Anxiety Swathed In a Speedo: The Tale of the Swim Test

All potential jobs come with an interview.  Some have very structured and formal outlines, requiring you to sit in front of stone-faced CEO’s in expensive suits.  Fidgeting is not an option.  Others are more informal, aimed at ferreting out the finer and lower points of your personality through a seemingly innocuous exchange.  However, marine mammal training positions come with an added bonus and opportunity for sheer panic!  Just in case an interview of any sort wasn’t enough to test your pluck, prepare to strap on that Speedo.  You are about to be analyzed for your lung capacity, free diving skills, and ability to retain body heat in extreme conditions.  Word to the wise… brush up on your self-soothing skills and ability to cope.

Future trainers, this is  “The Tale of A Swim Test”.

Suck it up, Buttercup
Suck it up, Buttercup.  We need this job!

Once you do receive the swim test invitation call, you have already bitten your fingernails down to their core.  You toiled over your resume and waited the agonizing weeks for either a phone call or a rejection email.  Finally, your phone rings and the screen proudly displays “Unknown” because Human Resources is a cheeky monkey.  They usually prefer to remain coy with their phone number.  You accept the invitation, trying not to squeal in the HR rep’s ear, and take about 5 seconds to celebrate.  It’s just then that a daunting realization emerges; you have less than a week to prepare and are already scheduled to work that particular day at your current job.  If they didn’t know you were job shopping before, they will now.  Oh, the humanity!

Well played, Human Resources. Well played.

You go into work and keep your professional face on, knowing that displaying your deep excitement could be an insult to the opportunities bestowed on you by your current employer.  This part is truly one of the parts I find the hardest; finding that balance of showing my genuine appreciation for them while I tell them that I’m trying to leave.  It’s not easy and it takes a delicate touch.  Once you have endured the awkward confrontation of notifying your current supervisors of your opportunity, you can begin the true journey of worry and apprehension.  Most facilities are really good about sending the outline of the swim test to you; they don’t pull too many surprises on you.  You peruse the list, taking a mental inventory of what you know physically will be a piece of cake and what won’t.  Your mental progress typically goes as such…

Freestyle swim?  No problemo!  25 ft. deep free dive…hmmm.  Where the hell am I going to practice that skill? Push-ups?!   What is this?  Boot camp?!”

Honestly, your swim test is a test for your endurance but if you are taking care of yourself (and you should be) it is a completely fair process and assessment of your comfort and strength levels.  You dream up with all kinds of ways to prepare yourself.  You do push-ups in the bedroom and bathroom multiple times a day or take to holding your breath while you work or watch television (that has gotten me some looks).  Does any of this work?  Who knows but it always makes me feel better.

This has got to give me an advantage, right?
This has got to give me an advantage, right?

The days tick down until… GO TIME.  Your test is normally early in the morning, scheduled to be completed (at least poolside) before the day truly begins at the facility.  There is a bizarre mixture of competition and camaraderie between you and the other candidates.  You want to be nice, but in the end it is like Highlander.  There can be only one.  There are nervous giggles, overzealous introductions, and snap judgments.  We are all competing and doing our best to act like we aren’t.  You are led poolside, stealing looks the whole time to try and see if you can imagine yourself working there.   Don’t get too comfy, you are about to dive into that chilly water and the sun is barely up.  There’s nothing quite like having your breath taken away by an ice bath first thing in the morning.  No problem, I love the feeling of jumping into a vat of pins and tacks before 7:30 a.m.!

I feel you, little buddy. At least you have some insulation. I have a thin layer of spandex.
I feel you, little buddy. At least you have some insulation. I have a thin layer of spandex.

You will get your breath back, no worries!  It’s time to put your game face on and get down to it.  Swim tests are all fairly parallel; distances for skills are shaped by the areas that host the test.  If you are swim testing for a facility that is larger and has larger habitats, your test will be exponentially more challenging than a smaller facility.  I know, you are thinking, “Does the word “duh” mean anything to you, Mother Ocean?”  However, I have seen more than one person get completely thrown off track because they weren’t mentally prepared for the size of the habitat they were testing in.  At the end of the day your mind can be the hardest hurdle to jump.  The pressure you put on yourself is enormous; it can serve as fuel or it can eat away at your confidence like acid.  Let it be your fuel and put your mind on a short leash.

Don't be your own worst enemy. Self doubt is a one-way ticket to Crazy Town.
Don’t be your own worst enemy. Self doubt is a one-way ticket to Crazy Town.

