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    Northwestern Alum at USA Swimming Open Water Select Camp

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    Former Northwestern swimmer Kate Stephensen, a 2011 graduate and current James Madison Memorial Fellow, was selected to join 23 of the nation's best distance swimmers at the USA Swimming National Open Water Select Camp in June. Former NU associate head men's coach Kyle Schack served on the staff at the camp. The following is a guest blog written by Stephensen about her four-day experience in Fort Myers, Fla.

    By Kate Stephensen

    In June I was honored to participate in the USA Swimming National Open Water Select Camp. Key words for the week included: fun, teamwork and flexibility.

    Day One

    On day one I felt adrift amongst the other swimmers. Although I was the oldest and among the most experienced in open water the speed and energy of the other athletes intimidated me. After our first pool workout I felt defeated, the young whipper snappers clobbered me!  But, as Coach Kyle reminded me, I earned my spot at camp and was swimming faster than I had in years. Head removed from my rear I focused on having fun rather than comparing myself to the others.

    Day Two
    The first open water workout came on day two.  Our "pool" was actually a lake with a 1000meter, rectangular course marked by four orange buoys. Freed from lane guides and flip-turns I found my element in the open water. We began with "pack" and "follow-the-leader" swims. Pack swimming cuts drag and reduces stress thus making it much less fatiguing than churning through the water on your own. I quickly joined the lead pack and had fun pacing with my teammates. We learned three key open water skills: how to get out of a pack, round a turn buoy and feed while swimming. We practiced three tactics to pull away from other swimmers: out-sprint them, roll over their legs using a freestyle-backstroke-freestyle stroke combination or surprise them by switching sides. Swimmers use those skills to get in front before buoys.

    I mastered those tricks and developed an additional skill - diving under the buoy and popping up in front of the pack. It was fun to surprise my teammates and take the lead!

    During the race I used my "under buoy sneak attack" technique to capture the lead at each turn.

     Due to the length of open water races (5k, 10k, and 25k are the standards at the elite level) it is necessary to fuel your body while swimming. Open water racers do this by eating GU packs and stopping at feeding stations. Each swimmer prefers a different flavor, brand and way to feed. I suck down chocolate GU otter style by rolling onto my back, pulling the pack from my suit, ripping off the top with my teeth, shooting the GU into my mouth, then using a backstroke - freestyle stroke combo to resume swimming.  During his first experience with a pack, Chip Peterson, 10k World Champion and our guest athlete, squirted the GU all over his face completely missing his mouth. Hence the need for practice!

    Coach Schack looks on as the veteran team of Coach Rick Walker (of Southern Illinois University) and swimmer Chip Peterson demonstrate feeding techniques.

    The second way to feed requires more attention to timing. During 10k or longer races, swimmers stop at a station where coaches distribute liquid feed - cocktails of Gatorade, water, protein powders and GUs. The trick to this is sighting your coach, getting to the appropriate spot and not knocking your cup into the water. This was amusing for us swimmers because our coaches were in the stressful position of trying to lower our cups at the correct time, a bit more challenging than taking splits from the pool deck! At the end of the day I was exhausted but confident I had mastered the new skills.

    Day Three
    On day three we experienced our first open water competition - relays. I was on the green cap relay team with Isla, a New Yorker, and Nick, a Pennsylvanian. Open water relays are co-ed and swum in time trial format - the teams swim as a pack with staggered start times. As Nick was the stronger swimmer, Isla and I let him swim ahead while we paced together. Our team communicated well and although we didn't win we certainly had fun!

    Day Four

    During our final day we raced in the Gulf; this was our first time in the ocean. The water was calm at the start but by the end we had to contend with major swells. I missed the start because I was holding the hands of two sobbing 9-year-olds who were in their first open water race. As I swam away I felt guilty leaving them in tears but I was there to race! Quickly I joined the lead pack. Mid-race I was not intimidated by chop, my cap falling off or being elbowed which caused my left eye to swell and blur my vision. Instead I chose to focus on flexibility!  Using tight under-buoy turns I kept in front, however, that became draining.  Exhausted from pulling the group for 40 minutes, I dropped back during the last two loops. While frustrated by my rookie mistake I enjoyed the swim and was thrilled with the experience.

    On the final day of camp Team USA raced in the Gulf with some of Coach Walker's age group swimmers, they were SO NERVOUS. I made sure to high-five each swimmer as they got into the water.


    After racing we returned to the pool for our final workout. To my delight we removed the lane lines for POW (Pool Open Water) training. We swam perimeters, figure eights and played a game of "Where's Waldo". We followed "Waldo", the only swimmer in an orange cap. On the head coach's whistle we raced to find our partner then lined up behind Waldo. After every pair coupled we returned to the starting point. This was a fun exercise; for once no one wanted to leave the water!           

    At the end of camp I was worn out, but also thrilled and empowered by my growth. The differences between pool and open water swimming terrified some and exhilarated others. Pool swimmers have lane guides to separate them from other racers. Open Water swimmers contest with waves, jellyfish, alligators and rogue buoys. They jostle with their competitors and can be issued red cards for combining boxing with swimming. Pool swimmers have a pace clock and measured lengths to evaluate progress. Open Water swimmers know their rhythm and stroke-rate rather than relying on measured parameters. I loved the experience and realized I am a natural open water swimmer!

    Open water swimmers, what a crazy bunch of fish!

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