Taking the plunge

23:15, Mar 07 2012
tdn swimming
Idelle Hiestand comes out of the water during the Taupo half ironman.

She flips over and is back into freestyle, eyes shut, a force to be reckoned with in the open water.

But for her, the sea is the force she fears.

Those on the shore won't know Hiestand has just had a panic attack in the water because something unknown brushed against hand.

They also won't know that the now accomplished triathlete, who is facing the Wells New Plymouth Half Ironman on Sunday, has had to overcome major fears of swimming out of her depth and what is lurking beneath the surface.

It could also be why Hiestand is so swift in the sea - she can't wait to get out.

When a friend suggested that the long-time swimmer have a go at triathlons, the Taranaki woman dismissed the idea.


"No, I have an open-water swimming fear," she replied.

The friend was persistent. "What's your problem - you can swim, can't you?"

But that friend was pushy. She confirmed Hiestand had a bike (tick), a pair of running shoes (tick), and would meet her at the nearest harbour for a sea swim (a reluctant tick).

They went to Ngamotu Beach in New Plymouth and a terrified Hiestand, who can swim like a dolphin, took the plunge.

"While she [the pushy friend] ran in the water up to her hips along the shore, I swam next to her with my eyes shut. I would only open my eyes when I breathe and I still swim like that to this day," she says.

In other areas of her life Hiestand is fearless.

Put her on a stage in a cat suit before a packed theatre and she's in her element. The 181cm-tall woman with a huge voice played the saucy, sexy feline Bombalurina in the New Plymouth Operatic Society's 2007 production of Cats.

But during that first swim, in the shallow waters of a calm harbour beach, Hiestand was in turmoil.

"It was like I couldn't breathe properly. I was on the verge of hyperventilating and so wanting to conquer this thing."

So she kept going.

"If I could do this, I could do anything."

On March 16, 2008, Hiestand completed her first triathlon in Taranaki. The swim was only 200 metres along the shore at Ngamotu Beach. "I swam backstroke for a couple of strokes because a piece of seaweed went across my hand."

Since then, she has gone on to complete a whole string of full triathlons, accomplished last year's New Plymouth Half Ironman, swam for a team in the Taupo Half Ironman on December 10 and, since 2009, has been exceptionally successful in the 1.2-metre section of the Flannagan Cup, held in New Plymouth yesterday.

But still Hiestand admits that even jumping into the deep end of a pool is too scary for her, but the sea is even worse, especially swimming over rocks.

"It's the unknown - it's the bogey man in the water. It's the big moray eel, or the shark, or a slimy fish. It's anything in the water."

As a kid growing up on a coastal Taranaki farm, she would never go towards the duck pond because she knew there were eels in there. "I didn't swim in rivers because I might get caught under a rock."

She has three older brothers and says they used to tease her in fun. " 'Don't let the eel get you, Idelle, they will bite your toe'. It was brotherly love, but it turned into a real fear."

But it is a fear she keeps on facing, again and again.

Kerry Spackman, author of The Winner's Bible, says that people develop fears, which become "truths" through what he calls accidental hypnosis.

These special types of historical events can occur at any stage of someone's life and can be triggered by a small, seemingly harmless incident that produces a major change in personality.

"In many cases of accidental hypnosis you no longer remember the event itself, and yet, despite this, it still continues to have a powerful effect on you every day of your life," Dr Spackman writes.

He talks about these barriers as "knots in your mind", which can be released by reprogramming the brain using emotional transformation, mental tools and emotionally supercharged CDs. Read into this self-talk, visualisation and psychological coaching, an area that sportspeople know is as important, if not more so, than doing the physical workouts. One man who embraces both areas is motivational speaker John Shackleton.

He is now preparing for the biggest challenge of his life - to swim Cook Strait at the end of March.

Shackleton has been a competitive swimmer all his life, mostly focusing on sprint races and even holds several New Zealand and British Masters records in the short swimming events.

