Article image

by Carolyn Wood

November 4, 2018

After winning a gold medal in the pool in 1960, Carolyn Wood found that open water swimming can be enjoyable

As I walk to the dock where Portland’s “River Huggers,” the Willamette River swimmers, gather daily to swim across the river under the Hawthorne Bridge, second thoughts crowd against third and fourth. The chilly air on this early Wednesday morning in August brings back memories of early morning workouts at Jantzen Beach, the 55-yard Portland pool where I trained in 1959 and 1960 to prepare for outdoor nationals and Olympic Trials.

I’m meeting Judy Rees, a teammate from “way back when” who has agreed to join me for the half-mile swim. It’s our first time. At 6:30 a.m., she and I are the only swimmers on the dock. We watch the water, gray-green and murky, flow through the bridge pylons. Wind muffles a coxswain’s shouts from a crew upriver.

“I couldn’t get to sleep last night,” I confess, hoping now to quell the butterflies in my stomach. “Me either,” says Judy. “My cat slept with me for the first time in months. He sensed my nerves.” Neither of us has seriously trained or competed in swimming for more than 55 years.

Back in the days when we raced, Judy and I racked up thousands of yards each week in pools. For this adventure, we’d trained in water aerobics and did a couple of 1,000- yard swims in a pool. But a pool is not a river. I worry that the water will be too cold, the pace too fast, the distance too far. What if we can’t see where we’re going? What if my legs cramp up in the middle? We look across the river and shiver under our towels. Aloud, we try to reassure each other. “It doesn’t look that far, does it?”

By 7:00, almost 30 swimmers are assembled and ready. We’ve had our safety talk, found a “swim buddy” to check in with on the other side, strapped on red buoys, and donned florescent green caps and goggles. “Ready, jump,” someone orders as the rescue kayaks head upstream to escort us under the bridge and to the now seemingly far-off western shore. Judy and I leap with the others and—surprise! The water temperature feels as warm as a pool. The clot of swimmers keeps me from my initial impulse to sprint and within minutes my stroke lengthens and evens, my head high enough to spot the green caps and red buoys ahead. Upriver boats from the rowing club glide along and beyond them the sky brightens with sunrise. It’s beautiful out in the open water, so different from the indoor pool where I’ve been practicing. No need to count laps or check times. There’s a freedom out here.

We stroke against a gentle current, but without a clock I’m not sure for how long. Ahead, boats in a moorage and office buildings beyond edge incrementally closer. The faster swimmers, those younger triathletes and open water regulars, are standing neck deep in the river, waiting for the rest of the pod to land. We gather on the rocky western shore until every swimmer arrives and checks in with his or her “buddy.”

“See the ramp? Keep steady toward that on the way back. We’ve got current and tide and wind,” my buddy says before she plunges in for the next lap.

“Follow the black line and finish hard to the wall,” my first coach drilled into us. But out on the Willamette, the rules seem to be: Keep your eye on the shore, stretch out, and enjoy the swim. And I do. Whether pushed along by current or tide or a realization that I’m going to make it, the return trip seems half as long.

“We did it!” Judy and I tell each other and then high five on the dock and watch the regulars shove off for a second crossing. My legs are a little wonky and my arms tingle a bit, but I feel exuberant, as if I’ve conquered some great obstacle. It’s not the Olympics, but a small test. More than exercising muscles, we’ve pushed against fear and uncertainty, one way to inoculate against stress and build resilience, says Dennis S. Charney, dean of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and co-author of the book “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.”

This summer in Portland, more than 250 swimmers have made the river crossing, many regularly since June. What a great privilege to join them and begin enjoying the river that flows through our city, its changing currents, tides, and temperatures. For those of you looking for a new adventure, let me recommend an open water swim. What a difference from steamy pool basements, close-walled echoes, and eau de chlorine. You might find yourself rejuvenated.

“Let’s come back next week and do it again,” Judy and I say as we leave the river in search of breakfast out, our reward for meeting the morning challenge. We do, and we’re going to keep going back. There’s no room for second thoughts.


  • Open Water


  • Open Water