I gotta be honest.
The movie Jaws (1975) scared the living sh** outta me.
I can still picture it…
…a young woman goes skinny-dipping in the Atlantic ocean, the haunting two-note music plays (duh-nuh, duh-nuh, duh-nuh…) and she gets viciously attacked by an unknown creature from the depths below.
The worst part is…
…people still get in the water, including my big sister.
In this interview, the super brave and inspiring woman, Denise Connell shares her experience training for and swimming the Santa Cruz Triathlon in Great White Shark invested waters with freezing temperatures of 53-59°F (11.6-15°C).
So without further ado, let’s hear more from the swimming sensation Denise Connell…
Denise Connell Swims the Santa Cruz Sentinel Triathlon
What is a triathlon and how does it work?
A triathlon is an athletic competition compromising of three consecutive events – beginning with swimming, then bicycling and ending with distance running.
The race can be done with one athlete doing all three events or, in my case, with different people acting as a relay team.
What was the triathlon you participated in?
I competed in the Santa Cruz Triathlon - a non-profit event that raises donations for the Santa Cruz, California community.
- Swim (1.5K) the cold ocean waters around the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf.
- Bike (40K) the coastal Highway 1, out-and-back.
- Run (10K) the flat coastal terrain along West Cliff Drive.
Had you ever participated in a triathlon before?
I had never participated in a triathlon before the Santa Cruz Sentinel Triathlon, which I participated in twice (2002 & 2003).
When and how did you decide you wanted participate?
To be honest, I had never considered participating in a triathlon until I was asked (more liked begged) to join by my long time friend Steve Doo’s (the cyclist).
Steve and I were former colleges and one day we got together for lunch to catch up. I told him I joined the De Anza’s intercollegiate swim team – swimming the mile none the less – he instantly wanted me to participate in the sentinel competition on his relay team.
At first I was uncertain – especially when I found out it was an ocean swim, in the far from welcoming waters of Santa Cruz.
Steve was a fast cyclist who loved to ride and had participated in several cycling races before. Also, he is a cancer survivor – so needless to say, he was (and is) one tough cookie.
His friend Mark Ganzert (the runner) was equally dedicated and reliable… based on their previous experience participating in the Sentinel the previous year.
And when I told Steve it took me 15 minutes to swim the mile in a standard pool (roughly 30 minutes faster than their last swimmer) I could see how excited he was.
With enough convincing he stirred my inner competitor alive and I committed to participate as their swimmer.
How much did the triathlon and gear cost?
Steve (the cyclist) and Mark (the runner) split the entry fees between themselves – as incentive and gratitude for my willingness to participate.
I did however, purchase a wet suit which was highly recommend for Santa Cruz’s 50 degree waters. It costed $180 and it was worth every penny!
The wet suit not only creates buoyancy – keeping you light (adding speed) but it also helps keep your muscles warm (maximizing performance and avoiding cramps). I opted to get a sleeveless wetsuit to avoid the horror stories I heard about potential chafing and rubber burns caused by some poorly fitted long-sleeved wet suits. If every time you rotate your arms it hurts – it’s going to make one hell-of-a mile to bear.
The day of the race they provide a swim cap – but I recommend training with one to familiarize how they feel ($5.00).
And I would also recommend a comfortable pair of goggles. Visibility in open water swimming will vary depending on the conditions of the water. Regardless, if you have to close your eyes do to waves splashing and burning salt water – you are taking away precious time and energy from your race – not to mention, if you’re not used to open waters lack of visibility can cause a bit of panic. For me goggles are a must ($15.00).
I also invested in an open water training swim session ($50.00). This was the single most valuable investment – as it allowed me to successfully complete a trail swim of the actual triathlon route before the official race day.
In addition, I went to a local high school that provided an open swim session. I went twice a week for 8 weeks – @ $5.00 per session (total $80.00). I was also a member of a 24 hour fitness club ($19.00 a month).
- Admission – free (but if I had paid 1/3 = around $75.00)
- Wet suit – $180.00
- Swim cap – $5.00
- Goggles – $15.00
- Training swim – $50.00
- Gym membership – $19.00 per month
- Lap pool training – $80.00
- Gas – $20.00
- Celebratory lunch afterwards – $20.00 (my share – we split three ways).
Finishing what I started, stronger and braver was priceless!
How was the registration process?
Participants can register online, but then need to show up in person the day before the race to do an official pick-up.
You need a valid USA Triathlon card at the time of registration – there is a link on the registration page to obtain one.
When you pick up your packed you receive your race number, timing chip (ankle bracelet), T-shirts (which are super cool) and swim cap (for your heat – group).
How did you train?
As a member of the De Anza’s intercollegiate swim team, I spent three months swimming 3,000 yards two-hours at day, five days a week. This was about 6 months before asked to swim in the triathlon – so I felt confident in my abilities to complete a successful mile swim.
