How to Overcome Any Obstacle — Leadership Lessons from Triathlon Racing in Frigid Waters

How Extreme Challenges Can Make You a Better Leader

Photo: Cami Rosso

Want to be a better business leader or entrepreneur? Try competing in an endurance sport like a triathlon. During the race, extreme challenges will test your courage, flexibility, problem-solving skills, commitment and self-mastery. Can you stay cool under high pressure situations? How quickly can you assess and solve unexpected problems? Do you have the backbone and grit to finish what you started, no matter how difficult the challenge? The answers to these questions will be made self-evident during the competition.

In training for my inaugural triathlon, I self-coached my way over the course of 87 days to swim 55,936 yards (32.78 mi), cycle 155.13 mi (249.7 km), and run 65 Km (40.4 mi). What I wasn’t prepared for was cold water shock, functional disability and early onset of hypothermia. Here are a few leadership lessons that I gained swimming in frigid waters in the middle of winter during my inaugural triathlon competition.

I knew the water would be cold as the air temperature was 8.9 degrees Celsius in the predawn hours. Before I had entered the water, my body was involuntarily shaking from the frosty air. My feet were completely numb from the chill. Prior to the start, I immersed myself in the bitter cold water up to my neck. I have never experienced cold water like this before in my entire life. All the training in the cold Pacific Ocean prior to the event now seemed like a luxury hot sauna compared to the extreme chill that I was experiencing now.

As I started swimming into the deeper, colder water, I started involuntarily gasping for air (torso reflex), making it impossible for me to control my breathing. There was almost no visibility as the water was murky and the swim goggles were completely fogged. Every few minutes some part of my body was being kicked or armed by other swimmers. I quickly realized that if I could not control my breathing, I would risk drowning if I put my head under water because I would suck water into my lungs. So minutes into the swim, I was faced with a game-changing decision of “How do I swim this without being able to control my breathing?” I thought to myself, “How do I do this without drowning?”

So here I was, unable to put my head underwater, gasping for air, and getting different parts of my body kicked every few minutes. “Oh hey, hypothermia… this is a new experience,” I said to myself, sense of humor still intact.

I was hoping that the shock would subside and I would be able to regain control of my body. As I was a quarter into the swim, I realized that this wasn’t going to happen. No amount of visualization nor meditation could help in this situation.

So I turned my mind on what I could do versus what I couldn’t do. A benefit of having trained and ran four half marathons is knowing how to endure. I had learned and mastered the art of taking one baby step at a time in order to just keep going. I drew upon that experience to solve my current problem of drowning from cold water shock. So I told myself to put one hand in front of the other and just keep moving forward as I was gasping for air. It was a challenge to move any body part in the freezing cold water due to the shock, but I did what I could under the dire circumstances… and just kept going.

I coached myself to remain calm and somewhat stoic while my body was going completely haywire from the freezing cold water. This allowed me to think clearly, act rationally, and be brave in the face of extreme adversity. I kept my head above water and moved the swim goggles off the eyes for better visibility. This helped reduce the frequency of being thrashed by other swimmers and kept me on track in the right direction.

Having severely impaired ability to control my arms and legs, and no ability to control my breathing, swimming freestyle was not an option. I had to quickly deploy lateral thinking in order to keep moving forward. And so I invented all kinds of silly swim strokes with funny names to solve the problem while maintaining a sense of humor under the duress.

  • “One Arm Bandit” — Right arm extends forward, pulls entire body forward. If you move forward, you hit jackpot!
  • “Minnow Flutters” — Numb feet attempt kicking in unison, can’t tell what arms are doing, probably flailing about.
  • “Ping Pong Paddle” — Alternate both arms using numb hands as paddles. Who knows what the legs are doing?
  • “Froggy Dog” — Dog paddling meets frog. It was a bit of a dog’s breakfast in actuality.
  • “Beetle on its Back” — Move any combo of legs and arms as long as there is forward movement. Flip over when ready to move faster.

Find the Good in Every Situation

All the while, I was involuntarily gasping for air. But miraculously, I started to approach the first buoy. I couldn’t believe that I could get that far on an unorthodox combo of swim strokes.

Amidst all the chaos, I reminded myself to enjoy what I could. I took a picture with my mind of the spectacular rising sun over the milky green waters. I will never forget the unique beauty of the epic hills in the distance with hundreds of swimmers breaking the water’s surface. I told myself to enjoy the process and journey. No matter how difficult the circumstances, always seek out and appreciate the good. I remember emerging from the gelid water with the biggest smile on my face. I did it. I had swam nonstop in frigid waters, overcoming all of the challenges of early onset hypothermia. And off I went to successfully complete the remainder of my first triathlon race.

Copyright © 2016 Cami Rosso All rights reserved.

Originally published at on May 3, 2016.