John Flanagan has managed to excel. A 1994 Olympic Festival champion in the 400-meter freestyle, John also made his mark as a member of Auburn University's NCAA championship team in 1997. Upon graduating magna cum laude in finance that same year, he continued his swimming career in open water, earning gold medals at the 1998 World Championships and the 1999 Pan Pacific Games.
"The most important aspect of open-water swimming is experience," Flanagan says. "Get out and do it a much as you can."
Because open-water swimming includes many variables that differ from pool swimming, the only way to get better is by experience and exposure to the various conditions that the sport has to offer.
"Personally," Flanagan explains, "I enjoy the sport because it forces you to look at your effort to measure performance, rather than times. Not every day are we able to swim a best time in the pool, but we can always strive for giving our best effort during a race. Because of different conditions, race courses, etc., time is not a factor. Our training, diet and race preparation all impact our performance on race day. In my years of open-water experience, I may have made all the mistakes you can make."
Since we all know that the best way to learn is from our mistakes, here are Flanagan's top 10 tips for open-water swimming, to help you avoid some of his mistakes and swim your best race.
1. Practice sighting
"I've found that the best way to sight during a race is to lift the head and look forward as your are turning your head to breathe. You want to limit how high you lift your head because your hips will drop, so try just below the goggle line. Then take your breath when you turn your head to the side."
2. Time when you sight
"The more you look, the more tired you get. The less you look, the less straight you may swim. It is a trade-off, but you need to find what is comfortable for you in the race you are in. If you are in an ocean race, be sure to sight as you are rising from a swell so you can see."
3. Train in open water
"If you have a chance to train in the open water, take advantage of it. It is not always the fastest swimmers that win open-water races, but the ones who swim the smartest race and have the most experience."
4. Stay warm during the race
"I've been in races where my body just shuts down because of the cold. Try to avoid it by using everything you can: Wetsuits, two caps and earplugs all help keep you warm during those frigid races."
5. Goggles are critical
"Find a pair that you are comfortable with, and allow you to see very well. Don't wait until race day to try your new pair of goggles out!"
6. Learn the course
"You may not always have someone with you during the race. Before the race, check the buoys. Look for landmarks, like trees or houses, that will help guide you in a straight line. While you are in the water, you won't always be able to sight off the buoys."
7. Have a fast start
"Be warmed up and prepared to go hard from the beginning. You want to limit as much contact as possible on the start, so get out fast. You can settle into your pace after that."
8. Learn to breathe on both sides
"I have found out the hard way that it is best to breathe to the opposite side when someone is next to you. [If not,] you might get hit in the face, and/or lose your goggles. It is much worse than a hit in the back of the head."
9. Draft when you can
"Drafting is a part of open-water swimming. It can help you sometimes, and hurt you others. You may be able to hang on to a faster group of swimmers, but you may also get stuck behind some and not know how slow you are going. Use it with caution. I would recommend using it more for triathletes, who should be finding ways to save their legs for the bike and run."
10. Eat and hydrate well
"Take care of your body. It is easy to get dehydrated out in the open water. Drink plenty of fluids two days out, but don't get bloated."
He's a pro who has been doing it so long that he even has advice for those worried about those all-too-rare shark encounters.
"A couple times I've run into sharks," Flanagan says, apparently having survived to tell the tale. "Once swimming in Australia, and once out surfing in Hawaii. For the most part, sharks tend to keep to themselves. They're really nothing to worry about. I have also run into eight dolphins during a race," he says. "I was shocked because it was so unreal, and I couldn't move for a while; dolphins look a lot like sharks! But if you mind your own business, they're sure to stay away from you. Remember that they're probably more scared of you than you are of them."