MEET THE T-SQUAD MEMBERS AND HEAR ABOUT THEIR SWIM JOURNEY
Since introducing T-Squad in late 2017, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with the most amazing people. Each member of the squad has joined with their own goals from improving swim fitness, preparation for triathlon, progression after learning to swim, health reasons to just looking for a new challenge! The team are incredibly supportive of one another and there is always a bit of banter which goes a long way when the sessions are challenging. I love to hear their stories and support them on their journey. After all, the journey is the prize!
I hope you will find as inspiring as I have.
Oisin has been part of T-Squad for just under 12 months. Since meeting Oisin for his very first swim lesson just over a year ago, he has worked consistently to get more comfortable in the water. He doesn't do things by halves and regularly announces he's entered yet another race in some far flung part of the world! Oisin, thank you for sharing your story. I love to see your improvements in the water and tracking you during your races, knowing the effort you have put in to get to where you are. I'm delighted to have you as part of T-Squad.
I was once told ‘hate’ is a very strong word and ‘dislike’ is a better way to express your feelings towards something you do not like. I have to admit I don’t ever remember using ‘dislike’ to describe my relationship with swimming. I should explain I am not from a sporting background. My interest growing up was cars and motorsport - let the internal combustion engine do all the work. The only sports activity I endured was when I was forced to play GAA in school when my father took a job in Kerry. Gaelic football is a religion in ‘the Kingdom’ and not playing it was not an option - if you didn’t like it it only increased their efforts to beat it into you! While I always toyed with the idea of taking up running after seeing it portrayed as a great escape in the Nike Ad pitch in the movie ‘What Women Want’, it wasn’t until just over two years ago that I took a self imposed interest in physical exercise. It started with my wife taking part in a Couch to 5k program with our local club Clane AC one year earlier. Her journey and transformation was inspirational and when she became a Couch to 5k leader herself she suggested one night that I join her the following morning to try it out. I didn’t even own any suitable clothing so a midnight trip to the 24hr Tesco in Naas was required. Only running for something like 1-minute followed by walking for 2 and repeating, I was immediately hooked and the first seed on the unplanned road to triathlon was set. My wife now jokes that this Friday morning invitation to ‘try it out’ was a big mistake as we both vie for time to train for our addiction, albeit a very healthy one, which our kids have now also embraced.
Having taken to running with little effort I was soon doing research about bikes and by the end of my first year of running I had bought a bike. Again, from the very first outing on the bike I was instantly hooked. I entered my first Duathlon and finishing it was the most powerful drug yet. I was two thirds the way to becoming a Triathlete and only one small thing was stopping me. It wasn’t a pair of goggles or jammers but rather the fact I couldn’t swim. Not a problem I thought. A few lessons and I would be grand. Sure, how hard could it be? Oh! how wrong could I have been! Unlike the running and the bike, I didn’t take to swimming like a duck to water. To put my relationship with water into context, I had done my first adventure race in February 2018. During the kayak leg we somehow managed to capsize. Even though I was wearing a lifejacket, this resulted in me doing an impersonation of a drowning cat that would have earned me a golden buzzer had it been on Ireland’s Got Talent. I’m not sure why falling in the water created so much fear. As a kid I grew up standing on the banks of rivers following my father doing the Liffey Descent and other canoeing events. My father was also third generation Lighthouse Keeper so the fear of water was irrational but a powerful one. I had a built-in safety mechanism that once water came near my face my reaction was ‘save yourself’.
Anyway, just about to complete my first marathon, I was looking for my next challenge. In my search I came across a very powerful marketing video for Ironman and my immediate reaction was ‘sign me up’. I ran the Rotterdam Marathon on April 8th and the following day made my entry for Ironman 70.3 Cascais (Portugal) in September. Not wanting to jump in at the deep end, literally, I also signed up for Tri Athy as preparation for the Ironman. This gave me 6-weeks to learn to swim - easy!
