Marci Files: Overcoming Your Fear: Ocean Swimming

Let me start by saying I am from Phoenix, Arizona where there are no oceans around. Sure we have lakes but they’re not big lakes and they’re not the greatest lakes and they are far to get to. Also let me mention that Phoenix is SO hot that everyone has a pool. The pool is where I am most comfortable when it comes to swimming. I am completely self-taught so I don’t even know all the right techniques, but I can swim laps for exercise and feel good afterwards, like I actually worked out. 


Like running and running races, I never thought I would actually sign up and do a triathlon. But just like loving running and running races, I have actually come to realize that triathlons are super fun and the community is great! In the spring of 2013 I decided to race in the 2013 Nautica Malibu Triathlon. Two of my co-workers/girl friends were joining and it sounded like a lot of fun! We would train together and get to learn all about triathlons together. At first I was just going to sign up for the relay and do the run portion because I am not the strongest on the bike and I am terrified of the ocean. Some people are afraid of sharks. Some people are afraid of not being able to see the bottom of the ocean. I am afraid of waves. I always have been. I don’t know what to do with them and I don’t know how to get through them. (I am the girl at the beach that goes ankle deep and is comfortable there… even in Hawaii…) After much decision all three of us decided we were all going to do the full thing and we signed up. To say I was more terrified than excited is the absolute truth. What did I just get myself into?! 1) You want me to swim in the ocean?! 2) You have to bike 18 miles when you haven’t really biked that much since you were a kid and biking was fun and carefree?! 3) I have to run after being on a bike?! And 4) I have to be in spandex?! In front of EVERYONE?! <sigh> Oh boy… here we go…

My Journey Getting Into The Ocean

I didn’t do much pool practice and maybe this wasn’t the smartest decision but looking back, I didn’t really need it. I swam a really good time on race day and I swam backstroke which is something I never swim! More on that later! But I decided that during the week I would focus on training more on the bike and run and on the weekends I would focus more on the ocean swims at the beach (where the race would take place) and full brick workouts. (A brick is two or more exercises at one period of time.) Our first two ocean swims with the tri team were called Ins and Outs where basically you run in the ocean, through the break (where the waves crash) and come back to the beach. Of the two I could only make one of the weekends.


I had already received my wetsuit and this was it. I was going to swim in the ocean! I was terrified. I literally had to stop myself from breaking into tears in front of coworkers, my peers and complete strangers. I had no idea what I was doing, I had no idea how to go through a wave and I had no idea how to come back through the waves to the beach without tumbling and drowning. This was the day that I decided I was going to die 10 days before my 31st birthday (that’s when the race was). As we got down to the beach, we were supposed to get into the water to feel the temperature and get acclimated. Everyone was saying how cold the ocean was. I couldn’t feel it because of how terrified I was. No joke, the water never felt cold to me because my fear was too powerful to feel anything else. I partnered up with an older man who had done many triathlons who said he would stay by my side and help me through it. I had told him I had never swum in the ocean before. Now before you think I am a complete baby/loser, I wasn’t alone! There were a few of us who were scared beyond belief. Not all of us made it in the ocean that day, but I did! It was not a pretty sight. Sure enough my first time actually going through the break and coming back out towards the beach I tumbled and tumbled and lost grip of the man who was helping me and had to be pulled up by a life guard. Once I got up and was able to feel the ground with my feet I was ok to get out of the ocean alone. This is where I nearly lost it and had to try not to cry. Life lesson: it’s OK to cry and it’s OK to cry IN the water. I found my friends on the beach and told them I was done, I would not be getting back in the water anymore that day after that. Did I say the waves were not even that big? Oy.

Shortly after that there was a tri team lottery to swim with this group called South Coast Aquatics and I actually won! This group was the most helpful ever and I highly suggest if you live in LA and want to learn how to swim in the ocean you look these people up. They are $15/clinic, every Saturday morning at Zuma Beach at 7:30am for an hour. Doug Green is the head coach and he brings three trainers with him. Kim and Kevin are definitely awesome. The other trainer swims with more advanced people so as I am sure he is great, I never had the pleasure of working with him.

Since I won the lottery I decided to check them out. They split you up into three groups: Scared Shitless, Moderate and Advanced swimmers. I clearly was in the ‘scared shitless’ group. Kim was the trainer for this group. At first, we all stood on the beach and Kevin talked a little about how the ocean works, how the waves work and what the conditions are that day. We started by getting into the water, about thigh deep and getting back out. We did these simple little workups for a while and then it was time to get in the water, go through the break and swim to the buoy. A couple of us, myself included, asked if we could stay with Kim the whole time to get through the waves and swim to the buoy and she was more than ok with this plan.

Success! I made it through the break and to the buoy! Go me! Now wait, what? You want me to swim back to the beach? Clearly I didn’t think this plan through and forgot that I would have to come back in. “No, that’s ok, I’m good. I’ll be like Tom Hanks in Castaway and stay here… forever. But thank you for helping me get this far!” Naturally that plan wasn’t allowed. I stayed with Kim and she helped explain to me that when you start to get closer to the break you either surf in with the waves (ya right!) or duck before it crashes. Well… I didn’t duck fast enough and I took a tumble but this time I was “ok” because I was still with Kim and she was telling me to “swim, keep swimming, DUCK!, ok swim!” I made it back to the beach. Alive! No tears! It was actually kind of fun! Maybe I could go back in! But alas the hour was almost up and we wouldn’t be going back out.  

