Fast girl in lane four,
I’d have said ‘hi’ if ever
our repeats lined up.
My college swim coach told me, as I stood in his Fort Lauderdale hotel room late at night, that I lacked commitment, that my generation lacked commitment. Coach Hayman felt it appropriate to give me this little spiel following my brief statement in which I told him I would not be sticking around for our winter training trip because I was quitting the team. That was 2004.
He was clearly the best, wisest, most inspirational, compassionate swim coach I ever had, and he was obviously completely correct. I lack commitment to swimming. Clearly.
Flash forward! In 2009, I wrote this email to my old age-group swim friends:
On 14 March 2009 01:16, A M <[email address redacted]> wrote:
Happy Pi Day. Remember to think circular thoughts today. Speaking of circular thoughts, would anyone be up for a really really long swim? I was thinking it could be super fun to take a few weeks off this summer and swim the 150 miles from Albany to the mouth of the Hudson. It would be more fun if there were other people doing it, I think. I am trying to figure out if it is possible to do in three weeks. The tides make it tricky. And since we are talking about open water swimming, I have found a nice little place to practice my open water swimming. One of the beaches near me has put in a 700m (approx) long buoy line to keep boats out. If you don’t mind boat fumes, hypersaline water, and a little bit of sewage, it is really pleasant. At least it will be until the jellies show up and the water boils under the desert’s summer sun.
In my original dream, it was a race. The rules were simple, that forward progress could only be made in the water, but you could land ashore and rest whenever needed (at least every six hours when the adverse currents began). The clock started when you stepped in at the Albany Yacht Club, and stopped when you stepped out under the Narrows Bridge.
Flash forward-er! Two years later, Rondi and Dave put together the first 8 Bridges swim (I did not know they existed at the time, they don’t owe me any credit). Four years after that, I’m signed up for a 120 mile swim from not-quite-Albany to the Narrows Bridge.
If only I were more committed to swimming.
“That looks fun,” I said to her as she returned to the wall.
The lady in the lane next to me was pushing a set of floaty dumbbells along the surface of the pool, and she had just spent the past four minutes or longer in shoulder deep water, feet on the bottom, face down, arms outstretched, spinning. And for the past four minutes or longer, I’d been watching her.
It was a ten past eight o’clock on a Tuesday night, and the last 100 yards of my 7,000 yard workout were eluding me. Somewhere over the past two hours, and past two weeks, I ended up on that downslope of the emotional rollercoaster. As I stood at the wall after a long, slow, tedious 6,900 yards with no desire to go any farther, something about this spinning lady entranced me.
What is was about her slow rotation, bright green cap, and uncustomary movements that caught and held my eye I cannot say. Spinning must have been for her either a workout, or something she really enjoyed doing, or both, because why else would she do it? Why was I doing what I was doing? Was it for any of those reasons?
“Well, you know,” she replied. Conversations with strangers are rarely begun by me, but watching her had really intrigued me. She added, “You must be more of a competitive swimmer.”
“Yeah,” I said in a tone that must have expressed what I was feeling right then about my own swimming, which was nothing positive.
“It get’s old after a while,” I offered. Not the direction I meant to take the conversation. I just wanted to know about her spinning.
“Well, as long as you’re competing against yourself, always setting the bar higher, that’s what matter.” Normally, this would be that little nugget of wisdom you hang onto and cherish forever. But no, goddammit, I was clearly set on being a miserable human.
“Unless you set the bar too high.” She asked what was too high, and I told her how far I’d swum tonight.
It was the second time I’d thought about this during my workout. New York State’s motto is Excelsior, or Ever Upward. The sad truth about this is, it is impossible to go Ever Upward. Everything has limits. Read a Stephen Jay Gould book, he’ll tell you. And what are my limits? Sure I can go farther Upward, but do I want to? Is it a good idea? Is it safe?
“That’s a lot,” she replied. “Well, my workout is nineteen laps, but it usually stretches out to twenty-one.” Then, something unexpected. “Because at that point my suit usually starts to fall apart. It’s an old suit. Some things take priority, you know.”