However, swimming in Santa Cruz’s open waters, was a complete game changer – and honestly, I felt nervous.
The water is cold and the visibility is limited.
I knew the only way I was going to calm my nerves was to successfully complete a 1.5 K swim around the wharf before the actual race. Sure I had been in the ocean before – boogy boarding, snorkeling and surfing… but swimming a mile out and around a wharf with seals, fish and lord know what else was a completely different story.
To start, I recruited my loving sister and husband to escort me via kayak as I swam in the ocean waters near the wharf. My goal was to swim about a miles distance – not out to sea, but just beyond the break along the shore. The day of the practice swim, I already felt butterflies buzzing in my stomach, but my sister shattered me with horrific news she received from the kayak rental shop.
A seal spotted in the same waters had been seriously injured and was missing flipper – removed by a suspected local shark! Despite the news – and my increasing fears, I still braved the water.
It was cold.
My bare feet could feel the sand, rocks and shelled creatures beneath me. I had to break through shoulder-high waves. The visibility was only 12 inches – I could barely see my fingers stretched out in front of me. The water was a dark murky green, with lots of foam and sea weed about. My mouth and nose filled with the sea salt as I swam. It was hard to swim alongside Kayak as kept drifting into to me.
It was horrible. I was scared. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t find my rhythm.
I got out of the water and told my sister and brother-in-law to go on without me. No use in them wasting a beautiful day. I sat on the beach – watched the waves crashed and pondered over my feelings of defeat.
Then I saw her.
She was swimming beautifully – swiftly. A solo swimmer had gone to the buoy and back (about 100 yards out). When she got out of the water I approached her and asked, “how did you do that?” I told her I couldn’t block my fear. She was a Santa Cruz local who said she also felt afraid – but she just keeps on swimming. She goes out about once a week and rounds the buoy.
Knowing that another woman felt the same fear, but could still swim out there truly inspired me. Something about knowing she could do it – empowered me do it too.
After that, I researched open water training programs and found Terri Schneider, “recognized as one of the most experienced female multi-sport athletes and coaches in the world, creates Endurance Online Training schedules and content.”
Three weeks before the Sentinel, early one Saturday morning, 20 people gathered (with lifeguards on kayaks and Terri on shore) to brave the cold water and swim around the wharf. Having other people around me while I swam gave me an incredible sense of security.
It was the most valuable experience in my training.
I felt the resistance of the current heading out as I swam around the peer – then suddenly felt the current help push me back to shore.
The sound of the barking Sea Lions was incredibly loud – but it wasn’t nearly as intimidating as their size. My living room sofa was smaller than those beasts. There were no nets or fences separating us from them as we approached their home made of wooden planks and barnacled covered beams bellow the wharf. Curious, they swam around us – and despite my utter and complete fear I kept swimming. Seeing the sea lions in the water and knowing other creatures lurked below, became my most motivating force to kick and pull with all my might.
My feet became numb about half way through and my once rhythmic freestyle stroke suddenly became broken up every 10 strokes to pop my head up above the swells to check to see who is around me and that I was swimming in the right direction.
Overview of Training Workout:
- 2,000 – 3,000 yards in 2 hours, 2 days a week. Sometimes my friend from the College swim team would join me – she was my Sea Biscuit for distance and I was her Sea Biscuit for sprinting. Sea Biscuit (the horse) = someone who is right on your side but and inch or two behind – who pushes you to keep the lead.
- 2 – 3 mile run at gym 30-40 minutes & Circuit training at gym 20 -30 minutes – 2 days a week.
Side note: Swimming fast has a more to do with leg strength than arm strength. To continuously kick without getting fatigued takes an incredible amount of cardio endurance.
Did you train with the other runner and cyclist?
In fact, I didn’t even met Mark until the day of the race – but Steve and I would keep in contact via email and check in on one another to make sure
we were in good health and good spirits.
After the triathlon we all become friends – and I still keep in touch with them to this day. But in the future it would be fun to train with a fellow triathlon participant.
Did you have any challenges (mentally, emotionally, physically) with training?
I used my fear of sharks, sea lions, or anything else that could bite, sting or eat me as motivation to swim fast and get out of the water as quickly as possible.
Swimming with a workout coach was vital. I needed goals (times to hit, intervals, sets) while training. Just saying you’re going to swim 30 laps – won’t push you. You have to mix it up – kicking sets, different strokes, pulling, sprinting, and distance.
Even though I wasn’t running or biking, I also hit the gym to strengthen my legs and work on my cardio. You have to be sure you can keep your heart rate at its max for at least 20 minutes to be sure you can get out of the open water safely.
Swimming in the ocean isn’t like swimming in a pool.
