Vanquishing the Ghost of Catalina
2020 has been a rough year. Many are mourning friends and family whose lives the pandemic has claimed. The marathon swimming community lost Mindy Bowens—a most beautiful soul—earlier this year. We are also mourning our long swims and the camaraderie, let alone the challenges, that they bring along. Since the start of the pandemic, our friend Mark Spratt has been reminding us daily on his Facebook feed that ‘friendship knows no distance.’ I am grateful for such reminders and look forward to a time when we all can plan a swim with our team, complete the attempt, and raise a glass to the success of our adventures while remembering with love the people we’ve lost.
Last year I attempted a Catalina crossing that ended in failure. A head current and somewhat naïve cold-water preparation on my part resulted in the most embarrassing and expensive admission of defeat of my athletic life. It is just sport, you may think, but to me it is a sport that has changed my life for the better, a sport that allowed me to forgive myself for past mistakes and live life with a sense of inward kindness. I’m no stranger to failure, but this one got the best of me. I closed 2019 without any long swims to my name and so I looked at 2020 as a year for redemption. After all, I had an English Channel slot for September 2020.
As luck would have it, my right shoulder blew out in the latter part of 2019. A painful combination of severe tendinitis and bursitis meant months of rehab even if I could avoid surgery. Considering my prognosis, I asked my pilot to reschedule my English Channel slot. I started rehab in January 2020. Whenever I made significant progress, my mind toyed with the idea of a long, cold swim. Then the pandemic hit in March, thus causing municipalities to close public pools and beaches in Florida. My access to training had been cut off. Suddenly, a marathon swim wasn’t my biggest worry. It was actually swimming. The simple, pure, and unadulterated act of traversing water under one’s body’s own power, which for years I had taken for granted, was gone. As weeks turned into months, I struggled to keep up my spirits. I’d look at the camera feed from my local beach as a way to reassure myself that the ocean was still waiting for me. It was a dark day when the camera went down.
After months of closures, municipalities started reopening aquatic facilities under time and capacity restrictions. Blissful was that first jump into my swimming lane. My stroke felt awkward, but my heart rejoiced. Marathon swimmers spend countless hours training. Even though I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to resume swimming and for the promising recovery of my shoulder, the limited pool access demanded I give up on my redemption swim. In any case, events were being cancelled all over the country.
And so the ghost of Catalina continued to assail me until Blaik Ogle, the good ghost of Halloween present, invited cold-water swimmers to a small, socially-distant swim 13.5 miles down the Tennessee River in Knoxville. For the first time since the pandemic struck, I had a swimming event to look forward to. Blaik’s good will extended to my son, who would be piloting a swimmer for the very first time, something he’d been wanting to do for years. We were in.
With the ocean too warm (83-85°F, 28.3-29.4°C) and pools operating under restrictions, my average weekly yardage was about seventy percent of what I would’ve liked it to be. The diminished yardage didn’t worry me as much as the lack of cold-water preparation, which living in Florida has always been a challenge. The opportunity for a test swim came by invitation from Blaik to swim at Mead’s Quarry Lake at the Ijams Nature Center. I’ve never swum in a quarry! This one appears in the Register of Historical Places because it provided Tennessee marble for prominent buildings in Washington, D.C. and New York City. The water was fairly clear and at 67°F (19.4°C) felt very comfortable. Blaik expected a similar temperature for the river, so I felt my confidence renewed after a short swim.
Blaik named his Halloween Swim ‘Haunted Holston to Insane Asylum.’ The swim start is located off Holston River Park, which fronts a branch of the Holston that runs along the west side of Boyd Island. The river is narrow and secluded, with many branches hanging over the water. Blaik finds it creepy. The finish is at Lakeshore Park, whose grounds used to be the home to the East Tennessee Hospital for the Insane. Founded in 1886, the institution, renamed twice, operated for 127 years.
Eight swimmers and their kayakers readied themselves at Holston River Park the morning of the swim. I stood away from the happy group, alone with my thoughts. I even asked Blaik to start last in order to preserve my tenuous peace of mind. I’d woken up with the ghost of Catalina weighing heavily on my mind. My mood changed when I packed a most appropriate lucky charm a dear friend and fellow swimmer had given me. A shark’s tooth will scare anything away, even a powerful ghost. I stood on the boat ramp with water up to my thighs and conjured the power of the charm. You’re never too far down to come back up. In I went.
