LIKE MANY OF US, COURTENAY VERRET HAD A LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH SWIMMING. COURTENAY SHARES WITH US HOW A EUROPEAN SWIM-CATION HELPED RE-IGNITE HER PASSION FOR ENDURANCE SWIMMING AND EXPLORE NEW POSSIBILITIES WITH HER BELOVED SPORT – THIS TIME WITH COMPLETELY DIFFERENT ‘PB’S.
I’m in the middle of Lake Bohinj, a 4.2 km crystal blue paradise cradled by Slovenia’s Julian Alps. It’s a damp, overcast day, which means the tourists are still in bed, catching a few extra winks. My hands slice through the water at a brisk clip to offset the chill, while plump trout dart back and forth below, keeping a safe distance from my churning arms. I’m in the zone. Turning to breathe, I see my kayak guide wave his paddle. My head pops up, reverie broken.
“You drink now.”
He tosses me a bottle of lukewarm Gatorade and I oblige. My guide, after all, is marathon swimmer Martin Strel. He’s famous for traversing the world’s most dangerous rivers and has the scar (courtesy of an Amazonian piranha attack) to prove it.
I gaze upward as he points out the scenery: a rainbow of hang gliders zigzagging off the mountains, kayaks dotting the waterscape in the distance. Strel taps his watch and we continue on, repeating the same routine every 20 minutes. When we reach shore, I stand in knee-deep water while he hops out of the kayak and ties it to his waist with a long rope. With a high-five and a promise to meet later for lunch, Strel swims off to retrieve his car. Shivering, I climb the small hill to claim a victory hot chocolate.
AN UNLIKELY PENCHANT FOR OPEN WATER
Traveling to another continent, suit and goggles in tow, was the natural next step of my swimming journey. I had rediscovered the sport as an adult, having finally shaken off the angst of spending the bulk of my childhood—at the behest of my mother—chasing black lines down the pool with the local swim team. As a short, chubby kid, I was never very fast. Nor did I ever quite feel like I belonged.
Wild swimming wasn’t a “thing” back then, not even in Northeast Louisiana, land of
bayous and ‘gators. My coach recognized what I, a surly teenager, did not: my endurance potential. But by the time he encouraged me to sign up for the 1650 (the dreaded mile in swimming), I already had a fin out the door, ready to claim my place among the marching band and drama club geeks, putting swimming and athletics behind me forever.
Triathlon, however, changed all that. At age 30, while training for my first Danskin Tri, I realized I had a unique advantage over my competitors. Yes, I was still a short, chubby athlete suffering from imposter syndrome. But unlike many of my training partners, I wasn’t afraid of open water. Years of swim team practice had given me valuable technical skills. That layer of fat around my middle? It helped me train longer in colder temperatures.
“At age 30, while training for my first Danskin Tri, I realized I had a unique advantage over my competitors. Yes, I was still a short, chubby athlete suffering from imposter syndrome. But unlike many of my training partners, I wasn’t afraid of open water.”
I gravitated to the water, ultimately joining—much to the consternation of my eye-rolling inner 13-year-old—a Master’s swim team and spending much of my free time in Austin’s pools, ponds, and lakes. I entered every open water event I could find, from local races to Alcatraz Sharkfest to a 10km charity swim.
FROM BURNOUT TO RECOVERY
Two years of intense training, combined with improperly fueling my body, finally took its toll. I needed to scale down, but my perfectionism had taken over: If I couldn’t fit in a three-hour swim, then why swim at all? And since no other exercise “counted,” I might as well do nothing. Right?
I had a lot of work to do, but not in the pool.
Another two years later, after a lengthy physical and mental recovery, I was back in the water, struggling to eek out 100 yards. Oh, I wanted to focus on what I couldn’t do, but I chose to put my newfound mindfulness skills into play. I concentrated on the swim itself: the slap of hands catching the water, the burn of lactic acid in the body, the rhythm of regulated breath.
Setting goals was always a motivator, so I decided to train for an event—but it had to be low pressure. I recalled an open water race in France that had long been on my bucket list: La Traversée du Lac d’Annecy. Why not? In the past, I would’ve chosen the longest distance; this time, I registered for a length that would require minimal training.
“I wanted to focus on what I couldn’t do, but I chose to put my newfound mindfulness skills into play. I concentrated on the swim itself: the slap of hands catching the water, the burn of lactic acid in the body, the rhythm of regulated breath.”
Not quite satisfied, my research led me down an open water rabbit hole, arriving at the swim holiday concept: relaxed, guided tours of exotic swimming locales. Many were affordable. All looked like fun. Slovenia caught my eye. I knew nothing about the country but had certainly heard of Strel Swimming’s namesake, Martin Strel. I was too late to join their group excursion, but they could arrange a private guide—Strel himself—to accompany me in Lakes Bled and Bohinj. Untimed swimming? For fun? With an open water legend? Why not?
I began to string together workouts in preparation. I added time and distance each week, but when my mind began obsessing over numbers and figures, I brought it back to how the water made me feel. I even gave myself permission to take it easy some days—the ultimate goal was showing up.
RELAX, THIS IS A VACATION
A few months later, I was paddling through the chop of Lake Annecy, trying to keep my Zen while others sped past me. I recited my mantra: Relax, this is a vacation. My heart swelled when I slapped the finish board. “I’m back, baby!” Several days later in Slovenia, my chest puffed in pride again when I conquered the country’s biggest lake and high-fived Martin Strel.
Goals are necessary. Challenging yourself is important. But sometimes adjusting our expectations and retreating to baseline—by, say, going on a swim vacation—reminds us why we got into sport in the first place:
Courtenay Verret is a freelance writer and open water swimmer residing in Austin, Texas. By day, she oversees employer branding for the American Red Cross. When not dreaming about her next swim vacation, she spends her time chasing after her two goofy Labradors, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Cour10AV.
COURTENAY’S GEAR BAG:
Favorite Goggles: Aquasphere Kayenne Mirrored Lens
Favorite Swim Cap: Whatever is in my swim bag and doesn’t have holes in it!
Swimsuit: Aquabelle High Neck from Swimsuits for All