Part 4 in The psychology of challenges series.

They say you get butterflies when you’re nervous. But I wasn’t just nervous. The movement coming from my stomach was less like butterflies and more like a flock of geese in full flight…. heading south.

My stomach churned. My blood pressure rose and I’m sure if someone could have checked my adrenaline and cortisol levels, they would have been through the roof.

What was the reason behind this all-encompassing, intense bodily reaction?


I was on my way to participate in a 2.5km open water swim from Sydney’s Balmain, across the harbour, around Cockatoo Island and back.

Despite training for six months in a pool where I had built up to 3km swims, I suddenly felt unprepared. Physically, I knew that I could swim the distance but mentally, I wasn’t ready.

In the week leading up to the event, I imagined every possible worse-case scenario ranging from being taken by a shark to actually drowning. Dire warnings from well-meaning friends and family did nothing to ease my growing anxiety but I laughed them off telling them to keep an eye out for my death on Sunday’s evening news. But inside I wasn’t laughing.

On the morning of the swim, I sat in my car questioning my sanity and trying desperately to remember the reason I had thought this swim was a good idea. A vague recollection of a conversation I had with my sister came back to me … something about wanting to be challenged  and stepping out of my comfort zone… blah, blah, blah.

So intense was my fear that I came extremely close to begging my husband to stop, turn the car around and take me back home.

Back to safety.

Back to where I was comfortable.

Back to where there were no sharks and no prospect of death by drowning.

But I was determined to push through because I didn’t want to let fear define me.

In her book “Feel the fear and do it anyway,” Susan Jeffers says that the only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it.

So I did. I didn’t tell my husband to turn the car around. I jumped into that cold, and might I say, dirty water and swam and swam and swam (did I mention that 2.5km is a bloody long way?).

And the result? I didn’t come last which, by the way, was another one of my fears. I was terrified that I’d be the last swimmer back. I’d be the one who people looked at with a mixture of annoyance and pity. I was afraid that when I exited the water, I’d see embarrassment on my husband’s face rather than pride. More importantly, I knew that simply completing the swim would not be enough for me. Second last would be okay, but not last.

Finishing my swim, I looked up at the volunteers who were helping swimmers out of the water and  with trepidation, asked, “Am I last?”.

“Not even close,” came the reply.

And with these three words the geese were gone, replaced by my own internal happy dance.


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