhem)


  1. You can do it! One thing I highly recommend is to get together a bunch of people and practice group starts in open water, especially if you’ve got fear of the water. The swim start is chaotic. Do it where the race will be if you can. And don’t do it until you’re comfortable in the water!

    I found some of the files from the triathlon book and will send them to you. (Useful that I never delete anything!) Some of it is bound to be outdated, but I hope there’s something in there you’ll find useful. Anything I can do to help! Because doing a triathlon is an amazing experience. It changes you, and what you think is possible.

    • That’s so cool of you, Kaari. Can’t wait to check out the stuff from your book, and practicing group starts is a smart idea. Any thoughts on ways to search for people to do that with? Swimming centers, maybe? Thanks a ton!

      • Definitely check at the pool. Ask the lifeguards, talk to other people swimming, mention what you’re doing. Go to the store where you buy triathlon stuff, if there is such a place, and ask around. Running, bike, and gear stores will often have events where people come in and talk about racing, usually focused on a particular race, so you can meet other first timers. I found my people at an online forum (back in 1998!). People will find you if you keep talking about it.

        I second Carla’s mention of Total Immersion. I had the first TI book when I wrote the tri book. It helps! If swimming is the scariest part, open water swims and group start practice will be really really helpful in getting through the race. I swam competitively for ten years but I’d have had a horrible time without that practice.

        Me, I was afraid of the run. Which is funny now, but wasn’t then. Oh, and I fell on the bike leg. HA! One piece of advice I don’t think made it in the book is: If it’s raining, especially a Pacific NW rain after weeks of dry, DO NOT let your bike tires hit the lines painted on the road. My bike went right out from under me and I slid along on my hip and shoulder for at least ten yards. But I finished!

  2. You can do it. It’s easier than you think. I did a triathlon once and thought the swimming was going to be hard but with a bit of training I was able to feel really comfortable in the water. That being said – you’ll find that especially in the pool – you don’t need to be a GREAT swimmer – you just need to be able to get across the pool. You’ll see people walking! It doesn’t need to be pretty, it just needs to be completed.

    Don’t feel intimidated by this portion of the triathlon. Get your back float down. The elementary backstroke. The dog paddle. Don’t worry about being a superstar and you’ll find yourself in good company.

    You can definitely do it!

    • Ha . . . I think that “it doesn’t need to be pretty- it just needs to be completed” is my new official slogan for this race! My backstroke is not horrible. I figured that that could be my way to survive, if need be, but that it wouldn’t be possible amidst the madness of the race. Smart- I do need to make sure those are up-to-snuff. Thanks for the encouragement, Gretchen!

  3. I am so impressed with your guts. I have a similar fear of swimming (I *can* do it technically, but it terrifies me), so I can really appreciate the magnitude of what you’ve pledged yourself to. Few people ever push themselves outside their comfort zones, let alone tackle a fear head on like this. Kudos to you for really taking yourself to task! I will be more than happy to scream, cheer, nag, encourage, or whatever else you need as you get ready for this. Hell to the yeah to you on this one!

    • Cordelia, awesome that you swung by and commented! Sounds like you can totally understand where I’m at on this. I will super appreciate every bit of that nagging and cheering! Thanks a ton 🙂

  4. Hey Mark- I know how hard this is for you, and am not at all surprised you’ve decided to take on the challenge of overcoming this fear. Most of the fears I’ve overcome have been because I’ve HAD to- (heading into a court room STILL scares me, I suppose I’m just getting used to the fear.). I admire the discipline and courage it takes to overcome a fear just because it is a fear and you recognize it’s holding you back in life. You’re kind of a thorn in my side constantly reminding me that comfort is the enemy- not the goal. THANK YOU!! Expect to get some texts, emails, phone calls, tweets and any other form of encouragement I can think of, over the next couple months. I’ve seen you in the ocean- when we went ‘sort of’ diving- and you were more comfortable than I was. Therefore, I know that you know that this is a mental game you’ll win!

    • The diving was doable for me because I was somehow able to completely put my trust in the gear, and it really didn’t require the same sort of swimming skills, breathing, etc. I trusted that I would have air and wouldn’t take in water. I’ve similarly been able to go waterskiing and trust that the life jacket would keep me afloat (the poor people in the boat just had to keeping bringing the line all the way back to me). You’re right, it is a mental game. And I will win. As always, thank you, thank you, thank you, Lu. I know I’ve said it before, but you rock!

  5. Holy crap! I have the same problem. I’m’a watch and see how to do it.

    • Hey, Matt- long time, no see! Welcome along for the ride. If this is an issue for you, too, then I look forward to watching you attack it down the road, as well! Great to hear from ya- we need to catch up . . .

