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The Break: An Introduction To Open Water Swimming

Written By: Ceallach Gibbons

I love teaching other coaches about open water swimming, but I always laugh when people refer to my “expertise”. As both an athlete and a coach, I actually have found that Open Water has an incredible ability to make everybody feel like a beginner. This underlying, humbling current is part of what I love so much about the sport.


In 2013 I booked an English Channel swim, having never swum in the ocean once. I had played in the ocean, but I had never trained as an open water swimmer before. The actual swim wasn’t until July of 2016, so I figured that I had plenty of time to figure out the whole open water swimming thing. (If you have ever watched a house hunting or home renovation show and seen somebody buy a house unseen and wondered, “who the HELL would do something like that?”, the answer is people like me)! The next two and a half years of exploration, training, injury, resilience, and fun were some of the most transformative years of my entire life. They shaped who I am as an athlete, coach, and person, and those experiences are directly informing how I am approaching this series on open water swimming.


I can categorize most of what I am going to write about in this series into one of two subject areas:


  • Logistics/Safety/Structure: What are the things you need to do as a coach to keep your swimmers safe in the water? What are the practical considerations that you need to think about before your team’s first open water practice each season? What do you need to buy as a team? What should your athletes purchase in terms of their own personal equipment? How do you put together an open water workout? Where is the best Venice Beach parking?

  • The Why: How can open water swimming help pool swimming? What are the mental health and performance anxiety benefits of doing open water swimming for swimmers? What are the mental health benefits of doing open water swimming as a coach? What life lessons can we teach in open water swimming that are fundamentally different from the life lessons that come up in the pool?


While I am spoiled now in Southern California, I actually did the bulk of my own open water swimming at New England beaches and I grew up swimming in one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. I will write about options for open water swimmers with access to all kinds of different bodies of water. I want this to be an accessible and useful resource no matter where you swim.


For a lot of swimmers, the most intimidating part of their first ocean swim is getting past the break. When I explain to swimmers how to dive under a crashing wave, sometimes I get some pretty dubious stares. I think that initial anxiety is actually pretty symbolic of open water swimming as a whole. There are a lot of aspects of the sport that require you to dive under that big wave and trust that you’ll pop out safely on the other side.


Ceallach Gibbons is the Director of Developmental Swimming at Rose Bowl Aquatics. Ceallach, (pronounced “Kelly”) oversees Rose Bowl’s 250-person developmental team, in addition to coaching 11 and 12 year old swimmers on the competitive team. Prior to coaching full time, Ceallach worked at an Executive Search and Nonprofit Consulting Firm, while volunteering with USA Swimming. While serving on USA Swimming’s national Athletes’ Executive Committee and LSC Development Committee, Ceallach implemented brand new programs that improved athlete representation in the sport and focused on developing young athletes’ leadership skills. Ceallach is a graduate of Wellesley College, where she swam for two years. In 2016, Ceallach completed a solo crossing of the English Channel in 15 hours and 26 minutes. Ceallach currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is training to swim the Catalina Channel.


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