In rock climbing, when trying to climb a route ‘clean’ (no falls, no hanging on the rope) the artist has no room for mistakes. A mis-step, a mis-catch causes a fall and the climber is obligated to start over. The whole climb has to be executed without a mistake to earn the mark. Dedicated climbers will spend days, or even weeks working on a project, striving to memorize every hold, striving to perfect every move involved in this route so they can eventually climb it clean.

In swimming, however, if I make a mistake in a stroke, I just try to correct it in the next one and keep on.

But if classic climbers measure their excellence in making a clean climb, how can an open-water swimmer measure his?

I enjoy both rock climbing and open-water swimming. I find only a few overlaps in the physiology between the sports, the climber is working out his relationship with gravity in multiple dimensions, while the swimmer is working on the relationship with water usually horizontal, hopefully with most of gravity neutralized by proper body position. The mental game and the philosophy of excellence however, could easily apply to both.

In the pool, the swim is divided up into 25 meter segments. For any distance,  we could describe the pursuit of excellence as the path to perfecting each 25 meter segment within that distance. Some peope only know how to measure this in terms of a final time. There is much more that can be measured as we know in TI, but essentially, the walls help define excellence. The water is tame. The conditions are controlled.

In open-water without walls, under calm conditions, we can approach it in a similar way. The swimmer can focus on perfecting each 100 stroke count cycle (for example), and breaking up the long swim into smaller, digestable pieces like this. In calm conditions the pursuit of excellence has me focusing more intently on every little detail, to ‘dial in’ the stroke to a sublime state of rhythm and effectiveness. Unlike the climber who must rest on the rope and re-climb to the point of mistake, I have every next stroke to immediately apply my correction and carry on without interruption.

Rock climbing presents the artist with a puzzle. Each meter of rock is different from the section before it, and after. One way to describe the art of climbing is an exercise in adaptation. Using a fluent and efficient knowledge of body and its relationship with gravity, the climber conforms to the rock, quickly recognizes how to use what is presented to move up while using as little energy and adrenaline as possible so that there is enough left to complete the whole climb. Calm, fluid yet minimal movement is the hallmark of an excellent climber.

In open-water swimming under rough conditions we come a bit closer to this climbing experience. What can be viewed as frustrating, exhausting water to some can be viewed as a thrilling challenge for excellence to another. In rough water conditions the swimmer is drawn into the art of adaptation. Using all the tools of focus, proprioception, and practiced understanding of how to maintain a smooth, stable vessel, I am wonderfully challenged to reach and then hold a rhythmic, peaceful Flow State when the water around me presents a seemingly chaotic, unstable medium to move through.

In calm water I get stroke after un-interrupted stroke to dial in my rhythm in the pursuit of an incredible state of Flow. This is my goal, and the path is fairly straightforward. The challenges against my body and mind are few and simple so I am free to focus on finer repetitive details.  

In rough water, however, almost every stroke is unterrupted, and every breath threatened to be blocked, my body being thrust in all sorts of directions by the swells and waves. In this case my attention is drawn back to the fundamentals- relaxation, firm core, balance the vessel- but to hold these in an ever-changing medium. In rough water my pursuit of excellence is now directed at maintaining consistent, even exhilerating calm in the midst of the ‘storm’. Balance is not merely an act of pattern, but an active adaptation to every new wave presenting a slightly, if not extremely new unstable collection of forces twisting my body around. Like the varied rock I climb on, I have found that even chaotic water has a pattern to it and this is where I tune in to sense how to adapt to it and work with the power, rather than exhaust myself against it. I become even more ‘energy-conscious’, sensing not only how my own body is using energy, but to sense the energy patterns in the dynamic system I am immersed in as it saturates my nerve endings. The messages sent from the water to my skin are not random noise from an alien environment, they are meaningful signals that give me clues as to how I should conform and integrate with the water.

Rock is not dynamic, but water is. The climber’s touch tells him the nature of the current finger hold, but not necessarily much about the next on eto come. Rough water, however, can become familiar, and over the course of the swim I can develop an instinct for how to flow with it better than ever. My skill for working with it can increase from stroke to stroke, minute to minute, even as the conditions change over time. I can develop a peaceful relationship with the waves and regulate my energy to match what the water presents.

It is this sensitivity to the environment, this adaptation of my body system to the water system I am in- this is what I consider the pursuit of excellence in open-water swimming. I do not control what is presented to me by nature today, but I do control how I respond to it. What I do with my body and with my attitude is my measure of quality, my measure of excellence. This is why I love to swim out there- and kind find a reason to smile in just about any situation my wild water tries to throw at me. I don’t hold onto the pressure to perform according to some external control (e.g. a certain time),  something that disregards the energy in my body and in the water that I have to work with today. It is the peaceful and effective integration of those two systems that I am aiming for and measuring the quality of my swim by. Every new day presents a new puzzle to solve.

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