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Lessons Learned from Failure: a Swim Gone Wrong

Happy New Year, everyone! This is the time of year when we’re usually hyper-focused on what we’re going to do better for the coming year.

However, in 2021 I am resolving to make more mistakes. As a people-pleasing perfectionist I don’t think it’s fun to fail. But I recognize that failure is a humbling teacher that brings more learning and growth than when things go well. I believe that if you’re not failing you’re not getting out of your comfort zone and risking enough. Do you agree?

Most often on social media we see the highlight reel, celebrating successes and showing our best side.

A talented and wise writer friend of mine, Kate Blake, encouraged me to share about some times I’ve failed. And so, I’m  setting out to do a short series of #FridayFails where on each of the following Fridays of this month I will share a story of a mistake I’ve made and what I learned.

#FridayFail #1

So let me tell you about a #FridayFail experience this past summer (2020). There’s nothing quite like thinking you’re on the brink of death to learn from your mistakes. 

Picture a remote cabin in the Pacific Northwest coastal woods. It is far enough from civilization that it would take hours to get to the nearest hospital. We had no vehicle, as ours had broken down and we’d been dropped off by boat. To get to the nearest small town we had to go on foot three-ish miles or by canoe.

This cabin and surrounding slice of heaven is where Joel grew up spending his summers. We have visited as a family many times. Previously we had boated to the nearby islands across the channel, also known as Thulin Passage. Never had I considered swimming across until now, feeling full of moxie. I had a wetsuit and lots of time. Why not? For the same reason the chicken crossed the road.

The sun poked through that August day, shining steady but not hot. Joel offered to canoe alongside to protect me from passing boats or anything else that threatened. My youngest expressed deep concern. She didn’t want to go, as she was terrified of a whale swimming by. We told her that orcas had not been seen in these parts in many years. She was hesitant but persuaded.

I don’t know how far the distance was to cross the channel, and I decided to measure it with my Garmin. We set off. The water is dark and murky, cold. I chose to use a snorkel mask so I could see better and not have to take my eyes of possibilities that lurked below. Jellyfish and the unknown are some of my bigger fears. 

About half way across I stopped because I realized I’d forgotten to start my watch to measure the distance. As I lifted my head above water I noticed a rumbling in my chest, a congestion that didn’t go away when I coughed to clear it. I decided I just needed to try to control my breathing and stay calm. I swam a bit more then asked Joel to stop so I could take a rest. I didn’t feel breathless, just congested. 

Every breath sounded as if I were blowing bubbles in my lungs. My head started to pound. I had experienced this before while swimming and had been told it’s hypoxia. I know it doesn’t go away quickly and can be debilitating in itself. I could see the shore and determined that I would swim and not have to be rescued. Every few strokes I felt like I had to stop. 

A curious seal came close. It took every ounce of courage I had not to panic, not because of the seal but how I felt.  Switching to goggles, I swam  on my back until finally, my feet touched shore and I lost it, started weeping.
Somehow did I contract COVID and have no other symptoms? I had never experienced such a sensation in my lungs before. It didn’t matter how slowly or deeply I inhaled, the exhale felt raspy and rough.

I couldn’t see straight like my head was going to explode. My body started shivering then shaking. The wheezing continued. There was no way I was swimming back. We hopped in the canoe, girls in front each with a paddle and Joel paddling in back. Head hung in defeat I sat on the bottom of the canoe just trying to keep myself calm, breathe, stop shivering.



We arrived on our familiar shore and rushed to the cabin to remove wet clothing. There is not a shower or bath at the cabin. Yep, rustic.

I huddled up in a towel and got under two sleeping bags. The shaking and wheezing only seemed to increase. I felt panic creeping back beyond my control. Is this what dying feels like?

Joel made me hot tea. I sipped some, then started throwing up.
Back in bed I had pillows on top of me, the weight to stop me from shivering. I stayed in bed the remainder of the late afternoon and through the night, then woke up feeling better in the morning. 

I used doctor Google to search my symptoms and found a strong connection with something called swimming induced pulmonary edema, excess fluid on the lungs. It can be life threatening but thankfully has no apparent lasting consequences. 

Lessons learned from this failure: 

Fail – nutrition
Wine and crackers are not good pre-exercise nutrition. If you expect a lot out of your body, it what you put into it. 

Fail – oxygen
Breathing from a tube is not as effective for me as breathing through my mouth. Go figure. 

Fail – preparation
If you want to do epic shiz, you should probably train for it. I was in decent running shape but had not swam more than a handful of times during the summer of 2020. Just because you could do something easily in your younger fitter days doesn’t mean you can still do it (without training). 

I have learned from these mistakes and won’t likely be repeating them. As a coach, I aim to help you learn from your failures and make a plan to proceed better the next time.

If you are interested in creating a training plan so you can swim, not sink on your next adventure, please contact me here.

One Comment

  • Cathy Leyland

    Whoa! That’s quite a story Carrie! I was gasping for breath as you made your way to shore. What a scary experience. So glad to know it didn’t have lasting consequences.

    And thank you for sharing it so we can all learn. I call that getting as much mileage as possible out of a failure.

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