Monday, June 3, 2013

My First Swim Test: Lifting the Shroud of Mystery

Swim Tests.  

The two little words strike fear into the hearts of many aspiring marine mammal trainers.

They represent the first major hurdle in landing a job in the field.  And before you actually take one, they are cloaked in as much mystery, fear, and intrigue as: Having Surgery for the First Time, Life After Death, and Indiana Jones movies* .

My first official swim test was at SeaWorld of California.  I sent in my resume with (presumably) 59,305 other equally-qualified applicants and was lucky enough to be one of a few hundred to get a swim test invitation.  When I received the good news via email, my momentary elation quickly morphed into sheer terror.  

In order to accurately convey my reaction to the swim test requirements to you, let's have a little "Here is How Cat Imagined the Swim Test" photo essay.

"Carry two 30lb buckets of ice water"

"Dive off a 6 foot bridge"

"Swim 250 feet freestyle in under 80 seconds."

"Swim 125 feet underwater in one breath"

"Surface dive 26 feet and retrieve a 5 lb weight"

"Pull yourself out of the water onto the stage, landing on your knee or foot"

Then, I read that there was a small script I had to memorize and present on microphone.  I don't remember it now, but it had to do with Dolly the dolphin (keep in mind, this was before the Blue Horizons show).  I figured that'd be the easy part; I've never had a problem flapping my trap on a microphone.

So what did I do?  Well, I worried a lot.  But most importantly, I practice all the elements of the swim test.  This was a little difficult, as I was going to school in New Hampshire.  But luckily the university had a swimming pool and it was just about a mile walk away (in the snow, uphill, yes for real).  

Now, I wasn't  just going to show up and swim some laps.  No, I had to make sure I was Prepared for the Swim Test.  The Impossible Distance Swimming and the Perilous Underwater Journey could not be left to sloppy strokes in a swimming pool lane.  No, it took imagination and intelligence to attempt to recreate the conditions I'd be asked to swim in.   Saltwater is less dense than freshwater, so I'd have to fight my way through the underwater swim portion.  I wouldn't be allowed to wear goggles, so I couldn't wear a mask in the pool.  I had to be able to hold my breath longer in training than I'd have to at SeaWorld. 

What this immense anxiety-driven preparation birthed was a nerdy college chick showing up to the open-swim time in a 3mm wetsuit and no goggles.  Everyone stared at me as I walked to the lane furthest away from the stands.  One guy commented on my curious attire, concerned about my mental welfare.  I explained I was practicing for a Swim Test in Saltwater, and rattled off the requirements.  Satisfied with my explanation, I got into the water and started my Swim Test Training journey…

…only to have my eyeballs burn out of my skull after 20 minutes of opening them in a heavily chlorinated pool. (I opted to use goggles for the rest of my training.)

Where I did my training and ruined my corneas

I can't totally remember what month my swim test was in.  I think it was February, because it was ridiculously freezing.  By the time my swim test came around, I felt prepared.

I stayed with my uncle and his family who lived near San Diego at the time.  On the day of the Swim Test, I was just about ready to throw up most of my internal organs and shrivel into a small corpse.  A million questions raced through my mind:

Will the 65 degree water be too cold?
Will I be able to see underwater okay without my goggles?
How much adrenaline can my body inject into my blood stream before I'm considered hazardous waste?

My uncle drove me to SeaWorld where I seriously don't even remember what I did until the test itself began.  So in my mind, me and the rest of the swim testers are suddenly sitting in the Whale and Dolphin stadium seating getting a demonstration of the swim test from start to finish from some of the current trainers.  They made it look so effortless and easy, and they were in thick wetsuits which made it more difficult to dive to the bottom of the pool.  If they can do it, I thought, then so should I!

The first obstacle was carrying buckets of ice water up and down some stairs.  As I recall, we went one at a time, and this is not something I prepared for.  Carrying the ice water was tough, but definitely not a big deal.  The big deal was doing it in front of your competition.  And I suddenly felt like it was my first day in high school freshman year in the cafeteria.  Luckily (and unlike in high school), I completed the task without falling on my face in front of everyone.

The next part involved stripping down to our bathing suits and standing in the frigid February air while we waited for the actual Swim Test to start.  The trainers in charge gave us the option of jumping into the water to "get used" to the temperature.  Half of the group hurled themselves in.  I didn't want to be left behind, so I followed suit.  