But now, aged 57, he is going for endurance and tackling the big one - the 23 kilometres across the Strait from the North to the South Islands. However, because of tides, swimmers usually end up covering about 26km.

He won't be alone out there though - alongside him will be training partner Alastair Hulbert.

Despite having a lifetime of swimming behind him, Shackleton has had to overcome major fears for his latest quest.

"Two years ago I was scared to death of the sea," he says.

More precisely, he's terrified of sharks.

To prepare for this attempt, Shackleton has been clocking up 40 to 50km a week of swimming training, including open-water sessions in the seas around Auckland.

That's when he has to take firm control of his mind to stop the subconscious sharks from circling.

"I focus on anything but the fear," he says. "I focus on the goal, or on the stroke, or the film I saw last night or my kids, whereas I used to think about bloody sharks."

He also uses Zen techniques, taught to him by a Buddhist friend. "It's being in the present, rather than thinking about the future or the past. If you focus on the moment, everything else goes away."

Again that could be his stroke, how he is feeling, the best way to use the current, tides, waves or wind. "That really helps with the long distance sets that you do."

Even when talking about it, over coffee at an Auckland cafe, Shackleton settles down.

This technique is also called mindfulness, which helps you focus on the moment you are in. When coupled with cognitive behaviour therapy, it's used to quieten minds and challenge irrational thoughts and trepidations.

Down at Ngamotu Beach, there is a group of swimmers quietening their own fears.

Dressed in wetsuits, like a pod of seals, the Wednesday evening swimmers head out to a marker that bobs in the harbour, a man on a kayak paddling beside them, another watching them from shore.

The land man is accredited Tri New Zealand coach Graham Park, who says that for some people open-water swimming is as terrifying as a fear of flying. "You are not in control. Once you are out there, you are just that much above the water," he says, putting his hand to his neck.

But he says if people want to do triathlons or other ocean water events, they need to put themselves in the situation they will find themselves in on race day.

To stay safe, he says always swim with others, preferably with a support person, wear colourful bathing caps to be obvious to boats, wear wetsuits for extra buoyancy and to keep the cold out, stay out of the shipping lanes and raise a hand if in trouble.

On training night, the one who will come to their aid will be veteran endurance swimmer and surfer John Lykles.

"I'm a very experienced ocean swimmer and every now and then I do think about sharks and it lasts about 20 seconds and I tell myself not to be stupid and to forget it and keep swimming. I do the statistical thing - the last person killed by a shark in Taranaki was 46 years ago," he says. "I have been for about 2000 surfs, but I've only seen one shark."

Just know that Hiestand is still scared every time she heads out to sea, but she keeps doing it.

"There are so many people out there who miss out on stuff because they are scared. Just do it. What's the worst that can happen to you?"


When you talk about beating fear, it's impossible to go past Susan Jeffers, the author of Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. Here are her five truths about fear:

1. The fear will never go away as long as you continue to grow! Every time you take a step into the unknown, you experience fear. There is no point in saying, "When I am no longer afraid, then I will do it." You'll be waiting for a long time. The fear is part of the package.

2. The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it! When you do it often enough, you will no longer be afraid in that particular situation. You will have faced the unknown and you will have handled it. Then new challenges await you, which certainly add to the excitement in living.

3. The only way to feel better about yourself is to go out and do it! With each little step you take into unknown territory, a pattern of strength develops. You begin feeling stronger and stronger and stronger.

4. Not only are you afraid when facing the unknown, so is everyone else! This should be a relief. You are not the only one out there feeling fear. Everyone feels fear when taking a step into the unknown. Yes, all those people who have succeeded in doing what they have wanted to do in life have felt the fear - and did it anyway. So can you!

5. Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the bigger underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness! This is the one truth that some people have difficulty understanding. When you push through the fear, you will feel such a sense of relief as your feeling of helplessness subsides. You will wonder why you did not take action sooner. You will become more and more aware that you can truly handle anything that life hands you.

Taranaki Daily News