Interview: Endurance swimmer Allison Ballard

It was fun to work with Allison Ballard, Ben and Colleen’s old Taiko drumming instructor, during an all-ages drumming circle class at the Unitarian church in Fort Wayne this summer.

Allison Ballard
(Photo from Fort Wayne Taiko website.)

It was even cooler to discover that in addition to being an amazing drummer and the founder/director of Fort Wayne Taiko, Allison is also an endurance swimmer. (If you’re interested in finding out more about Taiko drumming, check out the videos on the group’s website or facebook page.)

Despite her busy schedule, Allison found time to answer a few of our questions:

Q. How did you get into endurance swimming? Did you grow up on a lake or do swim team as a kid?

A. I swam a lot as a kid. We lived in southwestern Kentucky and my parents joined a pool and my mom would take us almost every day during the summers. I had swimming lessons early on and was always really, really comfortable in the water. I’d actually rather be in water than on land. I am not interested in running around the block, but a mile-long swim is a really lovely workout for me.

But I don’t like swimming competitively. Swim time is my time. I really love the trance-induced state that comes from being in the water. I think about technique when I want to and am free to let my mind wander as I choose. I don’t want to have to monitor my technique and stay focused on my speed or other competitive goals.

Q. Why do you prefer “real” water to a pool?

A. As a swimmer, any water is “real” water, but I like the natural elements that come with an outdoor environment. I like feeling the sun and wind and being surrounded by trees, etc. But it’s hard to track yourself when swimming in open water because it’s hard to swim in a straight line and ….you have to spend attention/energy on tracking where you’re at. And if you’re in an environment with boats, that becomes another element that requires attention….

Q.  What’s your favorite place to swim in Indiana?

A. Well, I haven’t put too much effort into checking out a lot of places over a large geographic area. In the midst of my busy life, I tend to swim places that are convenient and accessible versus seeking out and traveling to places that are particularly appealing to me.

One of my favorite places to go the last several years is Fox Island. It’s close enough that I can get there and back quickly. It’s big enough that I can go back and forth across the lake and really feel like I got a swim in and yet it’s small enough that I don’t have to deal with boats, etc. And I don’t have too contend with too many weeds, algae, etc.

When I have more time, I like to take my kayak and explore different chains of lakes. I like to go from one lake to another, jump out and swim a while and then do a wet entry back into my kayak and go to the next lake. One of my favorite chains is Marsh Lake, Big Otter, Little Otter, Snow Lake and Lake James. If I go with a friend then we can raft the kayaks together so my kayak is secured while I swim.

Q. Favorite place to swim on the planet?

A. I really like “playing” in big water, like the ocean or Lake Michigan. To do serious swimming takes a little more consideration and prep. You have to consider water temperature, tides/waves, water life, etc. I have a wet suit that I’ve used from time to time, but I don’t like it because it throws my alignment off and changes my stroke.

Q. How do you block out thoughts of what else might be in the water with you — yucky weeds, big fish, sharks, etc…?

A. I choose my swimming environment based on my comfort level and preferences. When swimming in fresh water, I like to swim in deep water but I stay on the surface–I don’t go deep.

When swimming in salt water rich with water life, I want to be advised by a guide who is familiar with that particular body of water. Once basic precautions are taken and I’ve chosen a place to swim, I tend to not think too much about it.

Q. Ever have any close calls in the water?

A. The water is such a comfortable place for me that I adapt easily to various situations. I can tread water for a really, really long time and can maneuver easily (making it easy to manage rough water) and can monitor and adjust my breathing to a large degree as needed. Of course, I’ve never been out in the middle of a big storm or really hazardous conditions and know better than to spend a long time in really cold water.

Hypothermia is definitely not a swimmer’s friend and is probably one of my biggest concerns when swimming outside. I was swimming in a lake once in April/early May without a wet suit when I began to get concerned that I was getting too cold. I knew the water was cold when I entered, but figured I would warm up once I started swimming. I was out in the middle of the lake when I realized that may not be the case. I started heading back in, but it doesn’t take too long for extreme cold to create havoc on a swimmer’s ability to think and move. In an effort to conserve heat, the body starts to systematically shut down and cognitive functions are one of the first to go. If I can’t think straight and make my body move in a coordinated fashion, there isn’t much I can do to help myself. I’ve been much more careful about cold water since then.

I have a lot of respect for my vulnerability in the water and avoid extreme situations through planning and preparation. But short of extremes, I’d rather be challenged in the water than out of the water. I think my capacity, endurance and adaptability is stronger in the water than on land. Once I was swimming in a lake that had a lot of weeds and muck around the perimeter. I entered the water by diving off a dock that extended out into the lake. The people who got out of the water before me broke the ladder on the dock and it could no longer be used to exit the water. Since I didn’t want to swim/walk through the muck that edged the lake, I went off swimming in search of another exit point and ended up having to swim quite a ways. It didn’t bother me, but it did concern the people I was with. They didn’t understand that swimming a distance in search of an exit point wasn’t the problem. It was having to walk a long way back after I found a place to get out of the water that was the problem! I can swim forever, but land-based treks (hiking, climbing, etc) wear me out!

Even if I’m at a pool, especially one that doesn’t have a lifeguard (like at a hotel or something), I scan the deck for safety equipment as soon as I arrive. If someone in the water needs assistance while I’m there, I want to know what tools are available and where they are at. In an emergency situation, a person doesn’t have time to be looking for rescue equipment. And when swimming with others, I always ask them about their swimming abilities and comfort in the water so I have some idea what to expect.

I was swimming with my mother once (who isn’t a swimmer). She was taking swimming lessons at the time and wanted to be out in the water, but she kept getting out there and panicking; I had bring her in with an old-fashioned  cross-chest carry rescue THREE times in a single afternoon. I finally told her to stay out of the water…she was stressing me out!

 Q. Any tips for people who might want to give lake swimming a try?

A. The buddy system and other safety considerations should be ingrained in swimmers. When swimming in a boat-free lake, I’m comfortable going out by myself as long as there are people behind on the beach who know I’m out there. If I’m in a lake with boats, I need someone out there on the water with me in a kayak or some other water craft with a flag with the symbol that lets other boats know there’s a swimmer in the water. And of course I won’t swim in really large bodies of water (fresh or salt water) without someone out there with me in a boat.

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