I unceremoniously crawled out of the water, trying to catch my breath and shivering in the cold.  When I dove in to do the freestyle swim (in under 80 seconds), my lungs felt paralyzed and I thought there was no way I could finish in time.  But I pushed through, and finished under the allotted amount of time.  That was when I started to gain confidence that I could complete the test.

The underwater part came after everyone else did their freestyle swim.  We were all shivering and miserable, but I remained determined.  When I began the underwater swim, I realized that I had so much excited energy and it was so peaceful underwater (the sounds of pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins also helped) that it ended up being the easiest part of the test.  I completed it with no problems.  The surface dive and diving in from a 6 foot bridge was no problem either.  I can't explain how happy and relieved I was when I swam to the main stage and prepared to get out.

But I couldn't.  I had weak, girly noodle arms that were frozen stiff from the cold water.  I tried to pull myself up onto the slipper stage, but my arms collapsed under me.  Using a move that can only be described as "Stroked Out Harbor Seal", I emerged from the water and ran to the locker room to change.  

After that, we were informed who passed the test and who did not.  Despite my anti-climactic finish, I'd passed the swim test and would move on to the next phase before the interview.  I assumed this meant reciting the memorized script, and thought nothing of the instruction for us to get into something comfortable (e.g. not our interview clothes).  I put on some black dance pants that I realized were way too big and long for me.  Oh well, I thought.  

Those of us who passed the swim test filed into the Pets Ahoy area and were met by a slough of people from SeaWorld's entertainment department.  The excitedly informed us that part of a trainer's job is showmanship, and so they'd like us to learn and perform a choreographed dance (WHAT?!).  They added not to worry if we missed a step, they just wanted to make sure we looked like we were having a good time.

I wanted to shout, "NO! No! I'll do the underwater swim again! I'll shove hot needles under my fingernails! JUST DON'T MAKE ME DANCE IN PUBLIC!"  I was really only looking out for the wellbeing of the people who'd have to actually witness my attempt at dancing.

I am a terrible dancer, and I hate dancing.  So none of the moves felt normal to me, and my pants kept falling down.  So my audition dance involved a lot of seizure-like movements while one (or both) of my hands hiked up my pants, all the while I managed to plaster what I thought was a smile on my face.  My attempts at jovial laughter sounded too similar to a hyena, which I'm pretty sure was why all the dogs in the back area started barking.

This is my attempt at dancing.  No, really.

Once the "dancing" was over, we recited our scripts on mic and then played improv games.  That was really fun.  In fact, I got so into it, it essentially sealed my fate to never work at SeaWorld.  The improv games are there to see who can think on their feet quickly, because as we all know, not every show will go as planned.  If you're narrating or announcing a show, you'd better be able to deal with changes out of left field without sounding unprofessional.  

And for those of you who know me well, you can already guess why I didn't do so great at the improvisation games.  It wasn't that I couldn't think on my feet, it was the oddball, weird responses I gave in attempt at humor.  For example, when we had to go around in a circle and tell a story by adding one sentence to the previous person's:

Person A: I went to the store one day
Person B: and ran into an old friend
Person C: so I said hello and then
Cat: I punched him in the face

"I punched him in the face"?? How about I just hide in this egg until the embarrassment passes?

By the time the interview was over, I knew I probably didn't get the job.  All of the trainers, curators, and entertainment folks at SeaWorld were very kind and made me feel comfortable in spite of a very nerve-wracking experience.  I didn't feel angry or sad when I got the letter a few weeks later saying I hadn't gotten the job, but I felt confident that after going through that experience, I could pass another swim test somewhere else.  And maybe filter my answers on any other improv audition tests (maybe).

Nowadays, swim tests don't scare me anymore.  They are really more of a mental game than anything else.  If you're comfortable swimming, you'll pass a swim test.   But it's certainly a rite of passage to do your first one, if only to realize that they aren't a huge deal if you have determination and perseverance.   And as a great bonus, they often leave you with funny stories to tell.  

An extremely attractive photo of my in my favorite element

So I'm curious fellow marine mammal trainers, what are some of your hilarious moments from your swim tests?

* Not the last one, unless the mystery is dealing with, "Why was this movie actually made?"


