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The Many Meanings Of DNF

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach.

DNF usually means Did Not Finish.

But DNF occasionally also means Did Not Fail or Did Not Freestyle.

Compared to the significant number of successful swims in contemporary times relative to the 20th century, DNFs seem to be only occasionally publicly shared. “People can learn from swimmers who DNF’ed. Some swimmers see their own DNFs as personal failures – these swims hurt because of all the time, energy, hopes, finances and family, work and personal sacrifices that are made to get to the start line,” observed Steven Munatones.

It is understandable the reasons why swimmers do not want to share their failures in an open water swim, channel swim or marathon swim, but teams like Sandycove Island Swim Club include swimmers with DNF’s in their list of successful swimmers [see here],” explains Ned Denison.

There are several reasons:

1. to give credit for the courage to dream and plan
2. to remove the failure stigma
3. to show that it is a normal part of the sport…and prepare others for that situation
4. to provide an incentive to go back and remove the entry
5. to give names for others to consult with

This publicly available list records solo marathon swimmers who did and did not reach their planned destination. “They accomplished in a different way. They had the courage to announce and act on a dream, dedicated years, sacrificed, trained and mentally found the courage to take on the challenge. Some began their attempts, but didn’t make it to the other side and others never had favourable weather and hence didn’t even start,” writes Denison.

Among those members are Stephen Redmond (Irish Sea), Imelda Lynch (North Channel),
Páraic Casey (English Channel who passed away one km from France), Steven Black (English Channel), Carmel Collins (English Channel), John Kearney (English Channel), Roisin Lewis (English Channel), Anne-Marie Mullally (English Channel, Roosevelt Lake), Catherine Sheridan (English Channel), Danny Walsh (English Channel), Liz Buckley (Jersey Solo), Noel Browne (Strait of Gibraltar), Michael Hurley (Strait of Gibraltar), Ned Denison (Loch Lomond, Fasnet-to-Baltimore), and Finbarr Hedderman (Apache Lake).

Denison explains, “This section does not include swimmers who eventually made their goal on the 2nd attempt or 3rd attempt. There are no dates listed as this never truly heals. When any of the above do return and complete – their name will be placed elsewhere in this document and deleted with delight from this section.”

In particular, swimmers like Dan Projansky occasionally face tough conditions that lead to a DNF. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, Projansky finished the 57.9 km END-WET between 12 hours 2 minutes and 15 hours 22 minutes. But his fourth swim was not to be.

Unlike previous years, the Red River of the North was very shallow and there was hardly a current,” explained the banker from Illinois.

For safety reasons we had to bail out [at the 15-mile mark]. I was butterflying at a real good pace. If I chose freestyle, not finishing would not be an issue. I hate having a DNF next to my name in the final results.
I felt real strong and carried a good form. If the river had easy access, I would of kept going. Safety though is most important. I’ll be back

In Projansky’s case, his DNF can mean Did Not Finish and Did Not Fail as well as Did Not Freestyle.

As endurance sports becomes increasingly popular among the Baby Boom generation, the exploits of working adults and retired people are beyond inspirational. Men and women perform extraordinary feats in fresh and salt water under warm and cold, tranquil and rough conditions.

But in some cases, a swimmer want an attempt to be kept confidential until the swim is successful. These requests come from swimmers of all ages, abilities and cultures. These swimmers explained their personal reasons and preferences for keeping their plans, swims or DNF’s out of the public realm:

Theme #1: Jinx

· “…My original thought was that for some reason swimmer must feel that it is some kind of jinx to promote the swim before the attempt. Of course that is totally irrational, but that was my first thought…”
· “…I know some swimmers who do not want to talk about their plans because it will jinx it…”

Theme #2: Pressure

· “…personally, it means less pressure. Also, I found something truly delightful in surprising folks with my swims. It makes the challenge a little more interesting…and it will be fun to announce [my swims] the day before or after the swim. Perhaps its a confidence issue too. I’d like to think I can achieve my goals, but my experience so far with the ocean reminds me that Mother Nature is always boss…”

Theme #3: Unprecedented Achievement

· “…I have a swim I am asking to keep confidential because it is a first. A good friend made the suggestion and I was able to get my A Team to help out. I will let you know about it when I succeed. I am pretty excited, but I don’t want anyone to jump my first…”

Theme #4: Fear

· “…this is prevalent in the corporate sector too, at least in Australia where women don’t want other women to know if they’re applying for a promotion. In a word fear and a lack of self confidence…”
· “…women are very different than men in the work place. They may not want their superiors to know that they are taking so much time to train and or have to possibly ask for time off to train or compete…”
· “…could it be that some swimmers are much more afraid of failure in the physical realm? Maybe women feel they have to be better just to be seen by society as good as. So perceived failure is truly terrible. Only success is allowed, so it’s best to keep attempts quiet unless they are successful.”
· “…some swimmers are afraid of what they can achieve and are reluctant to toot their own horn. Other may not want that additional burden of everyone knowing to be in their head during their swim…”

Theme #5: Unwelcomed Comparisons

· “…it invites negative comments like you are too skinny to swim that…”
· “…it invites unwanted commentary and advice [when people tell you] this is the way you need to do it…”
· “…publicity can also invite incendiary familial commentary like I have a brother…”
· “…I wonder if some take failure harder. I had my first ever DNF last year though I felt like I was in good company…”

