In the wake of Covid-19, we’re living in uncertain times. We’re isolated. We’re worried about our health and the health of those we love. We’re anxious about the future.

For many of us, it’s hard to deal with such profound uncertainty. For open water swimmers, uncertainty is present every time they step into a massive, untamed body of water. Open water swimmers can never be certain about the outcome of a swim. They’re always at the mercy of many elements outside of their control, from waves, to weather, to wildlife, to simply finding the will to keep swimming.

Life isn’t a swimming pool, with lanes to follow and water that’s always heated to a comfortable temperature.

Life is an ocean full of unpredictability and difficulty. But after each swim, we emerge from the water stronger and more capable.

At Swim Guide, we’ve been asking open water swimmers how they deal with uncertainty and sharing their advice about how they’re making it through these turbulent times.

Today, we’re speaking to Marilyn Bell

Marilyn Bell became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario at only 16 years old. She went on to swim the English Channel and Strait of Juan de Fuca. Today, she is a Swim Drink Fish ambassador, championing the movement to connect people to water and working for a swimmable, drinkable, fishable future.

Marilyn Bell with fellow Swim Drink Fish ambassadors and open water swimmers, Loren King and Madhu Nagaraja

Read on to find out how Marilyn Bell deals with uncertainty…

Marathon swimming has always been my metaphor for my life.

Minutes before the Lake Ontario swim was my first real experience of being totally unsettled, frantic, afraid, terrified. It was that experience that set the tone for how I have dealt with adversity and all the ups and downs of life since.

Often, dealing with uncertainty is about trust. When we’re really lucky, especially during uncertain times, we have a support system, whoever it happens to be: family, friends, faith.

I think all open water swimmers would agree that a support system is key.

Even I, a naive 16 year old, knew that whatever I succeeded at was because my coach, Gus, was in my boat. He was my support system. He was my safety rope. When we have even one person we trust, that can help to control the fear.

I have a list of people that I try to call every day or every two days just to see how they’re doing, to give them a chance to talk about what they’re feeling.

Marilyn Bell surrounded by four generations of her family

When you’re in the water, if you have a support system and you trust the people looking out for you, you don’t have to worry about where you’re going. Worrying about where you’re going is not going to get you to where you want to be. It’s out of your control.

Do I know what’s going to happen tomorrow? No. When I lose focus, I can get into a tizzy over it. I have to talk myself back down. I think about where I’ve been, what’s happened, and use my experience to get through today. Then tomorrow.

It’s about recognizing that there are so many variables that aren’t in your control.

You can control how you think. You can also control what you want to think about. You have to work at controlling being in the present moment and not thinking about what’s going to happen in two hours or three hours.

When you’re swimming, you wonder, “How long am I going to be stuck in this lake? How long is it going to take to get to shore? What happens if they don’t give me my food in time?” These are the things you can think about. But if you overthink them, they’re going to really be detrimental.

Marilyn Bell swimming with Terry Laughlin

Now, during a global pandemic, people are wondering, “How am I going to feed my family? Where am I going to get my food?” There are so many variables.

Even if all of our physical needs are being met, there’s the isolation thing.

There’s nothing more isolating than swimming, especially if you’re swimming freestyle with your head in the water.

The other piece of dealing with uncertainty is just feeling gratefulness. It’s knowing that you have people you can contact. You have family that you care about that you can reach (even if you can’t see them). If you don’t have that, it can be a very lonely time, and loneliness can build fear.

Marilyn Bell with Vicki Keith and their mentee, Mya

It’s important to be mindful. You start off on one side of the channel or shoreline and your goal is to get to the other side. But you have absolutely no guarantee that you’re going to get there.

Even if you do everything right, the tide can change.

On my English Channel swim, we were doing everything right. It looked like we were going to break the standing record for that year. I could see the people’s faces on shore. I was almost done.

But suddenly the faces were moving away from me. We were supposed to have a slack tide, but I didn’t realize that the tide had changed. The tide was pushing me away from the coast.

Gus stopped me and he said “We are moving away. We’re caught in the tide. All you have to do is swim.” I said, “How long will I have to swim?” Gus said, “We don’t know. We’ll swim until the tide changes.”

Marilyn Bell finishing her swim of the English Channel

That’s what swimmers do, as long as they’re able. They swim until the tide changes.

It’s a variable that’s out of your control. And if you’re swimming and worrying about things you can’t control, it’s not going to make a difference. Control the things that you can control.

The things that you can’t control? Let them go. Let them go with the flow.


Find out how other open water swimmers deal with uncertainty by checking out the other articles in this series

Learn how to deal with Covid-19 uncertainty: Do your research with long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox

Learn how to deal with Covid-19 uncertainty: Just breathe with Eney Jones

Learn how to deal with Covid-19 uncertainty: Strengthen your coping muscles with Liz Fry

Learn how to deal with Covid-19 uncertainty: Give back with Loren King

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