  1. My first (and only one so far) swim test was at SW California also :) It was an awesome experience and much less scary than I made it out to be. Everyone was cheering each other on and it felt like I was at a high school swim meet. We didn't have to do improv games like you did, though. We had to recite part of a script, do a dance like you did, then we had to act out a character as we recited the script. I felt like I did everything fine, but they didn't choose me to go on to the interview. I think they chose about 7 of the 15 that had passed the swim test that day. I guess next time I'll try to be more outgoing and more fun on stage :)

    1. The experience is what's priceless. Just keep applying and keep that great attitude and you'll come out ahead!

  2. My swim test with TOTS involved swimming underwater from the platform to the dock (about 50ft), I think there was an algae bloom or something because I couldn’t see anything. Towards the end, when I knew the dock had to be close, I started to wave my arm in front of me (while still using the other arm to swim) sure enough SMACK. I ended up hitting the dock with my arm (thankfully not with my head).
    -Mary G.

    1. Mary!! I'm glad you were smart enough to use your arm to detect underwater flotsam. I probably wouldn't have been that wise.

  3. As a minor, I have yet to experience this event, however not doubt my most embarrassing moment of high school was not being able to get out of the pool. I had just done a 50 or a 100 free, I can't remember which, but this dude I had a crazy crush on was timing me. He was a-like a genius, b-the nicest person ever, c-had the body of an adonis, and d-asian thus fulfilling my dreams of having adorable asian children (yes I had planned out our marriage.) So I was already embarrassed as I finished last in the race (lol not surprised though(like 80% of the reason I'm on the team is because it might prepare me for swim tests))So our pool is 7ft deep at the shallowest and has like a foot n a half to two feet tall wall by the starting blocks and usually I get out the sides, but everyone else gets out the end so I was like "you can do this." well I couldn't. After a great amount of effort that showed way too much on my face, I heaved my top half over the pool deck. At this point I had do the worm/ shimmy my way onto dryer ground, and pull myself out with my fingers on a ledge. The only way I can describe it is a seal desperately trying to get on top of an ice flow. So I pull myself up, composure, and I'm all 'oh im so funny that was funny not embarrassing hah.' and he's all "here's your time."in his deep voice. I then thanked him and then proceeded to jump into the small pool in shame.

    1. Hahahaha!!! It sounds like you and I are kindred spirits.

  4. I swim tested (and got hired!) at SeaWorld in Texas...I did everything fine for my swim test, but bombed the getting out of the water part too. Your comment about being a seal having a stroke had me laughing out loud because of the memories it brought back. I put my palms on the stage, lifted up my body, my hands slipped out from under me, I FACE PLANTED on the stage, and then fell back into the pool. EMBARRASSING. For some reason they hired me anyway.

    In fact, months and months later when a new girl started, the first thing she said to me was along the lines of "We swim tested together...aren't you the girl that fell on her face?". Ugh...nice to meet you too.

    I left and work with Elephants now; I think the dry land aspect is more my thing haha.

    1. That is a great story! I hope you don't do too much face-planting around elephants. I hear their "leavings" are rather gargantuan.

  5. Well I've yet to take a "real" swim test, as I'm not yet quite old enough to work with marine mammals for a career (Still in high school-but hey, at least my school has horses, along with some other awesome animals! :D) but last year I attended SeaWorld Orlando's 10-12 Career camp, and as part of the camp program, we get to take a "mock" swim test-basically a shortened version of the actual swim test.

    The 3 parts of the "test" we had to do were the freestyle (Untimed), the underwater swim, and the 5 minute tread with no hands. Well I had been practicing my swimming for months beforehand, to make sure I didn't make a fool of myself when taking the mock test. I knew every aspect of both the actual SeaWorld swim test, and the mock test I would be taking, before getting to camp. By the time camp came around, my underwater swim, which I had been focusing on, was up to 160 feet or so with one breath, easily 50 feet more than I needed. I was confident I would be able to ace the mock test!

    Needless to say, test day finally came around, and I did fairly well on the freestyle, but due to lack of practice of my freestyle, since I focused so much on the underwater, I was quite out of breath after that. It made me very nervous, and come the underwater portion, I pretty much bombed it (in my mind-I actually made it about 3/4 the way across the pool-still, not good enough for me) anyways, to make up for my upmost embarrassment at what I considered "failing," I decided to try and be cool and attempt the "get up on the stage on your knees or foot" aspect of the test-not something we needed to do for the mock swim test, but something I knew about from prior research.