Theme #6: Gender Comparisons

· “…Simply put, I think innate characteristics are involved as well as the way girls and boys are brought up [differently], although this is changing to some degree. Throughout time, women have been in the background behind men so to speak. I think even that comes into issue on this subject…”
· “…I think female athletes are still subjected to more judgment than our male counterparts…”
· “…22 years in the [work place] and 12 of those as the only woman taught me more than I should ever have to know about men. No matter what anyone thinks, men and women are very different. Things that seem natural and normal to them would leave me absolutely perplexed as to why. I often felt like I was in that other galaxy…”

Theme #7: Responsibilities

· “…If it were me, I would do as Nike says and just do it! But I’ve got too many chores to do, mouths to feed, husbands to tend to, and old people to take care of…”
· “…some may feel guilty to admit that they want to spend this kind of time training and on themselves and for themselves, particularly women in a relationship or with a family…”
· “…women have a stronger sense of guilt when it comes to do doing anything for themselves. Things that may take them away from family or the office…”
· “…women may worry that the public will know that their children and their homes are left alone while they are gone training or competing...”

Theme #8: Perceptions

· “…some may also be more apt to back out at the last minute due to a family or office emergency. By keeping their intentions to compete private, nobody has to be disappointed when and if there is cancellation…”
· “…women want to be recognized for their achievements rather than their attempts at achievement and for some reason, men don’t really care…”
· “…similar to when women do not like to let anyone know they are pregnant until they are far enough along to feel there is no chance of a miscarriage…”

Theme #9: Privacy

· “…the main reason I was keeping it on the down-low is I did not want my mother to hear about it and have her get a bad night’s sleep worrying about me. One friend posted something online and I told her to take it down. I considered it my swim to talk about and felt no one else should be doing the talking for me. I accept the fact that when I enter something like [famous swim race], I forfeit that right to privacy…”
· “…if the world was a perfect world by my definition, no one would know about my swims until after I complete them
· “…I am one of those people who did not like to advertise our swims beforehand. Superstitious? Maybe. But there are so many variables with weather and all, we didn’t want to advertise the swim until it was underway. Since many of the swims [here] were ‘first time’ swims, we didn’t want to say we were going to do something and then it not materialize. We would feel stupid. However, once the swim was a ‘go’, usually a couple hours before I stuck my toe in the water then the press was called. Fear of failure was not it because I had a few of those learning experiences and I am okay with that. It was more: until all of your ducks were in a row don’t say anything. I say, approach your swim quietly and then when you know it is a go, send out your press releases. I have to say though, it seemed like when we did have a lot of PR before a swim, it sort of colored the decision of whether or not to ‘go’ and the atmosphere was circus-like. Plus, I like a small crew and press as it was just about the swim…”

Katie Benoit, an American police officer from Colorado, described her 2014 attempt of the North Channel.

This is a side of open water swimming I have not experienced yet. Of course, in our sport there are no guarantees. We don’t control the tides, the storms, the lighting. I know that every time I leave on a swim trip I may not get to swim or I may get pulled from the water if conditions get unsafe. But I always held the firm belief that mentally, if just given good enough conditions, I can suffer through anything.

As we set out into the North Channel, the conditions were good. The water was unusually warm at 15ºC (59ºF), and the air temperature a cloudy and foggy 60ºF. The plan was to start strong to catch a favorable tide. I had a strong first two hours. The size of the dreaded Lion’s mane jellyfish underneath me was impressive, most of them about 8-10 ft. Lucky for me they remained low enough. We also had a humpback whale pay as a visit and swim within a few feet behind the boat. Thank heaven I didn’t see it. The crew got some great pictures.

Everything seemed to be going ideal. It seemed to me the temperature dropped as we reached the middle of the channel, even though the measurements from the boat indicated steady 15ºC. My pace dropped a little and I began experiencing cramps in my hip flexors and neck. With the pace slowly dwindling the cold began setting in more. Attempts to stretch lead to more cramps and had to be abandoned. So I just kept on swimming.

One thing the mind can’t control is how hypothermia will take your mind. About 4 hours into the swim things got hazy. I recall trying to sing a song, any song in my mind, but could not recall any. I recall feeling stiff and not able to move well. My husband tells me he had to yell at me to communicate and it seemed like I didn’t understand what he was telling me. About 6 hours in I first said the words, the words I never said in my element before – “I want out”. Of course, any good crew won’t let you.

Attempts to deliver hot feeds more often (every 20 instead of 30 minutes) were made. I had difficulty holding my cup. I was told I dropped the cup into the salt water (don’t remember). I do remember drinking something very salty. I yelled at my crew why they had put salt in my drink? Yelled at them what they put in my drink…I recall thinking how did I take something I loved as much as swimming and turned it into this hell. And at some point I knew. I looked up at the coast of Scotland in sight and I knew I didn’t have that much time left. 4 hours away while I was fighting for minutes. I did not want to be in that much pain anymore.”

So her swim was over. But a renewed mindset overcame her.

Once on the boat an hour of very painful hip flexor cramps followed, then slowly got better. The days after were hard and I have been struggling to come to peace with my decision. I have many swimming goals left. The Oceans Seven only one of them. I will likely return to Ireland, but don’t know when yet. I want to do some really long swims, in climates that suit my leaner body type better. I love Hawaii and Florida, and will pick my next challenge somewhere warmer. The next goal is the 42-mile course lengthwise crossing of the German Lake Bodensee in early September. I could really need a success now, but all I can do is take it one day at a time.”

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