Then on Tuesday, April 10th, on my local tri club’s recommendation I phoned Maxine from Aqua School to book my first swimming lesson. A week later I took my first swimming lesson. Going back a little, I remember shortly before deciding to do a triathlon to having a conversation with a work colleague about my plans to take up swimming. Of similar age, he had started back swimming as rehabilitation for a back problem and told me ‘swimming is all about technique and not just fitness’. I remember thinking to myself ‘sure what technique is there? Spinning your arms around couldn’t be that hard’. True spinning your arms around, granted not very efficiently, was not so difficult but you also had to kick your legs and somehow breath with your face surrounded by water, it was 3D. It was the breathing that was and somewhat still is the biggest challenge for me because I have yet to find a bypass for my brains inbuilt ‘save your life’ software!
After taking my first lesson I thought it had gone pretty well and reckoned with 3 or 4 more I’ll be fighting for age group success in Athy!! After a few more lessons Athy was just around the corner and Maxine made the wise suggestion of taking me on a recce swim of the river the day before the race. She gave a great briefing on warming up for the swim, tips on putting on my brand new wet suit and preparing it for a speedy removal after the swim. While the water was brain freeze cold, I felt comfortable in the open water and I left Athy quite relaxed about the race.
I don’t go into races thinking I am going to be the next world champion but I also don’t want to be shite and on race day my swim was exactly that. After only a few metres of front crawl and having my feet and pretty much every part of my body touched by the hands of strangers my safety software kicked in and I reverted to my weak breaststroke. I was the last person out of the water. It took me that long my kids thought they had missed me coming out and had moved onto the bike course to try catch me in action - I was still bobbing along down the river. Having had a fitting for a Tri bike two weeks earlier, on coming out of the water the first thing on my mind was ’cancel the Tri bike. I won’t be doing this again’.
While I enjoyed the bike and run legs I was really questioning if I was made out for swimming. With great encouragement from Maxine to stick with it, I signed up for a second race, Tri Athlone. Surely the second race would be better but instead anxiety over the swim leg was becoming a fourth element of the Tri challenge. Half way through the swim in Athlone, I remember thinking ‘what the f@%k am I doing out here’. On finishing the race my kids were excited to inform me I had made progress because I was ‘the second last person out of the water’. The only thing that was getting me through the swim was how much I enjoyed the bike and run afterwards and although I was useless at the swim it did bring two positives. The first is that it is very easy to find your bike in transition when it is the only bike left. The second is that once you get out on the bike you get to pass a lot of smug swimmers which is a great motivator! Still the doubts over swimming where building in my head and I was ready to pack it in and switch to Adventure Racing. From the swimming journey to that point, I had learned enough from my few lessons that if I was to capsize on the kayak leg again I now wouldn’t panic.
During one of my lessons Maxine mentioned to me about a group session she ran called T-Squad and which she felt would be a good way for me to progress my swimming. I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to progress, stopping was a much easier option. I was swimming in my local pool everyday to the detriment of my running and I didn’t feel I was getting any better. In a make or break moment after getting a text that a new term of T-Squad was starting I decided, with a little encouragement from Maxine, to sign-up and give swimming one final go. Maybe I could save my Ironman ambitions! I remember not being able to eat on the day of my first T-Squad session. I had seen a few videos on Facebook and it looked like a boot camp. In my head I was going to be sharing the pool with seasoned swimmers who were looking to find a second here & there by mastering their technique while here I was still swimming a length of the pool with the one goal of getting to the other end without drowning. The only time I had been this nervous was when I went for my driving test 20 something years earlier! Although I struggled to complete any of the drill distances, I came home from that first T-Squad session with a new hope that I could become a swimmer and a belief that I could crack this front crawl lark. People kept telling me that swimming is like riding a bike, there is a moment where it all just comes together and you can ride without having to think through the process but I don’t ever remember it taking this long to lose the stabilisers!
