I mentioned it when I did my May wrap-up, but one of the main reasons I picked up Lynne Cox’s memoir, Swimming to Antarctica, was because I was preparing to do my first open water swim in the coming weeks. Memoirs about swimming are just generally interesting to me since I am a competitive swimmer myself, but I thought this book would give me a different perspective than I was used to. I read it in early June, a solid week and half before I did my open water race.
I’ve been a pool swimmer for 12 years now, which is over half my life; being a swimmer is about 60% of my personal identity. However, it’s important to note that swimming in a pool and swimming in open water (lake, ocean, bay, etc.) are two completely different ball games. Add in the additional factors of sighting (ie, picking your head out of the water to see where you’re going), water temperature, currents, wildlife, out of water starts, and large groups of swimmers trying to get to the same place, and open water really becomes a madhouse. I’ve only ever done one open water swim before, and it was a far more informal experience, as well as significantly shorter. There were a lot of things to be nervous about. I am lucky enough that one of my teammates’ mom is a veteran open water swimmer and I was able to talk to her beforehand, but I needed a far more impersonal account to really help me get over what I was scared of.
That’s where Lynne comes in. First, a bit of background: Lynne Cox is one of the most famous open water swimmers in the world, mostly known for her long list of firsts in open water. She was the first woman to swim across the Cook Strait in New Zealand, the first person to swim across the Straits of Magellan in Chile, and the first person to swim around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Perhaps most impressively and what Swimming to Antarctica detailed most, Lynne swam in the Bering Strait from Alaska to the then-Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War, a feat that is often regarded as a step that helped end the Cold War. Finally, as the title suggests, Lynne swam over a mile in Antarctic waters. These were the things I needed to hear about before I swam my race.
For one, I have a pretty innate fear of sharks and generally being eaten (I once swam at a pool with a mural that had orcas on it, and even that freaked me out.) It was the first thing I had to overcome. Realistically, there was no way I was going to get eaten by a shark in the Chesapeake Bay, and I knew that, but sometimes it just doesn’t matter what makes logical sense. When she was planning her swim around the Cape of Good Hope, Lynne describes the fact that the biggest concern for the swim was the threat of sharks. Their solution was to have a boat equipped with harpoons follow her as she swam while keeping an eye on radars to be sure that there weren’t any threats. And, as the case may be, a shark did appear in the water as Lynne was finishing the swim. Her crew took care of it so quickly and subtly that she wasn’t even aware it had been there until she was out of the water.
Reading that put the Chesapeake into perspective for me. Here I was scared of being eaten by a shark where there weren’t any, and Lynne had swum in some of the most shark-infested waters and had no idea when her life was actually in danger. At first, I thought it would’ve scared me more to have read that, since clearly the people at my swim were not prepared for sharks. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they weren’t prepared for sharks because they didn’t need to be. Lynne’s crew always knew exactly what they should be ready to deal with, and so would the people in charge of my swim.
My other big concerns were the currents and chop (waves). Unfortunately, there was no way to know ahead of time what they would be like on the day of the swim, which meant I had to be prepared for anything. Like I said before, I went into this race with essentially no open water experience, which meant I had no experience dealing with currents and waves; it was completely up to me on race day to figure them out for myself. Lynne’s experience with the treacheries of open water made mine easier to manage. There were swims, like the end of one of her English Channel swims and parts of the Cook Strait, where she couldn’t physically make any forward progress. She had swum in some of the roughest waters in the world, and if I couldn’t handle a few waves for 4 miles, what was I doing?
Well, the reality was pretty funny. At the start of the race, the people in charge told us that the currents were going to push us in the right direction at the beginning and only push against us slightly at the end, while the chop wasn’t going to be bad at all. They were wrong. The chop never evened out, and the currents at the end of the race were way worse than they said. However, because I didn’t know anything about chop or currents or how relatively bad they could be, I spent the whole race thinking that what I was facing wasn’t bad. I was definitely struggling; the waves were substantial, and I had to constantly swim diagonally to not get pushed to the side. But I thought, “Well, they said it wasn’t going to be bad, so it must be that I just don’t know any better and this is the open water definition of calm water.” I was wrong. After the race, I overheard plenty of people saying that the water was the worst its ever been, and I heard from my teammate’s mom that her friends in the race (also very experienced open water swimmers) said it was rough and swam way slower than they usually do in that race. And while all that made me feel better about how hard I thought it was, I also knew that it could’ve been way worse.
The funniest thing about reading Swimming to Antarctica was how Lynne talked about using her long swims as a sort of meditation. I thought that was crazy. I’m a very experienced distance swimmer in the pool, but I can tell you that, for me, it never feels like meditation; I am completely aware of every second I’m in the water, and I feel every single motion. For me to read that Lynne could just tune out for several hours seemed ridiculous.
Until I did it too. Now, my race wasn’t nearly as long as some of hers, but I still swam nearly 4 and a half miles, which is pretty dang long (about 2/3 of the Olympic distance, which is a 10k). The bizarre thing: I understood what Lynne was saying about meditating. I was, undeniably, in the water for over 2 hours. Except it only felt like half an hour. I guess I got into such a good rhythm that I was able to zone out almost completely, which is unheard of for me to do while swimming. I thought Lynne was crazy for being able to do that, but now I think I at least partially understand. I fI hadn’t read that she does that during swims, I think I either would’ve freaked out that I did it or actually not have done it in the first place, which would’ve sucked. The less I focused on how hard the race was, the easier it seemed. Everything got so repetitive that it was hard to stay completely focused, and I definitely used the time to clear my mind a bit. I can only distinctly remember about 3 thoughts I had during the race that weren’t about the race itself:
- At about a third of the way through: “I hate this and am never doing it again.”
- Every 5 minutes, I would get scared of my shadow. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that the dark shape underneath me wasn’t an animal, and then I would keep forgetting and get scared all over again (it was a vicious cycle.)
- About 2/3 of the way through, I sang the entirety of “Africa” by Toto in my head, which was strange because, a) it was the most random song choice and, b) it was the only song I sang for the whole 2+ hours.
I know that was a pretty long post that wasn’t inherently bookish, but I wanted to share not only my experience trying something new, but also how a book actually helped me get through it. I think people often underestimate the power other people’s experiences can affect your own. I’ve read my fair share of memoirs and stories about people who I share interests with, but nothing has altered my worldview quite as much as Swimming to Antarctica has. I don’t want to make it seem like my own struggles and accomplishments are lessened because other people have been through worse or done more, but it was a nice change to have something to assuage my fears a little while reminding me that it could always be worse. It also allowed me to see that anything really is possible if I set my mind to it. For now, that’s doing 4.4 miles in the Chesapeake Bay in relatively rough water, but, one day, I may be able to cross a 21-mile swim across the English Channel off of my bucket list. And you know what? I think I can do it.