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First Saturday in June: Memories, Water, and Me

by Lyra Halprin

“It looks kinda cold,” I say to the 20-ish young man who reminds me of my son as we survey the water from the lake’s edge. “I may not do the two-mile if it’s too cold.”

“Oh, naw, it’s not bad,” he says, his foot in the mud-tinged water edge of Lake Berryessa. “I’m sure you can do it. Did you hear them say it was 70 degrees?”

The air is sparkling, and the sun is warming the lakes and reservoirs around California. Apricots and cherries are being picked in the orchards near Lake Berryessa, a little more than an hour east of San Francisco. The Lake Berryessa Swim is the second stop in the H20 Open Series.

[The 2011 H2Open Series features four premier open water swim events: Jim McDonnell Lake Swims, Reston Va. - May 28-29; Lake Berryessa Swim, Lake Berryessa Calif. - June 4; Big Shoulders, Chicago Il. - September 10; Tropical Splash, Sarasota Fla. - October 1.]

“70 degrees! You’re kidding!” I say to the young man, hearing the relief in my own voice.

“No, and I know you can do it,” he says again, smiling.

My foot slides out of the beat-up Birkenstock sandal, over the small rocks, and dips into the water.

“Wow, it’s not bad,” I say. His cheerful face and confidence in my ability, a middle-aged stranger, is the last piece of information I need to get ready.

Lyra Halprin and her father

It helps that my dad, who loved swimming in pools, and treasured swims in oceans and rivers, introduced me to the water. And like every one of the 21 annual swims I have done at Berryessa, I feel a familiar bitter-sweetness as I think of him. My father died of a heart attack while swimming in a pool on this same weekend 35 years ago. He was only 56. His death was unexpected, but rather than scare me away from swimming, it led to more and more swims. It’s in the water that I feel closest to him.

This year I’m excited to age up to the 60+ group the day before the swim. And I know my dad would understand my thrill and cheer me on. From being the oldest last year in the 55-59-year-old women’s division, I’ll be the youngest in the 60-64-year-old group. These small increments allow more of us to feel the pride of winning our age group. One year I participated in a postal swim coordinated by a masters team in the Midwest. I came in third nationally, and don’t always tell friends that there were only four women in my age group!

I do know that I’m prepared for today’s two-mile swim. My prep started when I joined a local masters swim group at age 35 and brushed aside embarrassment at not being fast, at never having been on a swim team or competed in meets, at being someone who never mastered flip-turns like Michael Phelps or Janet Evans. Not me.

I learned to swim in an apartment swimming pool and at a city summer program in the Los Angeles-area beach town of Santa Monica. We lived in the city during the school year so my mother, a musician, could perform and teach. That’s where I grew to love swimming with my dad in the Pacific Ocean. He loved swimming beyond the waves where he could see dolphin pods and whales. In the summer and harvest seasons we were on our farm in Yuba City in Northern California and we swam in the Feather River that flowed nearby.

Years later I got my “swim fix” at the pool in the housing development my husband and I moved to as newlyweds in Davis, Calif. I plodded away at laps in a pool we all built that was heated by prototype solar collectors. At a reception for the town’s first rabbi, I met the swim coach for the local masters team. When he found out I liked to swim, he invited me to come to a trial workout at the old city pool. I think he was shocked when I showed up the next day. A freelance writer and stay-at-home mom at the time, I had called every person I knew to find a babysitter in the middle of the day for my 2-year-old.

It’s been 25 years since that first workout, and I’ve outlasted six coaches. I swam during my entire career as a public information writer at the University of California. I swam through two Clinton terms, both Bush presidencies and enjoyed the workout after a wild day of get-out-the-vote for Obama. I befriended an assistant coach with type 1 diabetes when my daughter was diagnosed with type 1 at age 16. I swam through family crises, joyful graduations, and grief. I have taken more showers with swim mates than I have in my own home.

I enjoy looking up at the sky when I’m swimming at Berryessa, but mostly I look at my hands as I stroke, or watch other swimmers’ feet underwater. I occasionally raise my head to sight on a buoy or a swimmer near me as I make my way around Goat Island, home to nesting osprey and even a few bald eagles.

Sometimes I try to spot my husband Alan who brings our waterski boat to assist with water safety, but the one time I waved to him, a vigilant canoe-rowing safety team member paddled over and asked if I needed to be rescued. Alan patiently waits on the boat with our border collie, and sometimes one of our grown children accompanies him. He and the other members of the water safety crew keep us safe. He occasionally transports shivering or leg-cramped swimmers back to shore, and is always ready to block other boaters mistakenly heading toward swimmers.

In a total of 16 heats for two-mile, one-mile, and 500-yard swims, more than 1,000 swimmers as old as 90 and as young as eight or so plunge into the lake and enjoy the sun and water of this beautiful open water swim.

In spite of 70-degree water, it takes me my usual five minutes to stop doing the breaststroke and put my face in the water, but after that it is exhilarating. Past the edge of the lake and the thrashing mass of swimmers at the start, the water is a unique Berryessa turquoise, the sky is blue blue blue, and the dusty oak trees appear green from the water’s reflection.

I love the rhythm I reach somewhere in the first long stretch before the two-mile course curves around Goat Island. I am comforted and pleased by my regular breathing. It’s then that I think about Dad, and how he would have enjoyed swimming this with me. I imagine us taking turns following each other’s feet through the murky beauty of the water, and think about how we would compare notes on the conditions this year.  And when I step out onto the concrete boat ramp covered with rubber matting that doubles as the finish line and my wobbly legs hurdle me past the electronic device that records my time, my smile is as wide as the final balloon arch. Berryessa, me, first Saturday in June. It’s a family tradition.

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