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"
"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.
The 65 degree water strangled my bronchioles, declaring, "THOU SHALT NOT TAKE A FULL BREATH UNTIL TOMORROW WHEN THINE BODY TEMPERATURE APPROACHES NORMALCY! BWAHAHA!"
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?"