    So, burning with shame, I head over to the platform closest to me, dive slightly under the water, and pull myself up as best I can onto the platform-which ended with me promptly slamming my knee on the side and plopping right back into the water, in full view of the supervising trainer who was sitting 2 feet away on the platform. I decided then to give up the nonsense and just become an awkward seal, flopping up onto the platform, mentally chastising myself the whole while.

    Regardless, as embarrassing as the whole underwater swim/platform pull out was, I did end with a nice time! We ran late, and so while we were still doing the water tread, guests started coming into the stadium. I was tired by this point, and had not practiced treading water at all, so I decided to go with my last resort plan b- show everyone how comfortable I am in the water! More or less, I decided I would become a dolphin for the last 5 minutes. Judging by how much my counselors and the supervising trainers were laughing at my antics, and fairly pitiful attempts at bowing (which looked more like I was trying to bellyflop while still in the water) I definitely think I proved I at least have the comfort level and energy needed to be a trainer!

    Even though not all of the swim test went as planned, I did have a great time, and it was perfect practice, especially because we got to swim in the actual show pool and get a feel for it. This year I'm going to be much more prepared, and I'll be sure to ace it this time^^

  6. Cat, this entire post killed me from the inside out. I haven't laughed that hard in a long time! I remember my first swim test, it was in February of 2008 at Discovery Cove in Orlando. I was attending UCF at the time, so luckily I didn't have to travel. I couldn't have been more nervous. When I started going to the University pool to train, I met another girl who was training for the same swim test I was. That was kinda tough, but I don't think I would have encouraged myself to swim nearly as hard as I did without the competition. There were a lot of early mornings spent laying on the bench, gasping for air, and shaking like a leaf as I pushed myself for the underwater swim.

    Choosing to dive in for my underwater, as opposed to starting from in the water was probably the worst decision I could have made. While the water at DC wasn't as cold at SWSD, the impact of the dive took a good deal of my air away. As soon as I hit the water, I knew I wasn't going to make it. When I heard the sounds of the dolphins underwater, my heart skipped a beat. I swam as hard as I could, but came up a good ten feet short of the line. The rest of the test went swimmingly. For our dive, we were on the beach, and trainers out in the water dropped two weights. We went in pairs, and I surfaced with mine before my partner. That was probably the luckiest break I caught to stand out.

    For my five minute water tread, I spun around with egg-beater legs singing, "It's a Small World." Why on Earth do I wonder why I didn't get that job?

    I passed the swim test with enough points, and went onto the public speaking portion. I pulled the biggest brown-noser move I could out of my pocket. I had been working in the Guest Services department for awhile, and had memorized the trainer welcome speech to the guests. I gave it with all the energy and enthusiasm as I could.

    Got the call a few weeks after my interview, that I didn't make it. At the time I was so disappointed, and heartbroken. But at least now I can look back and realize I was no where near ready to train. Now I've got a degree, and internship under my belt, and I'm STILL not fully ready. I'm grateful for this time to mature, and I'm confident it will happen when the time is right. I still look forward to the opportunity, every day.

    Thanks for writing this Cat. It was a nice reminder of where I was, and where I'm at now. As usual, you're truly awesome!

  7. You seem to be very good at the underwater swim portion, Cat! I currently practice in a pool that is very warm, too warm once I really start getting into the laps. 85 degrees I believe? I remember when I jumped into Shamu Stadium with a wetsuit on I gasped for air. How are you able to train in a warm lap pool and succeed at the breath hold in such colder water without being completely out of breath less than half way through? Is there anyway to prepare for it exactly?

    1. i love seaworld i want to be a trainer with the orcas when i am older do you have any pointers or tips for me.

  8. This blog is just awesome!Lol I am currently training for a swim test at SW SD and I'm really hoping I can get it. I'm a good swimming just not a fast one so we will see how that goes! Thanks for the awesome look on the swim test :))

  9. This blog is just awesome!Lol I am currently training for a swim test at SW SD and I'm really hoping I can get it. I'm a good swimming just not a fast one so we will see how that goes! Thanks for the awesome look on the swim test :))