Easily, my favorite skill is the water tread (hands and elbows up in the air).  It gives you a chance to get acclimated to the water and warm up your body for the rest of the skills.  I used to wonder why they still included this skill, it seemed so easy.  Quite frankly, the first time I was certified as a lifeguard in my hometown we had to do the 5 minute tread with a brick so just holding my hands up is pretty painless.  However, the first time I saw other candidates doing a bicycle kick instead of the egg-beater, I never wondered again.  It’s comparable to watching someone leave a water faucet on and walking away; it’s such a waste of energy.

Geez, I hope the rest of the test is this easy! (it isn't)
Geez, I hope the rest of the test is this easy!  I’ve got this!

Soon, soon comes the dreaded “breath hold”.  This is where you traverse the entire length of the pool on one, single breath.  I have been on swim tests that require a minimum of 120 ft. and others that require half that.   Again, it all depends on the size of your intended facility.  I’ve had many conversations with fellow candidates and we all do the same exact thing under there; we talk to ourselves.  You will have a mental dialogue, speaking sternly to yourself and willing your body to stay down just a little while longer.  Again, this is where your nerves are going to throw you a curve ball.  You have to practice and you have to be prepared; being a strong swimmer is expected and you won’t knock anyone’s socks off by just meeting expectations.  Even if you can swim a further distance as the norm, you have to take into account that your heart is racing, adrenaline is high, and your body will burn through oxygen faster.  The same goes for your free dive; if you aren’t ready your body will not be sure of what to do.  Bye, bye Oxygen.  Your ears won’t pop, you run out of air, and you look like a diving duck in the throes of a seizure.

It’s not pretty and, trust me, I have been there.

Am I down to the bottom yet? Did I make it?
Am I down to the bottom yet? Did I make it?

At the end of the day you may have a speech you have to give, shivering and soaking wet.  You may have to do some push-ups or some other test of your upper body strength.  The key is to keep calm and pleasant.  If you screw up?  Keep going!  I once fell down a flight of stairs (in my bathing suit) after completing a swim test that I knew hadn’t gone so well.  When I get really nervous, really excited, or really upset, I shake… a lot.  My legs were shaking so bad that my wet feet just came right out from under me.  The cherry on that Clutzy Sundae?  All of the curators from the separate animal training departments were there and they all saw it.  What can you do?  I popped up, started laughing as though riding down a flight of stairs on my ass was the funniest thing ever, and said “Touchdown!”  Don’t ask me what that means, I just said it.  They wanted to call First Aid; I put on my best Miss America smile and mentally willed them all to forget it.  No, I didn’t get that position but I was offered swim tests afterwards.

Moral of the story:  Take your lickin’ and keep on tickin’.

Aahhh gaaadd!! Man down! MAN DOWN!
Aahhh gaaadd!! Man down! MAN DOWN!

However, the best advice?  Never choose to be injured just to complete your test.  Your ears won’t clear?  DO NOT FORCE IT.  You feel lightheaded during your underwater swim or dive?  Don’t flirt with shallow water blackout, she’s trixy.  Quite frankly, many facilities will permanently place you on their “Do Not Call” list if you injure yourself so it isn’t worth it.  Failure is a preferable option to being blacklisted; at least you live to swim another day.  I knew one girl that blew out her ear on her free dive and another who swam right into a wall on accident during her freestyle; both involved blood.  The perforated ear drum is no longer in the field but the misfired swimmer was able to swim another day (she is a trainer to this day, as well).

Ignoring pain and choosing to push yourself into the realm of injury is tantamount to “Hey ya’ll, look what I can do!  Watch this!”  It never ends well and this presents you as a reckless candidate with poor decision-making skills.

Make good decisions.
Make good decisions.

In the end, you may get the job or you may not.  The odds are never in your favor; as we all know our field is wildly competitive.  However, you already beat out hundreds of candidates just for the pleasure of the “swim test panic attack” so find solace in that.  Practice and don’t be afraid to tell your panel that you worked hard.  False modesty is just that — false.  You will get that job, maybe not today but someday.  Just keep trying and remember… if it was easy, everyone would do it.

And, if you fall down a flight of stairs in front of the suits then don’t forget to “tuck and roll”.  Damn, that’s harsh.

Fall like a Boss!
Safety First!

Best of luck to all past, present, and future candidates and May the Force Be with You.

Hugs and Fishes, ya’ll!


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