The Scariest Ocean Day

The next weekend I made it out to the ocean I decided I would go early and swim with South Coast again. I would pay this time, but it didn’t matter because I knew I was getting the training I needed. I thought if this swim went well then I would go back in with the tri team when they met, which was when South Coast training ended. As I drove out to Zuma I was feeling more confident than I had before just because of how “well” the last training went. I got to the beach early and as I sat in my car waiting for my friend I watched the waves and they seemed pretty big. Now of course one foot waves to me look scary, so what did I know? Once I got down to the beach and had my wet suit on, it was time to go. 

We did the in and out like we had the last time so we could get comfortable with the water and the temperature. I was starting to get a little nervous, as I do in the ocean so I opted to stay with Kim again as we headed through the break and out to the buoy. One other guy was with us - everyone else had gone out ahead of us. We started to swim out and a huge wave came and we had to duck. Then another, then another, then another. These waves kept crashing on us and we couldn’t move. We were stuck in the break. They were huge, they were powerful and they were scary. If I had been alone, I am pretty confident to say I probably would have panicked and drowned (I don’t mean to scare anyone, but I want to emphasize the point of going out into the ocean with someone who knows what they are doing for your first few times – preferably, a trained professional). I definitely wasn’t calm, but I wasn’t panicking because Kim was with me the entire time and kept telling me how awesome I was doing. Normally waves come in sets of 3 and then there it’s calm for a little while. This was not the case. I even remember Kim saying “these waves keep on coming, this is not normal”. (Did I mention I was literally on top of Kim at one point? I didn’t want to lose her.) FINALLY we were able to make a “run” for it and we swam as fast as we could to get out of the break. Now if you do have ocean experience, you are probably thinking we are idiots hanging out in the break like that because, of course, we were going to get slammed! But let me tell you, there was NO WHERE to go! The waves were crazy huge and strong and we were stuck. But we FINALLY made it through the waves and to the buoy where the rest of the group was waiting for us where we then did some swim training. This was smooth sailing even though I was exhausted from what just happened.

Now it was time to go back to the beach. I stuck with Kim the whole time and she helped me get through it, and you know what? I survived! But there was no way I was going back in with the tri team. I sat back at my car, took my time getting on my bike gear and waited. Some of the tri team also had a really hard time with the waves. Some turned back and didn’t even go in. It was a scary day. We found out later that the waves were 7-8 FEET (!) and the life guards were calling for a no swim day! I just want to know where those life guards were when we were all out there?! 

Further Training

I had many more ocean swim practices after that day, but I decided I was ready to continue training with the tri team (thanks to the help of South Coast). I went back one more weekend with them and then decided I was “comfortable” enough to go out on my own, because honestly, they weren’t going to be there with me on race day and I needed to figure it out on my own from what they had trained me to do. The waves were never as big as the ones that weekend, and the later it gets into summer the smaller the waves become. I even went out into the ocean “on my own” over 4th of July weekend in Laguna with my fiancé and some of his family. It took a good 10-15 minutes for me to talk myself into getting in the water and getting through the waves alone, but I finally mustered up enough courage to just go for it. It was pretty embarrassing when I saw little 5 year olds running in and out of the waves and I was standing there talking myself through this, but kids have no fear!


Come race day, the waves were small and the temperature of the water wasn’t bad and all the adrenaline was rushing through me. I ran through the water when the gun went off and I didn’t look back! There was a boat hanging out in the water between buoy one and two and it was creating all these terrible waves which made it really hard to swim freestyle so I got on my back so I could catch my breath (I learned in South Coast training that if you ever feel like you need to catch your breath while swimming in the ocean, just roll on your back and either float there until you can catch your breath or swim backstroke until you can catch your breath) and I ended up swimming backstroke the entire swim portion of the race. This was something I never trained for and I actually swam at a great pace! I don’t say this much in life about myself but I was and am very proud of myself for overcoming my fear of the ocean and participating in this tri. With all this said I still lie in bed some nights (more often than not) and have tiny bursts of anxiety attacks about getting back into the ocean this summer while I train with my tri team again, but this time for the Tri Rock San Diego Triathlon. I have to keep reminding myself that I did it once, I can do it again. I can do this!




Marci is a contributor to The Aloha Files. She is Amy's long-distance training partner and motivator (aka - the one girl who doesn't take any excuse from Amy to NOT run).

More Info on South Coast Aquatics:

Kevin Lane offers Private lessons: See below for what his prices were last year. Please call for updated prices.  

One on one private open water lesson:

$50.00 for 1 hour.

$75.00 for 1.5 hrs.

 A group (2 or more) open water lesson

1 hour $45.00 each person

1.5 hours $65.00 each person