Can you remember the exact moment when you started loving open water swimming? Can you remember the place?
I grew up on an island. Standing up atop the hill where my parents lived, one could enjoy a lovely view. To the north: the ocean. To the south: a creek, a green mountain, and the blue rainforest. Clouds crowned the highest peaks on most days. Frigatebirds drifted high in the sky, usually the harbingers of bad weather.
My father used to take the family to the beach, but I cannot remember when he started doing so. It was something he did. I loved the water, its saltiness and the shimmering bits of sun on its surface. I loved playing hide and seek with the waves. I loved the mangrove at the east end of the beach, with its thousands of fiddler crabs. I loved the forest of palm trees I used to run through, jumping over coconuts, to get to the beach in order to build sandcastles with moats that would be swallowed by the surf. I loved to look for shells on the sand. But most of all, I loved to see my father swim. I don’t know where he learned or how or who taught him. He was a great swimmer. He used to tell me, “See that buoy? I’ll swim to it, touch it, and return.” He’d smile and set off—no goggles, only swim trunks—on what seemed to me a grand adventure with a small audience. I stood at the beach watching him. His figure would shrink as he steadily cut through the waves in a straight line toward his destination. As he swum out to sea, I would think that I wanted to be able to swim to the buoy and touch it, too, but I didn’t know how. He wouldn’t teach me. That was not something he did.
It took a near tragedy for my parents to enroll me in swimming lessons. I must’ve been nine years-old. Apparently my backstroke was good enough for me to be included in the age-group swim team. I made it to my first meet and though my name was on the psych sheet, the coach had another girl swim under my name. Disillusioned, I quit because nine year-olds don’t know how to deal with cheats. Since age-group swim teams didn’t abound in my island, for years I thought my swimming ‘career’ was over. My love for the ocean never wavered, though.
My life continued its happy twists and tortured turns and I eventually found myself on a peninsula with many a pool. At the time, I desperately needed to feel better about myself, so the obvious choice was to do something positive: I would pick up swimming where I had left off thirty years before. First step: buy a gym membership and a training suit. What followed was a defining moment in my life. I showed up at the gym’s pool with the goal of swimming ten laps. The modesty of that goal is sobering. I took off and when I finally reached the far end, I stopped, completely out of breath. I cried. Thankfully, I was alone. I told myself there was no way I was leaving without swimming my ten laps. So I composed myself and carried on.
That was in 2009. In 2012, I mustered my courage and signed up for Masters because I had registered for a half-iron aquabike (1.2-mi swim, 56-mi bike) and I needed help in figuring out how to swim the distance in a lake. Signing up for Masters was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My life has been enriched with wonderful coaches who have tinkered with my stroke, challenged me to try new things (fly!), encouraged me when swims haven’t gone so well, believed in me when I didn’t, and made me curse Fast Friday in order to help me become a better swimmer. And Masters has given me opportunity to make so many friends! Lovely people to chase and be chased by, to chat with during the rest portion of the intervals, people who’ve happily shared what they’ve learned and who’ve included me in their wicked swimming adventures.
Tomorrow I’ll be attempting my first marathon swim, the Swim Miami 10K. Very present in my mind is the injury that caused me to bail out of four races and which ended my triathlon career, not as much because of its seriousness, but because I made the decision that I won’t beat up my body doing something I don’t like (running). I’d rather honor my body–as my lovely yoga instructor Terri says–and do what I really love (swimming). Also present in my mind are the visit to the ambulance at the end of GCBS due to heat injury and the DNF at the Pompano 5K due to high water temperature. My body doesn’t handle well the heat. And since Miami is a *hot* city (caliente!), I get water temperature at 82F and air temperature between 72F and 78F. Cloudcover is in my favor, though. This time, I have a well thought hydration plan that Coach CJ helped me put together.
So while I stand at the beach tomorrow morning waiting for the air horn blast, I’ll be thinking of the coaches and friends who have helped me get to the point where I can make this attempt, of my kids, who listen to my swimming stories every day, and my sister, who thinks I’m the coolest sister ever because I swim in the ocean (luv u, sis!). And I’ll inevitably be thinking of my father swimming out in the ocean to a buoy far away.