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Monday, December 10, 2012
Getting my feet wet as an IronMana competitor

By Alyssa Roenigk

Alyssa will be checking in each day from the 2012 IronMana Bora Bora Liquid Festival. Come back here for updates throughout the week.

The Road to IronMana: Intro | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

Write about what you know. That's one of the first lessons we're taught in journalism school, but that takes you only so far. Most of us became reporters because we're curious about the world around us, and that means writing about a lot of subjects we start out knowing little about. That's the fun part of our job -- asking questions -- and then, armed with pretty great access, setting out to find answers.

In sports, I think the best research is participation. That doesn't mean a reporter needs to be able to hang with the pros in order to write about a sport. (Although many of the action sports athletes I write about would disagree wholeheartedly.) But if you've never attempted to draw up a defense or pilot a bobsled or drop into a halfpipe on a snowboard, it's difficult to write about the folks who do so without coming at their sports from an outsider's perspective. It's not always possible -- or feasible -- for journalists to attempt the sports they write about. But whenever possible, I make it my mission to try. Ninety-five times out of 100, my personal experience doesn't make it into the story I write. But 100 percent of the time, it informs the heck out of it.

As a journalist, that makes this event pretty special. Here, I'm able to watch some of the best athletes in the world do what they do, and I also have the opportunity to try their sports for myself -- and then compete in them. And it's not because I have a media pass hanging around my neck. I'm having the same experience as every participant at the Liquid Festival. (Well, aside from the part where I skip the late-night dance party to sit in front of a computer. Next year, I'm leaving the computer at home and hitting the salsa floor!)

In the first story I wrote about this event, I mentioned an open-water swimmer named Alex Kostich who's won the swimming portion for the past two years. Alex holds several master's swimming world records and is one of the fastest open-water swimmers in the world. But to be honest, I didn't know exactly what that meant. I have a friend who participates in open-water swims -- every September, something possesses him to swim a 10K around Manhattan, which requires him to dive into the Hudson River -- and I did enough research on Alex to know he seems to get better with age. But I'd never seen an open-water race in person, and I didn't have a real grasp on just how good Alex is at his sport. Until today.

Watching Alex swim is hard to describe. It's sort of like watching Usain Bolt sprint, only imagine him finishing the 100 meters, toweling off, taking his victory lap and then drinking a mai tai while his competitors finish the remainder of the race. That's not much of an exaggeration, except Kostich waited on the beach for each of his competitors to emerge from the water and then cheered them on as they ran toward the finish.

It took Alex 2 1/2 hours to complete a 12K swim (7.5 miles) in warm water while dealing with powerful wind chop. It really was incredibly beautiful to watch him swim. Kostich and his sport have a new fan.

The competition for all started tonight after dinner. Around 5, the beach began swelling with men and women who had signed up to compete in the three shot-down events. Shot-downs are one-on-one, single-elimination sprint races. Two at a time, competitors race head to head, women vs. women and men vs. men. The winner of each race moves on to the next round. The loser is eliminated. The Va'a (OC-1) races were to be held first, followed by SUP and swimming, but an evening rainstorm halted much of the competition until tomorrow afternoon.

But not before I had my first IronMana competitive experience, in the OC-1 shotdown. Although I had practiced in the sailing canoes earlier in the week, this race was my first experience in the sleek, slippery OC-1 canoe. On my way out to the water for my heat, I asked for some advice, and a torrent of tips came flooding my way: "Take short, quick strokes ... lean toward the ama [outrigger float] ... use your feet to balance ... go fast ... don't tip over!"

When I got to the canoe, I was totally flustered. I didn't know the local girl I was competing against, but I knew she wasn't having as hard a time as I was just getting into her boat. But when event organizer Stephan Lambert yelled, "Shoot!" the nerves disappeared and I paddled as hard as I could. And, somehow, I won my first race. It was only the first round, but I felt like I'd just won Molokai. I came out of the water to hugs and cheers from my new friends and wearing a smile that a jellyfish sting couldn't wipe off my face.

I lost my second race, and although I knew I had no business winning even one, the competitor in me was still a bit disappointed. "Hey!" Kauai local Nick Beck yelled to me. "You won one more race than half the folks here tonight. We're proud of you!" When I got to the announcer's table, Kavika, one of the event organizers, handed me a cadeau, French for "gift." At the IronMana, he said, "When you lose, you win." After each heat, the winner moves on. The second-place finisher comes to the table and chooses a gift. It's an acknowledgement of the effort, Kavika said. I lost-won a pair of waterproof ear buds. How could I be disappointed?

Tomorrow, we resume the shotdown races, and I will compete in SUP and a 25-meter swim. I am not a strong swimmer. It's not something I practice, and while I know "it's really good for you," I've never been compelled to put in the time necessary to not be lapped by old ladies in floral swim caps at the gym. So before tomorrow's race, Alex is going to give me a few tips and help me with my technique. But I'm going in knowing that even if I lose, I win.

Next up for Alyssa: One thing you learn very quickly in Tahiti is that plans are meant to be fluid. Thursday night, they made it through the second round of the men's OC-1 shotdown races when a sweeping rainstorm shut down their event for the night. Friday is the second leg of the long-distance SUP race, and then they'll compete the shotdown races in SUP and swim.