Betsy Medalla has a curious way of describing her path into open water swimming.
“I was thrown into it, actually,” she says.
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While most people would balk at the idea of being “thrown into” a sport that has the words “open water” attached to it, Medalla flourished. The former captain of the University of the Philippines Varsity Swim Team started doing triathlons in her late thirties after years of disregarding her fitness. This was what introduced her to the “wonderful world” of open water swimming, which she claims was never top of mind. “I took to it soon enough thanks to the challenges it presents, the feel of the sun on your back, the thrill of swimming in the outdoors, and now I can't wait until the next swim.”
While she didn’t have any apprehensions in the beginning, she did make the rookie assumption that swimming in the pool would be similar to doing so in open water. “It is similar for the most part. Pool training helps you to be ready for your race distances,” she shares, “But there are extra skills that are necessary for the open water swim environment. These can be simulated in a pool, but nothing beats exposing yourself to different conditions in the water.”
Medalla grew to love the sport so much that she started a series of open water events called the Swimjunkie Challenge. The idea for it came to her while she was swimming in Robben Island to Bloubergstrand in Cape Town, South Africa. "The water was around 11 to 14 degrees Celsius and I thought: why don't we do this in the Philippines?” she recalls. “As soon as the swim was done and I was home, I set out to plan the very first Swimjunkie Challenge.” This happened in July of 2015, and it was held in Caramoan. “We work for the day when Philippine open water swimming has a thriving community, and the Philippines is known as an international destination for the sport.”
Today, Swimjunkies keeps on growing, attracting competitors from all over the world. “This year we saw our race membership in the Global Swim Series (GSS) bear fruit. We had racers from Canada, France, and the UK claim that they heard of us through the GSS,” Medalla recounts. “In El Nido, Costa Rican swimmers swept the women’s 8K podium. In Caramoan, eight swimmers from Spain and 10 swimmers from Korea came to race.” This year was also the first time that a 15K race was held in the country. A Swedish national from Hong Kong swept the entire series winning in all three legs while a Korean, Gyutaek Oh, swam 10K doing butterfly for the entire race.
In the midst of their milestone year, Medalla shares her experiences with us about life out in open water, and her tips for those who want to be "thrown into" it.
Can you walk us through your first open water swim?
My first was in Subic for the SubIT Triathlon. The conditions were fine, a perfect day to do the swim actually. When the start horn went off I was in the lead of my wave, swimming with a great rhythm. I was enjoying the look of the sand floor going past me until the floor dropped, and the water went completely dark. I stopped in my tracks, trying to comprehend the visual and fighting the urge to turn back. I only started to move again when two other racers passed me. The change in depth and water color never bothered me again.
What were your initial takeaways from that first experience?
It’s really different. After the initial shock of swimming without a visible line or floor beneath you, or learning to be comfortable in a large body of water, I have felt completely at home ever since.
What investments do you need in order to start this?
Training for open water swimming can be in the pool until you've built endurance. Buy a good quality pair of goggles, swimwear, and a cap so that when you train you can focus on what’s important instead of fiddling with leaking goggles or ill fitting suits. Eventually you will need gear like a pull buoy, paddles, and a kick board. After some time, you should get out to train in a body of water before your race. By then, you'll need a tow buoy for visibility. For the sport, expect to pay for coaching and pool fees as well as travel and accommodations to bodies of water that are safe and clean.
How physically fit should you be, and what health considerations should you check for?
As it is with any endurance sport, a full physical is ideal to rule out conditions—heart trouble, vertigo, electrolyte imbalances, etc—that could spell trouble in the open water. You should also be aware if you are hypersensitive to jellyfish or sea mite stings.
You are a coach yourself. What are some of your training tips?
Build endurance in a swimming pool and swim often per week, until you can finish 1,000 meters with moderate effort. You should scout for a coach to guide you with efficient form and help you with a program to build a thicker endurance base and speed. After making sure you have your form and endurance locked down, embrace opportunities to swim in open water and register in beginner friendly races. Start with shorter distances and ramp up to more challenging ones. But avoid training in open water alone and initially swim parallel to the shore. Purchase a tow buoy to stay visible to jet skis, boats, surfers, etc.
What are some of the things you should be mindful of during a competition?
One, stick to your training strategy. If you trained at a certain speed, avoid expecting a race day miracle and going all out right from the start. It’s better to start at a speed you know you can maintain and then build closer to the end of the race. Two, always be a good sport. Race your race and assume that if bumped or hit by another swimmer that it was an accident. Three, be grateful. Be grateful for your health, the water you’re swimming in, your support crew, the people who put the event together so you can experience the joy of open water swimming. A grateful attitude can sometimes calm nerves and overshadows fears.
How has your challenge series, and open water competition in the country in general, changed over the years?
The series has gone through multiple changes. We started with one leg in Caramoan in 2015, we launched the VIP LOBO leg in 2016. By 2017 we had a three-part series care of El Nido. Our first race in Caramoan was made up of 115 pioneers doing 3K or 7K distances. Majority of the racers were triathletes. Now, 55 to 60 percent are triathletes and we've seen significant growth in the number of competitive swimmers who are in age-group and college swim teams. In fact, 20 percent of our racers now list themselves as open water swimmers. Our international following has grown as well. In our first two years, less than five percent of racers were based outside the Philippines. This year, 30 percent of racers in El Nido flew in to the Philippines to race. Apart from attendance, demographics, and nationalities of participants, our races have evolved into legitimate long course swims. Our 3k and 7k distances in 2015 are now 5k to 10k-and 15k races.
Where can beginners find good coaches?
Beginners should network with their triathlete friends for information on open water or masters swim coaches. A good is capable of preparing a program that fits your abilities, time, and race distance. A track record is always a good thing to look for.
What kind of personal fulfillment do you get from this?
Every year we create up to 1,000 new ambassadors of clean and safe seas. The idea of this excites me and gives me hope. I know that I'm not just creating a race, but a community.
For more information on the Swimjunkies Challenge, visit their Facebook page.