I am the kind of person that if I like doing something I give it 110% commitment, but if I don’t, I become one of the most creative people on the planet at finding ways to avoid that task. For this reason T-Squad was my saving. At my own pool it was so easy to cut short a session when things start getting tough and for me every session was tough (my frustration with breathing increasing) so you can see where that was going. Although I am the weakest swimmer in my T-Squad group and spend a good bit of time at either end of the pool gasping for breath, it has pushed me beyond my comfort/safety zone and while it has been a slow journey joining has definitely helped me progress. I know from speed work in running that while it is not the most enjoyable part of training your efforts do reap rewards. I also quickly realised that relative to the level each of the group swim at, even the PROs find the drills challenging.
While still battling to master swimming, a very quick 5-months from my first lesson the big day had arrived. My anxiety over the swim was through the roof. Just watching some triathlon coverage on TV and the swim was getting me worked up. In the weeks leading up to Cascais I was constantly calculating what swim speed I needed to make the cut. After dropping the kids to school I was walking home at the simulated speed trying to prove to myself I had some chance of going the distance. I was literally having nightmares about the swim. One night I had the best dream ever though because in it an invasion of jellyfish caused the cancellation of the swim. As the race drew closer I had convinced myself that I wasn’t going to complete the 1900m sea swim and even told my wife I was considering to not bother bringing the bike on the trip. I am normally a positive person and love encouraging other people to take on new challenges. I’m a glass half full rather than glass half empty person but swimming was (mostly in my head) my kryptonite. After collecting your race pack at IM you pass through the large merchandise tent. I didn’t buy any. I wasn’t go to wear clothing from an event I didn’t finish.
On race morning, I remember coming out of the sea after the warm-up and telling my wife there was no point in starting because I didn’t want to be towed in on the back of one of rescue jet skis. Somehow I convinced myself to take the start of the race. I just tried to focus on breaking the swim down into completing the sections between each of the buoys. Reaching each section was a mini triumph but the mental battle was intense - I was already mentally drained before I even boarded the flight to Portugal. One side of my brain was saying you can do this, the other side was saying why are you wasting your time when you could save your energy for packing the unridden bike back into the flight case! Somehow I kept going and although the final 200m of the swim felt like it was happening in slow motion I finally reached the jetty.
My first attempt to stand up I just fell over, the second attempt I was helped to my feet but as I took my first steps I noticed the race director walking towards me. He was coming to tell me my race was done but instead he said ‘well done, relax, take your time and make sure you cross the timing mat’. Was I dreaming? As I ran the 600 metres to transition I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and kept thinking how is this possible. While others set off on the bike with faces reflecting the challenge of the 90k cycle that lay ahead I had a smile from ear to ear like I had won the event overall. With the massive weight of the swim off my shoulders, the bike leg felt like it lasted just minutes. I enjoyed every second of it and burst into laughter every time it dawned on me I had completed the swim!
Since taking up Triathlon I have met so many people who tell me they would love to complete a triathlon however it comes with a big but…. The but being the swim, some because they can’t swim at all, others because they aren’t strong swimmers. While I know how daunting the prospects of jumping into a river or the sea is, the feeling that comes with crossing that finish line is euphoric. Sure, it is going to require a bit of effort because swimming is not just a technique to conquer but for many it is also a fear to overcome. As someone pointed out to me recently ‘you can’t drown on a bike’. I consider myself lucky the day it was recommended I call Maxine about swimming lessons and that this route brought me to joining her T-Squad. I get to swim with a great group of people and when catching our breath between drills the banter is great.
I also have to mention the one and only Nora in my group. We both nervously turned up for our first T-Squad on the same night and she has pushed me on every night since. She gives me little sympathy! Competing at the first round of the World Triathlon Series in Abu Dhabi recently, something I would never have imagined possible, I was able to achieve may target swim time thanks to the voice of Nora in my head shouting ‘Come on Oisin, keep going’. As the Ironman slogan goes ‘Anything is possible’, especially with a little help from T-Squad.
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