If you get a cramp or fatigued there isn’t anywhere to go to rest – they do have lifeguards but you can’t just get out of the water and walk it off like on a bike or run.
Did you change your diet in preparation for the triathlon?
I ate about the same as I always did (about a 2,000 calorie diet) – I tried to make good choices on a daily basis (lean protein, fruits and veggies). I did however give up alcohol.
Fear is an incredibly powerful motivator – I wanted to make sure I was maximizing my training workouts so I dared not have any excuse for a weak workout – from too much wine with dinner or margaritas with the girls the night before.
Sharks and sea lions are incredibly persuasive.
How did your friends and family support you?
My friends and family were incredibly supportive!
Many shared my journey by talking, listening and even participating in the training. They helped me work through my fears and made me feel capable. The entire process would have been so much more challenging without them.
And on the big day, just knowing that they came to watch and cheer me on made me swim my butt off!
Something about seeing them, lit this hidden fire inside that allowed me to pull from strength I never even knew was there. This included the volunteers and spectators too – perfect strangers really… cheering you on, clapping and smiling brings about this incredible source of energy.
Even other athletes in the triathlon became a tremendous source of fuel – despite each persons similar goal of trying for their best performance – everyone was supporting each other which made being in a triathlon a truly amazing experience.
What was your inspiration for swimming the event?
At first I was participating in the triathlon to help my friend. But then it became a personal challenge.
To face my fear. I needed to see it through.
But while at the triathlon, I became overwhelmingly inspired by so many men and women strength, endurance and most of all… courage.
What was it like before the race?
Race day was busy.
Some city streets and sidewalks were closed and decorated with bright orange fencing designating parking, check in, and transition areas… and then tables of booths set up with athletic products, vitamins and gear that are displayed by certain companies pitching their goods, camera trucks and photographers scattered all about. Athletes coming and going – carrying their gear, triathlon officials tagging and marking people and bikes, volunteers all around fielding questions from athletes, friends and spectators.
But remarkably for how much was happening – it didn’t feel chaotic.
We arrived about an hour before the first set of swimmers hit the water (8 a.m.). The swimmers had to meet early to participate in a mandatory lifeguard safety talk. Over a two hundred anxious swimmers gathered on the cold morning sand – anticipating the rush of salt water frenzy soon to come. Definitely get to the event early. Rushing to get to the race does little to help reduce anxiety.
After water safety – my team gathered and practiced the “switch off” of our tracking device – it looks like a black Velcro watch but instead of a clock head it is a small black box – no numbers, no dials and you wear it on your ankle. After my swim, Mark (the runner) would help me remove the tracker and put it on Steve (the cyclist) who would be already mounted on his bike and ready to go. Then when Steve finished his ride, I would help him remove the tracker and put it on Mark (the runner) to finish the last leg.
Every athlete competing is required to wear one. We had to share one because we were a relay team.
Each event has a designated black mats (5 ft X 5 ft) that the competing athlete must cross over with the tracker in order to record their start and stop time.
When the officials came by they marked our team number on all three of our bodies. Steve and Mark also had a large paper tag with the team number on it to pin to their clothes.
We went over the triathlon rules and procedures to avoid accidentally get disqualified for something silly like a premature start or going off the designated route. Never underestimate how easy it is to disqualify yourself by simply not knowing the rules.
What was it like during the race?
It was 8 a.m. The beach was cold and foggy and the water held a chill from the night.
To reduce the effects of shock, I went into the water about waist deep with fellow athletes around me doing the same. Because I was in a coed relay there was a mix of men and women swimming.
We returned to the shore and everyone waited anxiously for the sound of the start gun. Mark (the runner) had walked with me down to the shoreline while Steve (the cyclist) waited at the switching point.
Freezing cold and wet, I spat into my goggles (to help prevent them from fogging) and fasten them over my eyes and head.
I checked my cap – tight and felt good. About fifty other athletes looked like prime shark food staring toward the ocean when…
BANG! Off goes the start gun.
We ran like mad – crashing into the water – and fought our way running until we got about waist deep and started swimming.
Feet, hands, elbows were all I could see between the white sea-foam kicking up like a washing machine.
I broke to the outside so I could get to calmer water. I kicked and pulled with all my might to advance from the mob of swimmers. I was warned that you can get kicked that way. Luckily, I didn’t suffer a hit.
I could see about five swimmers a head of me and the mob behind. For a moment I was afraid to leave the safety of the group. I had to make a choice. Stay a head of the madness or sprint to the other few ahead. I went for it.
My feet numb I kicked and kicked. About every ten strokes I would pop up to see where I was headed. It felt at times I was swimming in a water polo match – chasing the ball.
I could hear the sea lions barking as I approached the wharf. I kicked and kicked – pulled and kicked till I rounded the end.