We laughed. Thank you spinning lady in the bright green cap. You just cheered me up a little.
One hundred yards to go, and then there is a Cadbury Creme Egg waiting for me in the car.
One can only take so much heartbreak and disappointment before something needs to change.
Look at a map of Seattle and the first thing you will notice is that there is a lot of water. Even to the non-swimmer, the prevalence of water is obvious. Seattle is a maze of salt water, fresh water, peninsulas, islands, rivers, capes, bays, and inlets. Water surrounds and creates everyday life here (ask a Seattler to go to the Eastside and see what they say). Shipbuilders, chandlers, and fisheries coexist alongside the art, music, restaurants, and bars one associates with this town. It is a great place to be a swimmer.
It is because of the seemingly endless reaches of water that a swimmer cannot help but dream up new swims. The number of feasible swims between landmarks in the three to ten kilometer range is shockingly large. Just looking off Alki Beach, the possibilities are huge: 3.4k to downtown, 5k to Magnolia, 5 miles to Blake Island, 4k to Vashon Island, 6 miles to Bainbridge Island, and so on. All I’d need to get there, to any of these places, is a boat and pilot to get me across the channels.
So far, no luck. In the winter, it seems everyone winterizes their boat. Why they do is a mystery to me, when the weather stays so warm all year long. But they do. Puget Soundkeeper isn’t into the idea of swim escort, and I don’t have enough free time to persuade them it is in their best interest (what with the training, work, sleeping, and eating I’ve got scheduled). I also don’t have the time to meet every boat owner in Seattle to see if they’d be game for escorting me around in the cold for several hours. How do you even begin that conversation?
Two months ago, with a trip to Baltimore just a week away, I gave notice that I’d like to try an ice mile in Baltimore Harbor. Wary though they may have been, local swimmers quickly said they were willing to help on short notice, and even lend a kayak or two. But being a novice to ice swimming, and knowing that Baltimore’s urban waterfront is not easily accessible, I wanted a powerboat by my side. Good luck finding one of those when the air is 15 degrees and the water 37. That’s where this attempt ended, with no boat and no swim.
I am sure I’m not the only one in the northwest thinking this, that there needs to be a boat so I can do long, unorganized swims. An Agent Orange, but maybe not so fancy.
On a rainy Saturday in early March. I left my usual post-swim seat in front of the Tully’s fireplace, where Jeffery was telling us about his boss’s extravagant birthday trip to Patagonia, and Maria again kindly entertained my ignorant questions about summiting Mount Rainier, and headed north. Through the intensifying rain, I sped along in my New York manner over the Alaskan Way Viaduct, with its view of Elliot Bay and the downtown waterfront, and into Ballard, where offshore commercial fishing boats in for repairs and outfitting make up the skyline. I stopped at the Market Arms pub and had a drink in the back, trying to block out the noise of the Sounders game being aired, and made a few calls to be sure this was a good idea. No one answered, but I already knew it was. After just one drink I headed a few doors over to Ballard Inflatable Boats and gave Ed a check for my new boat.
Before I left the shop, Ed told me, “Your summer plans just got very different.” Yeah they did.
When my doctor says I should watch my diet, do some extra tests, and monitor my blood pressure on a regular basis, I don’t disagree with her, but I also don’t do what she says. Health problems seem so far in the future. Plus, I workout regularly, so I must be pretty healthy.
When my dentist points to an x-ray and tells me I need to see a specialist because my jaw in in the process of falling off, I believe him because I can see and feel exactly what he means. But bones and teeth are a pretty abstract concept to me, and I have trouble seeing the urgency in getting things looked at that seem so durable.
But when my shoulder twinges midway through my workout on Thursday night, I am on the phone that night with multiple PTs looking for the next appointment. Not just the guy I usually see, but any recommendations I’ve gotten from friends recently. Because if one thing scares me more than getting hit by a boat, it is chronic shoulder problems. I’m sure I can swim without teeth, but I cannot swim without shoulders.