I wish this was a different post than the one I am writing now. It isn’t the one that I contemplated after completing my stages of 8 Bridges. I thought I would be writing about my difficulties being cold during Stage 1. The water was in the upper 60s and I didn’t think it would be an issue, but I hadn’t done much training in open water this spring. I learned from that mistake. Or about my DNF at Stage 2. The feeling of being cold the day before really got into my head and I could not find the mental strength to fight that day. I was convinced that I would never make the finish, so I basically demanded to get out. I wanted to be anywhere else but in the water that day. It was something that I had never felt during a swim and it scared me. Which isn’t exactly the best set up for the most difficult stage, which was a few days away. With a DNF in the front of my mind, I entered the water for Stage 5. I spent over nine hours battling mental demons and mother nature and have never been as happy to finish a swim in my life. I could have filled a blog with each of these experiences. Instead, I’ve spent the past few days thinking about the people that I’ve met through swimming, the reasons why I swim and the fragility of our human existence.
When I heard the news that a swimmer was lost during Stage 6 I was in disbelief. I thought it just couldn’t be possible…not with the amount of people watching each person and the constant radio contact between them. I know from Stage 1 that when there is even the slightest inkling that a swimmer might be in trouble, extra precautions are taken. After telling Alex that I was cold, but making the decision to keep going, I felt like a baby bird with all my guardians hovering closely. I even joked to Alex afterward that it was bit much to see them constantly circling me or riding nearby. He said it was for my safety. And that feeling of being protected never left me over the next few days on the water. I have never felt safer during a swim than I have at a NYOW event. As swimmers, we prepare ourselves physically for these events. The team at NYOW is renowned for their emphasis on safety. But there is only so much we can do to keep ourselves and each other safe, especially in an environment like the open water. It is fluid and unpredictable, a great big unknown, which is part of the reason why many of us are drawn to it daily.
In the back of our minds, we all know that what we do isn’t entirely “safe”. It took losing a swimmer to bring that home to me. People often ask me why I do these swims. I never really reflected on it much until now. I didn’t know Charles personally, but I did meet him briefly before Stage 5. As I applied sunblock to his back before the start, he casually mentioned that he was a doctor in Chapel Hill. Reading about him after his death made me sad that I never got to know this incredibly humble and wonderful person better. He was the kind of person I admire. He was someone that dedicated his life to helping others. There are not many people in this world that can go to work knowing they are going to do something good for another person. But for all the rewards of that chosen life, it is a hard job. As a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit, I know that firsthand. It is exhausting to give of yourself day after day. It is even harder to see your patients die. But the sacrifices and heartbreak are worth it, even on the most difficult days.
So, to cope with it all, I turn to the water. It helps me stay sane when I want to scream about the unfairness of life. It calms me when I leave work after trying to resuscitate a baby with my team. It gives me strength when I hear parents given the devastating news that their child has died. It might not be without risks, but it is my safe place and I would be a lesser person without its solace. So, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing knowing the risks are there. Life is so fleeting. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. But I am here today and there is a place I can go to help me feel more alive when all I want to do is shut down and go numb. And I’ll think of Charlie when I swim, knowing that he sought relief in the water, that he was the kind of person I could only hope to emulate in my professional life and that he will be greatly missed by many, not only in the marathon swimming community, but all over the world. We each swim for a different reason. Sometimes, those reasons are the things that keep us going each day. Without it, my life might be safer, but it sure wouldn’t be as rewarding or nearly as much fun. I’ll take my adventures in the unknown, with the opportunities it affords to see and experience the beauty of this world and the gift of meeting the most caring, innovative and kind people along the way…