The branch of the Holston was a swift mover. With water in the mid-sixties, I swam a few fast strokes and quickly settled into a nice rhythm. At 14,000 cfs, the current made for a joyride under a tunnel created by low-hanging branches and a small private bridge to Boyd Island. Soon the branch of the river joined the main Holston and the sun kissed my back as I lay eyes on the railroad bridge at the confluence with the French Broad River. The colder flow from the French Broad was 16,000 cfs. Together, both rivers form the Tennessee River. The uncharacteristic combined flow of 30,000 cfs was the courtesy of Tropical Storm Zeta, a rainmaker which had raced over eastern Tennessee two days prior. The Tennessee Valley Authority was now releasing water from its two upstream dams, the Cherokee and the Douglas, making the inaugural Halloween Swim a swift one.
Once in the Tennessee, where the water was in the low sixties, I followed my son along the Goose Neck Shoals, not far from Mead’s Quarry Lake, towards the Downtown Island Airport. Despite the clear morning and lovely weather, dark thoughts of defeat returned to assail me. The noise of a small plane took me out of my reverie while spiny weeds wrapped around my ankles. I kicked hard to free myself and lo and behold, I spotted a paddlewheeler, the Star of Knoxville, cruising ahead of us toward the James White Parkway Bridge. Clearly all this urban distraction was the work of my charm. Better swim!
We flew past the next city bridges: Gay Street, Henley Street, and a railroad bridge. My son seemed to be enjoying his grand kayaking adventure. The Star of Knoxville passed us on our right as we cruised in front of the Thompson-Boling Arena. We passed another railroad bridge and my heart rejoiced at the thought that soon we’d be out of the city. We were making good progress. Just before the confluence with Third Creek, we were forced to move to the right as the paddlewheeler now headed upstream. Later my son told me the passengers had been cheering and taking photos every time the boat passed us. I had my fifteen minutes of fame and didn’t even notice!
As soon as we passed our last bridge, the Alcoa Highway’s, the feeling of a joyride was replaced with a sense of tranquility. We’d entered the meanders of Sequoyah Hills, a suburban neighborhood with beautiful, stately homes, and the Cherokee Bluffs. With less than a third of the distance left and no particular landmarks, my mind drifted into swimming mode. I thought about water, the rhythm of my stroke, bubbles, about finally completing a swim after Catalina. I noticed my son seemed uncomfortable in the kayak. He’d never complain, I thought, and he never did.
We continued cruising downriver past the Peter Blow Bend, where the river widens and slows down. Powerboats started cruising upstream, which forced us to approach the left riverbank. Soon we found ourselves mired in weeds and muck. My son lost his paddle, which he swiftly recovered. Arms and legs tangled in long, silky weeds, I couldn’t make headway. I tried to breaststroke, which caused me to sink in muck. Out of spite, I swam perpendicular to the shore and broke free, but another powerboat approached and its wake pushed us back in the weeds once more. My frustration increased. Pain pierced both my ears, a sign of my body temperature dropping. I told my son to look for a break in the boat traffic and to cut across to the opposite shore. We had less than a mile to go. I sprinted in an effort to keep by body temperature from further dropping. By the time we’d crossed the river, the ear pain had disappeared. My son spotted Lakeshore Park and the pontoon boat where Blaik and the volunteers waited. I was the last swimmer to come in.
I swam a few yards towards the Fourth Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant’s boat ramp and exited the water. The air temperature was 61°F (16.1°C). A volunteer helped my son get the gear out of the kayak while I untied my feed line so that another volunteer could tow the craft back to the pontoon boat. My clothes were not aboard the boat and understood someone in the group waiting at the park’s parking lot would have them. I left my swim cap on, donned my son’s lifejacket, grabbed his paddle to use it as a walking stick, and hurried down a hill and onto a walking path to the parking lot a third of a mile away. I walked fast on the grass—my feet were numb—and in the sun—to keep my body temperature from dropping too fast—under the bemused stares of families and dog walkers. I was comforted by the thought of breaking free from the ghost of Catalina after 13.5 miles of cold-water swimming in the company of a great kid and a shark tooth’s magic.
I reached the parking lot and upon asking happy swimmers dressed in warm clothes, mine were nowhere to be found. A parting gift from the ghost. Lana, a swimmer who three years ago saved my first swim in the Tennessee River, gladly rendered assistance once again. After a quick phone call, she located my clothes at Holston River Park, the swim start. By then I was shivering. My son handed me every piece of clothing he had in the car, turned up the heat, and like a knight in shining armor, drove me back to the hotel where I enjoyed a long and hot shower.
Later that evening, reunited with my clothes, my son and I celebrated at SoKno Taco Cantina with Blaik and the crew of swimmers, kayakers, and volunteers. I had dearly missed the company of our community. All my love to Blaik for providing, in the most challenging of years, an opportunity for camaraderie, teaming up with my son on our grandest adventure to date, and much needed accomplishment. I’ve come back up.