Then, I saw my family and friends on the wharf with my sister waving me on. I couldn’t hear her but I knew what she was saying – GO! (arm wave)… GO! (arm wave)… GO! (arm wave) – just as she had done when we were on the swim team together.
The current pushed me toward the shore and I was on the other side of the wharf – I thought to myself, “halfway there – keep kicking”.
The water was also wretched on that side and I wanted to vomit. Luckily it only lasted a few minutes. Lord knows what was in that patch of water – but I sure as heck wasn’t going to stick around to find out. I wanted to get out of the water so bad. I kicked like mad. My feet were completely numb and I wouldn’t have even been able to tell if a shark had bitten them.
The closer I got to shore I found new energy.
The waves were rough as I tried to stand about waist deep. I staggered to walk – it was awkward because I couldn’t feel my feet. Volunteers waved me to the direction of the timing mat. I took my goggles off – placed them above my brows and ran over the mat and up the hill to the switch point where Steve was waiting.
I remember hearing, “look it’s a girl” and feeling incredibly awesome knowing I was one of the top ten people and possibly first girl.
My feet felt dead, but I just kept on putting one foot in front of the other until I reached Steve. Mark was there to help with the transition. Once the bracket was on Steve, off he went. I knew I had about an hour until Steve was done with his event before I had to help Mark with the ankle tracker – so, I went to the public shower by the beach and rinsed the salt water from my hair, skin and wet suit and changed into dry warm clothes.
I saw my family and friends at this time and thanked them for being there. It meant the world to me.
I didn’t hear my official swim time until the end – when all events were finished. We had placed in the top 20 for the relay scores – a great surprise to us all. My swim was time was under twenty minutes.
I felt incredible after the race – as if the air was lighter and sun was softer. If a stiff breeze came – I was sure I would just blow away because I was so care free.
What was it like after the race?
We were all so pumped up about making it in the top twenty – all we could talk about over our celebratory lunch was how we should all do this again the following year.
Each of us – in a haze of endorphins were convinced we could certainly improve our individual times if we had a year to train.
We felt on top of the world. It was wonderful.
After a hot shower, which felt amazing… I slept like the devil. Remarkably, in the following days I wasn’t sore thanks to all the training.
A few months, Steve signed us up again for the following year and shortly thereafter I started training, admittedly not as hard. My fear was gone and I was more confident in my abilities.
Unfortunately, Steve and Mark suffered injuries and we didn’t reach our desired performance goals set out after our first year together.
But we did however have just as much fun!
Overall did you enjoy the experience?
Absolutely, I enjoyed the experience!
Not only did I learn a great deal about myself physically and emotionally, but I was surprised to learn that being around encouraging people – family, friends, even perfect strangers – could create an amazing outcome.
Even though I was one individual competing in a single event on a relay team, I was making a difference in the community, and in turn the community was making a difference within me.
It was simply an awesome experience.
Would you do it again? Why?
I absolutely would.
At times I thought maybe I wouldn’t – heck I’ve done it already, what else do I have to prove?
But when I think about it and reflect… I would absolutely love to feel that alive again.
It makes you feel connected to something more than yourself.
What was the best part and worst part of the entire experience?
The best part was facing my fears, gaining confidence, and feeling strong (mentally and physically) – but also feeling a part of something important.
Something bigger than myself.
It’s strange but you feel larger than life – yet humbled all at the same time.
The worst part was most definitely the dirty water (yuck!). If you want the world to be come more environmentally aware – have everyone swim the Santa Cruz waters.
You’ll be an instant life long advocate for environmentally safe products.
A bit of advice, be sure to have access to rinse off after your race, especially if you are in salt water. This is important for your wet suit too – you will prolong its life.
If there are no facilities available – bring water jugs filled with hot water. By the time you finish your swim they will make for a warm victory shower.
Can you provide any tips, advice or inspiration for our readers?
If you have reservations about your own abilities to participate in a triathlon (mentally or physically) – I would still highly recommend volunteering or at least watching one.
It will change your life.
And bring a family member or friend – you will see the most amazing people – all shapes, genders, ages and abilities striving, pushing, and fighting for the goals beyond what any clock can give – achieved with your presence.
It’s a truly special experience.
If you are participating in a future triathlon as an athlete – like anything in life… be in good company.
Have quality coaches and team mates… and surround yourself with supportive family and friends. This will help you through any troubles that may occur.
Also, be kind to yourself and make goals that nurture your potential.
And most importantly… be sure to have a fun and enjoy the moment – it goes by fast!
A very special thanks goes to Denise Connell for participating in this interview, being a huge inspiration to our readers and the best sister a girl could ask for. Love you and remember to ‘just keep swimming, just keep swimming’!
Visit the Santa Cruz Triathlon for more information or to register.
Have you participated in a triathlon?
If so, we’d love to hear about your experience in a comment below…