Mind Over Water: Challenging Physical and Mental Life Threatening Beliefs!

AASP NEWSLETTER.Volume 21. Issue 3 Fall/Winter 2006

Dr. Patricia Wightman. Head of the Sport Psychology Department, CENARD, Argentina

Author’s Introduction: The CENARD in Argentina is similar to the USOC Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Athletes get all of their check-ups and training controls done there. As head of the Sport Psychology Department since 1990, Dr. Wightman has worked with many athletes and teams including the men’s basketball team that won a gold medal in Athens.
There is a staff of permanent sport psychologists and others that come and go with teams and major events. Maria Ines Mato worked, before crossing the English Channel, with relaxation, breathing, visualizing, cognitive behavioral therapy and all that this implies. She also trained afterwards with biofeedback, meditation, yoga and other techniques, especially to get control of her body temperatures. This information was gathered at the CENARD in an interview and conversation.
She has corrected and approved all that was written and has given permission that the information be shared in this public forum. Maria Ines wants her work to be known.
The following article is based on the work and extraordinary achievements of María Inés Mato.The swimmer talks about her experiences in the freezing waters, mental preparation, overcoming obstacles, flow, and feelings of transcendence.
María Inés Mato is a 39-year-old open water swimmer who lost part of her right leg in an accident at the age of four and started swimming when she was six. She competed in regular long distance events until 1992. That year she was invited to swim in an open water event in the Paraná River (Argentina). She explained, “the first time I swam in a river I was fascinated and I knew it was something that I wanted to do all of my life. The texture of the water, the current, the landscape, the speed of the river, the reflections of the sun. I realized that it was a place I wanted to be.” Since then her life has been divided in two periods with different motivations and goals. From open water competitions, she passed to individual long distance crossings which are not competitive in a traditional sense. Thus, her first challenges were classic open water events: the English Channel, the Belt Channel (from Denmark to Germany), Manhattan Island and the Strait of Gibraltar. She is now in the Guinness Book of World Records and has also been recognized as an Honorary Citizen of Buenos Aires and other cities.
Along the way, she developed her own training method which included multiple approaches to mental training. “I started to realize that I could swim for a long time training very little. But really, that had nothing to do with omnipotence; I knew that I could compensate for not training in the water with a mental workout scheme that gave me great confidence for what I was going to do. I understand that for someone who observes from the outside this might seem out of reality.” She started working with Sport Psychology at the CENARD (Argentine National Training Center for Elite Athletes) before crossing the English Channel (08/25/97). She and her team had to work on goals, overcoming obstacles (even from official personalities who doubted that these ideas or dreams could come true), using relaxation, visualization and desensitization.

For her feats, she has been inspired by different sources. For example, in 2001 she studied the legends and history of the indigenous Yamana Tribes, who lived in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia. The word “yamana” means “spirit of the water.” The Yamanas were a tribe of canoe Indians. They lived almost entirely on birds, seals, fish, mussels and limpets. The women cooked, fetched water, paddled the canoes and fished. The men tended the fires, fished, made and mended the canoes and prepared material for them. The women were good swimmers, but it was a rare thing to find a male Yamana who could swim. Members of this tribe often lived in places where for many miles there were no beaches on which it was possible to haul up their canoes. They were compelled, therefore, to anchor them off the rocks in the best shelter to be found. This anchoring was done by the women. After the canoe was unloaded and the husband had gone up into the forest to collect fuel for the fire, the wife would paddle off in the canoe a few fathoms into the thick kelp (a large species of seaweed), which makes a splendid breakwater. She would secure the canoe, and once it was safely anchored, she would slip naked into the water, swim ashore and hasten to the fire to warm herself (all this at a temperature 6° Celsius).
The Yamana women swim like a dog and had no difficulty getting through the kelp. They learned to swim during infancy and were frequently taken out into the water by their mothers in order to get them used to it. In winter, when the kelp was coated with a film of frost, a baby girl out with her mother would sometimes make pick-aback swimming difficult by climbing onto her mothers head to escape the cold water and frozen kelp (Bridges, 1988). The purpose of The Lakuma Project for María Inés was the revindicating of human rights and making evident the role of women in this tribe. It was sponsored by Amnesty International and the Unesco (03/03/2001).These feelings were so strong that Maria Ines returned to the south to swim by the southern wall of the Perito Moreno Glacier.
María Inés had discovered that cold water was her habitat. She explained, “the motivation behind all this had to do with cold water. I create an imaginary context where the air is warmer than the water but I do not deny that the water is cold. With my trainer, Claudio Plit, I learned to differentiate the cold water from what is inside my body…even if my body is frozen. With each breath, heat enters my body which I retain. I see myself red from the heat. People don’t accept cold water. I accept it and think that the outside is cold but the water protects me. To achieve this I have always demanded 100% from myself in each workout. Water has always signified a place where I have a particular mental perceptiveness, an attentional state that I do not have when I am out of cold water.” This particular frame of mind and the mood state it ensues helps her to avoid the fear of cold water.
María Inés is fully convinced that the body registers and develops a memory through time. A memory of past competitions, years of training and life experiences. “A confidence is built based on all these physical experiences which later can be recalled. I can recognize water at any temperature. Cold water does not produce a feeling of ‘something unknown.’ The body integrates all the physical experiences as well as the mental elaboration that has taken place with regards to your personal experiences. The memory is an organization, not only isolated tracks. Fear occurs due to unknown scenarios or beliefs, for example the settlers of the Antarctic think that ‘man overboard is a dead man.’ This is not true for me...if you are prepared. Today I believe that to evoke is different than to visualize. Evocation is a corporal experience. I registered my experiences consciously and this helped me to be able to gain control. Whatever happens I register it.
“In those cold waters it is necessary to tolerate the first 3 minutes. At times there are headaches or pains in the limbs. In each practice I forced myself to analyze what was happening to me. All these years I have controlled what has happened to me. Visualization for me is the mental image of what is to come. The future. Ever since the idea began of going to the Antarctic, I began to see the place. What is the water like? It is not unknown. Evocation and visualization were joined in the Antarctic. Sometimes the athletes do not trust these two paths. When this is achieved, a very magical thing takes place. It is moment that contains something of the past, the present and the future. It is a lot of work for many years. In honor to the truth I really prepared myself.
“The Antarctic was much more dangerous. In Bariloche I swam at first at night in a river that joins the Ventisquero (a glacier). The water was calm. While swimming in the dark I could not see my movements and I had a feeling of being frozen. This prepared me for the Ventisquero which turned out to be direct contact with the sky. That was the lab. I already knew how to raise my body temperature having studied Eastern techniques, mental control, and other skills already mentioned. I elevated my body temperature to 39º C (102.2º Fahrenheit) before entering and it only fell to 37º C (98.6º F). It was fresh water; it was a very strange sensation because I did not feel my body. I just swam. It was swimming in total anesthesia. I felt a connection with the mountains, the Tronador Mountain, the sky, the ice wall, the Ventisquero Glacier, and the loose pieces of ice. I let myself go. I was in contact with the sky. I was more connected with these scenes than with the water. Actually, it seems that I swam too far away from the support team. Dr. Nestor Lentini (who was in charge of the team) was at a greater risk of a heart attack than I was, since he could not monitor neither my body temperature nor my heart rate! It was awesome, something transcendental. It was flow (January, 2006).
“Another experience was the Antarctic. You float better in salt water. In the Antarctic, before being lowered to a small boat, I prepared for 20 minutes doing smooth and asymmetric Yoga movements. I also stretched and meditated. I went down to the boat and I swallowed the sensor (Corp-Temp 2000) that registered the internal temperature. Antarctica is much more vertiginous, but we couldn’t wait any more time and I threw myself into the cold water because the climate was good. There I swam 20 minutes without a neoprene suit (that prevents hypothermia). Suddenly while I was swimming three seagulls appeared. They formed a circle above me and one left the flock and approached me. I had visual communication with the seagull! People generally do not allow themselves to experiences things like this.”
The physiological aspects of the Antarctic experience will be presented in 2007 at the American Association for Sports Medicine Conference. This project was possible thanks to the support of Claudio Morresi, Argentina’s Sports Secretary and Mariano Memoli, National Director of the Antarctic (02/06/06).
One of the most outstanding things about María Inés is the significance she finds to what she does: “Basically, everybody has something that they would like to be but they don’t dare. If there is one thing I would like, it is to help people open up their minds and to stop being so structured.”

Bridges, E. L. (1988). Uttermost part of the earth: Indians of Tierra del Fuego. New York: Dover


Patricia Wightman and Maria Ines Mato, CENARD