In the male-dominated world of open water swimming, 23-year-old Dawn Heckman has been creating waves.
A member of the USA Swimming Open Water National Team for the last two years, Dawn burst onto the scene after retiring from competitive pool swimming, carving out a name for herself as one of America's rising long-distance stars.
Her growing list of recent accomplishments includes bronze medals in both the FINA World Open-water Swimming Championships and the USA 25K National Championships last year, in addition to numerous accomplishments from her days as a collegiate swimmer for the University of Florida.
Having profiled swimmer John Flanagan earlier this summer, who provided a useful list of top 10 open water tips, I wanted to revisit the formula with Dawn, who I thought could offer a female perspective to what is still considered a primarily male sport.
While women everywhere are venturing into open waters for triathlons and other aquatic competitions, Dawn has managed to excel and put a few established men in their place (i.e. behind her at the finish line).
I was interested in finding out the secrets to Dawn's success; after all, any swimmer male or female can learn and benefit from a champion of her caliber. Dawn's list of top 10 tips will take you by surprise; not only is she a smart and ruthless competitor but she has a sense of humor, too!
A Woman's Guide to Open Water Racing: Top 10 List of Do's and Dont's
10. Grow your nails. In an open water race, it is not uncommon for people (men especially) to swim over you in order to get by. When you find yourself being plowed over by some huge guy, let them know they're swimming in your territory by giving them a little scratch! When they realize they can't just push you aside, they'll usually back off and chart their own course.
9. Pace yourself. Often men dash out of the start, using testosterone to their advantage by swimming as fast as they can. Then, somewhere near the middle of the race, they get tired and start to slow down. This is the perfect opportunity to reel them in and pass them one by one. The race hurts a lot less, and to be honest, it's quite fun passing men near the end of a race! Their egos are a little crushed, and passing them gives you that extra mental boost to finish the race strong.
8. Relax your stroke. The ocean is more powerful than you are. It's not worth wasting energy fighting it. Try to develop a rhythm with the current conditions. Don't worry about technique. Technique is something you practice in the pool. Your work in the pool will pay off in the ocean.
7. Avoid unwanted hickies. Use Vaseline around chafing areas. There is nothing worse than having your swimsuit straps rub against your neck in salt water for a long period of time. If you don't wear Vaseline, you'll end up wearing a turtleneck for two weeks, or you'll have to constantly explain to everyone (including your boyfriend) that Dracula wasn't sucking on your neck!
6. Don't shave right before the race. Razor burn and salt water need I say more?
5. No itsy-bitsy teeny-weenie yellow polka-dot bikinis!!!
4. Race sans jewelry. Although necklaces, anklets, and bracelets are fashionable, they are also very enticing for someone to grab on to. (And if sharks and other forms of carnivorous wildlife are a concern for you, eliminating all shiny things, earrings included, is highly recommended.)
3. Wear your goggles under your cap. If you start the race with goggles, most likely you want to finish the race with goggles (especially if you wear contacts). The start of an open water race is very crowded and hectic. It is not uncommon for someone to knock your goggles off (intentionally or unintentionally). If you put your goggles on before you put your cap on, they will stay put and not fall off.
2. Carpe diem! Seize the moment. Enjoy your surroundings. Embrace nature. Swimming in the open water is very refreshing. Most people are afraid of it. You're doing something most people would never even consider doing, so live for the moment!
1. Draft, draft, draft. Generally speaking, men create larger waves than women. Use this to your advantage. Swim directly behind someone who is slightly faster than you, and let them do the work. When you're close to the finish, pull to the side and use the energy you've saved to sprint the rest of the way.
As I predicted, Dawn's list has something for everyone, and her accomplishments are no surprise given the strategies above. Open water swimming can be intimidating for first-timers, and some women may feel especially vulnerable given the nature of the beast (that beast being men, rather than the ocean!). It is encouraging to see a woman asserting herself in a sport as potentially rough and intimidating as open water swimming, and it's impressive that Dawn is beating her male counterparts on the national and international level.
I was not familiar with Dawns goggles-under-the-cap approach until now, and I consider myself privileged to know that should I ever compete against her, I best keep my distance to avoid getting scratched, drafted off of, or perhaps even...beaten!
A former swimmer at Stanford University, Alex Kostich has stayed strong in the sport at the elite level even while maintaining a day job. The three-time Pan-American Games gold medalist still competes in—and wins—numerous open-water races around the world each year, as well as competing in the occasional triathlon and running race.