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The Making of an Open Water Swimmer

by Laura S. Jones

Six years ago I was standing at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay just after dawn on a cloudy morning in June, so nervous I thought I would throw up or pass out or both. The only question was the order in which my body’s betrayals would arrive. No, nervous isn’t the right word; nerves are for exams or speeches or meeting the in-laws. I was terrified. The opposite shore was so far away I couldn’t see it. The deep water was dark and threatening, covered in whitecaps, and undoubtedly filled with jellyfish and other creatures more at home there than me. But I fought the fear with everything in me. I had prepared for this day, I told myself; I was ready. So when the gun went off, I ran into the water along with the other 300 swimmers in my heat and began the 4.4-mile journey to the other side.

Open water racing is not something you do on the spur of the moment like quitting your job or jumping off the high dive or flying to Vegas to get married. It requires a commitment to an amount of training and practice unknown in most other activities. But swimming is also an elemental sport. You don’t need special clothes other than about half a yard of Lycra. You don’t wear shoes or other gear. So it should be simple, but you’re doing something that the tiniest fish does far better than you in an environment that can kill you. My decision to run into the water that day was the last in a nearly endless series of decisions I never thought I’d make. And not just me. When I told my mother what I was planning to do at age 39, she said “But no one in our family is athletic.” Or something to that effect. And when she saw my old gym teacher at the grocery store and told her of my upcoming swim, Mrs. Hardaker’s response was, “Laura???” So I didn’t exactly have an army of believers behind me. But I did have Rob, my husband, and he never doubted me even though he knew exactly how hard it was.

For three years I travelled to that beach and helped Rob, who swam in college, get ready for what is legitimately called the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. I made him breakfast and drove the car and held his bag. Then, a few days after his third year of swimming the race, my soul tapped me on the shoulder and whispered: "Psssst. Hey lady. (Tap, tap, tap) Pssst. Don’t you wanna try it?" (Yeah, my soul has a little bit of a shifty, back alley New Jersey accent. What can you do?) I didn’t grow up swimming, didn’t hang out at the pool, wasn’t on the swim team. Water was something to look at, preferably from the deck of a nice hotel. I was not a natural.

Back to the beach. We were divided into two heats; the faster swimmers, including Rob, started in the second heat. Standing with me that morning were 296 other normal looking people plus a woman in a wheelchair, a man with one leg and a dwarf. As we were massing at the start, cars on the bridge stopped and honked, creating a traffic jam we learned about later. We must have looked pretty funny, all 300 of us at the water’s edge. When the gun went off, we charged into the water.

The conditions vary from year to year for this race, meaning that each year it is terribly hard for a different reason. Some years the water is cold or the current is particularly strong. This year, the surface chop was so heavy and unrelenting that it didn’t just slap you, it picked you up and body slammed you. The waves were two to three feet tall. Sometimes it felt more like surfing than swimming. I got seasick, and my tongue swelled from the salt water. Breathing was an occasional thing. Sometimes I would turn my head to breathe and face a wall of water. It was scary at first, but then it became just something to deal with. About halfway across, I ran into a log which scared the daylights out of me. My right shoulder started to hurt. Then my left shoulder started to hurt. My back ached with the constancy of the effort. But I kept going. I beat my own desire to quit.

Crawling out on the other side, I stumbled over the timing mat and through the chute into a sea of other finishers. I was now a member of a special club. I had never been part of anything that felt so real in my life, never been a part of anything that was so hard. What I loved at that moment was not the singularity of what I had done, but the commonness. Hundreds of other people had just done this thing with me. About half were faster than me, and half were slower. But only a few cared about finishing time, and no one cared about looks. We all just wanted to talk about what we shared: the harsh conditions, the missing buoy at Mile 3, the nausea, the fact that we showed up and did it.

As difficult and wonderful as the race was, it started to dawn on me a few weeks later that the real lesson was not in race day, it was in the training. The five year-long slog of preparing my body and mind to tackle such a demanding challenge. Through illness and injuries and overtime work and family pressures, I went to the pool. I started as a dog paddler and ended up a swimmer. Some days I swam better than I did before, and some days I swam worse. I cried in the pool. I fought with my husband who was trying his best to coach me. And I kept showing up. That was my lesson: if you keep showing up, eventually you’ll be able to do it. And it’s not just because your body gets stronger, it’s because your mind does too.  

David Sedaris apparently once said: “Weird doors open. People fall into things.” Boy, does he have it right; who knows why my little voice spoke up or why I listened to it and started swimming? But I am glad I did.

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