  6. Nice! You helped inspire me do that ten mile across Winnebago years back… and can count me your x-country swimming support swim team for this one. I would be happy to help you and Steve with technical stroke tips and or training advice. I am guessing you have seen the TI school of thought? They have some great drills that I am sure you would find helpful. When we did swim together you picked up on stuff totally quickly, so it’s a matter of practicing that and keeping good technique. Just like drumming you want good technique before you speed through your drumming, drills ,or strokes. Once you have good technique you can build endurance, which an hour each day will be reeeally helpful for if you are going from 25-750 yards in just two months.. wow. Glad to hear you plan to put that time in. There is a huge mental component as well. I could go on an on about this all kinds of swimming and triathlon stuff but will for now. Give a hola if I can help with this water worthy goal.

    • Thanks a ton, Carla. I remember that swim of yours well- it was amazing being alongside in the boat, watching you cover that entire lake!

      I am looking into the T.I. method; I keep hearing great things about it. The mental component is the biggie for me. I got five days in last week. Slowly but surely . . .

      Really appreciate your support and help, girl!

  7. Mark,

    You can do it. Just take it one stroke at a time. Overcoming my fear of public speaking was probably one of the biggest fears for me, and now I truly enjoy public speaking! Good luck to you.

    • Thanks, Joe! “One stroke at a time” is exactly where I’m at right now. 🙂 Awesome to hear that you overcame your fear of speaking. I’d love to hear how you tackled that!

  8. Mark!!

    You are SO my HERO!!! This is HUGE…and I’m so impressed that you wrote this post. It takes enormous GUTS to tell the world, so that we can hold you accountable.

    Just take it in small steps, one day at a time. But do something everyday!! Those 2 months will fly so don’t waste a single day. Set a schedule for yourself to get in that pool everyday. Then just do it….don’t overthink it….just do it.

    • You’re not kidding about how time flies by. (I intended to start this all a month ago) I made it happen 5 of the last 6 days, and just need to keep at it. Thanks a ton for reading and commenting, Maria!

  9. Hey Mark. I totally hear you — I had a fear of water too. I could swim, but I was terrified of the ocean. (Sharks! Drowning! Storms!) When I fell for a guy who had a plan to take his boat around the world, I was forced into confronting this fear. After a lot of terror, vomiting and thinking I was going to die, I made it 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean (over two years).

    Good luck with your challenge, and good on you for biting off more than you can chew. There’s no other way to do it in my opinion. BTW I blog a lot about confronting fears 🙂 I’m as phobic as they come.

    • Torre! Wow, thanks for dropping a line here. Just checked out your site and book trailer. Awesome, awesome stuff! You know, much better than I, about confronting some serious fears. Good for you! You and your story are definitely inspiring to me.

      ** [Note to other readers: visit]

  10. Hi! I found your blog through Cordelia Calls It Quits. I have done 4 sprint tris but when I was training for my first tri and went for my first swim, I had the same experience of making it 25 yards before being out of breath. It took me over 6 months of regular swimming to be able to do the front crawl (in the meantime, I did the breaststroke which I’m actually faster at).

    My advice? 1) Like you’re planning, spend time in the water but don’t just swim – do drills like single arm stroke, kicking with fins, catchup, etc. These helped me. You could also check out Terry Laughlin’s book Total Immersion. He has great advice and drills in there.

    2) Practice in open water several times before your tri, especially since you struggle with being scared of water. That has been my greatest challenge to not panic in open water. It’s very different from swimming in a pool.

    Good luck! It DOES get easier, I promise!

    • Hi, Kathy- thanks for stopping by and offering up the great tips! One thing that I haven’t done yet- but know that I really need to- is open water. I may wait another week or two, until I’m feeling a little more confident with where things are at in the pool. But, you’re right, that’s going to be completely different. Thanks again for reading!

  11. I don’t know if I can top this. But I wanted to say two things. Firstly: this is a truly gutsy thing you’re doing Mark. I’m sure there’s many a confident swimmer who would be intimidated at the thought of swimming open water in a triathlon. Truly wowed by your tenacity. Booyah. Secondly: while I’m all for dragon slaying. Sometimes the best way is to kill ’em with kindness. Ever thought about just jumping in, lollying around and enjoying the relaxation? Swimming under the surface or floating on top. Noticing the sensations and the sounds of the water? Swimming can be a profoundly centering, peaceful experience too. That might help you to find your legs, as it were.

    • Hey, thanks for stopping by, Lach! I do try to take a little time to just mess around in the pool. Swimming just under the surface is something that I’ve never been able to figure out until just recently, as I’ve been in there more. You are right- letting myself play around in the water is definitely helping me to become more comfortable being there and in it. Thanks again!

  12. Yay for you! It’s so easy to put the hardest things off. Keep going, every little bit helps. I’m glad that you’re documenting your progress somewhere. It’s hard to ignore the truth when it’s in black and white. Good luck!

  13. Awesome, dude! Keep it up and feed the flame, YOU can do it!


  1. What Do You Say To Taking Chances? | Minimalist 4 Life - [...] out how my friend Mark plans to conquer his fear. Are you freaking kidding me? If he can do…
  2. Link Love 6/24/11 | Cordelia Calls It Quits - [...] Tri’ing to Overcome a Fear “I have yet to be able to cross the length of the lap pool…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *