Conquering fears: How Lesley West overcame her fear of the water
We head back to Melbourne Australia today to catch up with Lesley West who managed to overcome her lifelong fear of water so that she could participate in triathlons and go on to Ironman Kona.
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BRAD BROWN: Welcome back onto The Kona Edge, my name is Brad Brown and it’s time to chat some swimming today as we head back to Melbourne in Australia to catch up with Lesley West. Lesley, welcome back, thanks for joining me today.
LESLEY WEST: Hi Brad, thanks for having me back.
BRAD BROWN: Lesley, after our last chat I’m telling you now, everyone is sitting on the edge of their seat wanting to know what you’ve done from a swim perspective. You said to me you literally could not swim a stroke when you took up the smaller triathlon, some people are probably thinking man; you’re crazy to even think of taking up the sport. Tell me how you did it. What was the process to learn to swim?
LESLEY WEST: I went along to a squad. Basically I Googled Triathlon Club Melbourne and thankfully for Google [sectors?] Melbourne Triathlon Club came up and I went along to a squad and the coach was there at the time, no longer, said to me, “All right, get in and show me your swimming.” I said, “No, I literally can’t.” He said, “No, just go in and show me,” I was like, “Mate, I will drown if I go in there.” Anyway, I get in and I do this kind of old lady style breaststroke, hair up out the water type thing. He actually did say to me, “There’s so much wrong, I can’t help you,” which I found quite funny, because he was right.
I was like okay, you’re probably right and I don’t even really remember what went through my head, but I just remember being like, okay, I’ll give it a bash anyway. I’ve committed and the way I see it is I’m determined, it’s not like I go out loving a challenge and I’ll look for a challenge, but I’m fairly determined. I saw it as okay, I want to do this, so one way or another we’ll work it out. As I say, that coach isn’t there anymore but yeah, just joined the squad for the triathlon swim squad and bit by bit, I showed up literally to every single session. I didn’t miss anything and I would always try to find an excuse as to why I couldn’t go.
I actually worked across the road from the pool that we swim at, so I couldn’t use the excuse I need to work late or I’d be going, maybe I’ve got a headache… No, there’s nothing wrong with you, you’d better go to swim squad. I just didn’t let anything, nothing was a valid excuse. I never missed, I just didn’t miss a session.
BRAD BROWN: That must be pretty tough because it’s not easy. I can’t even wrap my head around what it must be like to learn to swim because I’ve always, for as long as I can remember, I’ve swum and I don’t remember that process. I don’t know how it is but it must be really difficult to force yourself to go to these sessions when you must be hating it. It must be really hard.
LESLEY WEST: I despised it, I absolutely hated it. I would get really anxious and I hated it. The people were great, the coach was great but I just hated it and it’s not even, yeah, I was bad, but it’s not even that I just hated being bad at something, I just didn’t enjoy it. I would get cramps and oh, yeah, I don’t know, I just kept going, it’s stupid in some ways.
BRAD BROWN: Why did you keep pushing through?
LESLEY WEST: Because I just, I think by then I just didn’t, it didn’t even occur to me to not go. It didn’t occur to me to stop or to give up. It’s not even like I was going, I should get back and then start correcting myself, it just didn’t enter my mindset. By then, like I say, I joined shortly after we’d moved here, so the people there quickly became my friends and I looked forward to seeing the friends I was around. I thought, well, if I stop this, then I won’t see them, so I’ll just keep going. I remember the first time doing an open water swim, it was in a lake and we’d gone up the day before, it was up in Yarrawonga on the border of New South Wales. Went up the day before and I went in the water with a friend, she’s now one of my best friends here and she basically had to hold my hand. I pretty much had a panic attack. I’d been in a lake; it wasn’t even the sea, just because we had to work out a way to get me around the coast the next day. I don’t know why I did it to myself.
BRAD BROWN: I’m hoping it’s not like that anymore. Was there a moment, was there a time where you went, you know what, this is actually cool, I like this?
LESLEY WEST: I don’t know when that time was, but now I do actually enjoy swimming. Obviously I’m better and I still don’t really enjoy open water, I just have a lack of confidence. It’s interesting, I’ve got a niece and nephew over here in Australia and I see other people with their kids and they grow up with the water and so they’re confident in it and they’re comfortable. I could in the pool be a quicker swimmer than somebody who has lived here all their life, but they run in and out of that surf all day long, I hate it because I’m just not comfortable in the open water, but I do actually really enjoy going to swim squad now. I don’t know when the turning point was but yeah, gradually, bit by bit started to enjoy it.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about times because I think just to put this into some perspective, what are your Ironman times now?
LESLEY WEST: For swim?
BRAD BROWN: So coming from nothing to where you are now.
LESLEY WEST: Kona was 1:10, I think, around 1:10, that was non-wetsuit obviously, yeah, 1:10.
BRAD BROWN: That’s incredible. Overall you must be proud of what you’ve done in triathlon but just that, not being able to swim five/six years ago, at all, to swimming a 70 minute Kona swim is phenomenal.
LESLEY WEST: Yeah, I guess I haven’t really thought about it that way because to me I just always look at it as how much further I am behind everyone else. You kind of ignore, it’s easy to ignore the where you’ve come from part. Yeah, look, it is one of my proudest achievements, is getting over that fear of water and learning to swim and I think it always will be, in terms of the grand scale of things.
BRAD BROWN: Are you at the point now, are you still trying to get faster? You were talking about that you’re pretty steady, what are you working on now to improve your swim?
LESLEY WEST: I’ve actually, I’m going to say, I’ve got a little bit slower. I’ve had a shoulder injury, whether or not it’s through swim technique, we don’t quite know. It was there before Kona, tendonitis, so it’s taking a bit of time, so we haven’t done a huge amount since Kona, we’re just building that back up. I’m a little bit slower than I was but I really want to narrow that gap between myself and the people in front. Every race I go into, I’m very reliant on my run and my bike, but I’d like to be less reliant on them. I’d just like to narrow that gap a little bit, two/three minutes and I think a lot of it is confidence in the open water. It’s just constantly just trying to push myself in the pool.
BRAD BROWN: Are you one of those people that does fewer sessions, big volume or are you trying to get in the water as often as you can?
LESLEY WEST: No, I do everything pretty much; I do exactly what my coach tells me. It’s got me this far so I’m like okay, I’ll stick with that. We do two fairly big swims a week, a third one will be recovery and technique ahead of the weekend and then usually, when I’m not injured, try to put in a fourth, which again is just me going in, a bit of technique, just turning the arms over, feel for the water. One thing I notice, if I take any more than a week out of the water, I just lose it and I find that I lose it quite quickly. I think that just comes from not having swum as a kid.
BRAD BROWN: It’s almost like riding a bicycle, the more you do it the more comfortable you are and if you stop for a while you’re a bit nervous. Lesley, as always, great to catch up, thanks for your time on The Kona Edge today, I look forward to talking about your bike, but we’ll save that for next time out.
LESLEY WEST: Thanks Brad.
Brad Brown is a 40 something age grouper that dreams of one day qualifying for and racing on the big island (He may have to outlive everyone in his age group though).
Morbidly obese in 2009, Brad clocked in at 165kgs (363lbs) at his heaviest.
He's subsequently lost a third of his body weight on the way to a half Ironman pb of 5:06 and a full Ironman pb of 12:21.
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