Swimming in the shadow of the clouds and…

At 15.7 miles, Stage 6 down the Hudson River was to be the longest swim yet in my open water career, which started on a dare in 2011 from a triathlete friend. I have done quite a few races over the years, with the previous longest being a Little Red Lighthouse Swim that was just over 6 miles (modified at the last minute to be longer than usual). Once accepted into the Stage 6 lineup, I was excited and nervous and aimed to be as prepared as I could. I had taken a swim clinic from Swim Smooth in January 2018 and eventually adapted one of their training plans in the lead-up to June 2019. I did much research (Marathon Swimmers Federation, swimmers’ blogs like Lone Swimmer) prior to registering, and I asked many questions of friends and acquaintances who had done long swims (nutrition, Desitin vs sunscreen, Channel grease, how best to taper, pretty much everything it would take to finish a 4-5 hour swim). Plenty of my friends thought I was too worried and overtraining, that Stage 6 was definitely in my wheelhouse and I had nothing to worry about. But I wanted to be prepared for the worst of conditions, just in case. I had a really terrific training season from January to June, fitting in swimming between working full time as a professor at NYU School of Medicine, co-parenting two kids with my husband, and declining any work travel while we also planned our younger son’s bar mitzvah for late May. I had somewhat regular massages from a new massage therapist who could read my body, including my lupus and connective tissue disorder, which I knew I had to manage wisely during the intense training.

I felt as prepared as I needed to be when the morning of June 14, 2019, arrived. I had tapered and felt energized, nervous, excited. I met a few fellow Stage 6 swimmers, including one Charlie van der Horst, whose work was in a similar field as mine and whom I’d followed on social media, as he was friends with many of my swimpals. We had a sincere and meaningful conversation especially about his frustration with the previous day during Stage 5. He was so genuine and honest; I was touched by his vulnerability. And I looked forward to talking more after the race at the 8 Bridges dinner.

The day looked beautiful, yet I could tell the wind might be an issue. We jumped into the Hudson under the new, beautiful Cuomo Bridge in Tarrytown and started to swim at 10:30am. I couldn’t believe I was doing it, that I had set my mind to a training plan, stuck to it, and now found myself ready for over 15 miles of swimming. The water temperature was in the high 60s, as I’d expected. Pretty quickly we could feel the wind from the West. For the entire race, we had the most mixed-up conditions we could imagine, the “multi-pack”, I named it with my expert kayaker, Richard Clifford. We had winds from the West that gusted wildly, knocking me first and then walloping Richard. I smiled and hooted and hollered and enjoyed the tremendous bumps. I struggled a bit with the feedings, as the wind would bring a wave and make it hard to drink from the bottle, but I succeeded well enough for a first time feeding from a kayak. While swimming, I accidentally drank a fair amount of the Hudson, and I found it quite sweet. At some point, the winds turned and came up the river from the South, wind against the current that made for continued difficult conditions. For at least an hour during the swim, I felt like it was longer than I wanted to be fighting the waves, chop, wind. I wasn’t enjoying myself and the only good thing in those moments was the swift current taking us downstream. We were flying, even when the winds were across or against our course. I loved the beauty of the Palisades, steep cliffs along the river’s edge. And I watched the magnificent, puffy clouds, looking for identifiable formations – was that a smiley face, a bird, or what else could I find? We had rain showers along the way and bits of sun poking through every so often, truly a mixed bag. I would remind myself how much it took for me to get there, and I would smile in amazement and joy.

In the last 20-30 minutes, at Richard’s urging, I pushed my pace and for the first time noticed a little cold in my toes. I finally crossed the south end of the George Washington Bridge and let out a big “woohoo!” just as I had done at the start. I was so proud of finishing. It was an unbelievable high. Richard got me over to the jetski, and I kept my head down for a wild ride over to the Solaris boat, where I got dressed and warmed with help of the terrific volunteers, and waited for others to finish. After 4 hours and 10 minutes, I was the fifth to complete the race! I was just glad to finish.

Several of us were chatting away on the boat when at some point there was talk of an emergency; it got very quiet and confusing. Was it a false alarm? Why were the NYPD boats near the bridge and helicopter overhead? Had they been there all along? Yes, they must have been there since crossing the New York City line in the river. Was it a news ‘copter? But what about all those ambulances on shore near the Little Red Lighthouse? We kept assuming it was nothing and talking ourselves out of the possibility of a worst-case scenario. Everyone in the race had trained so much, nothing could go wrong beyond maybe some hypothermia. With more and more finishers and additional waiting, some of us started wondering where Charlie was, and then why was the Solaris heading up river without Charlie. But then we passed someone still swimming south, and I assumed it was Charlie and all was well; they must be waiting separately with another smaller boat, but wanted to get us to shore.

Everyone now knows how it turned out. Pure tragedy. I will say I am appreciative and so grateful that the New York Open Water directors were mum while we were on the boat, left us to chit chat anxiety-free and reminisce about our swim experiences, for some a first at that distance, and for others just a little blip in their extended swim histories. Yet finding out that Charlie had slipped under and so quickly was a complete shock. It made me sick to my stomach when I heard the truth during dinner. There was no false alarm. There really was an emergency situation, and it was terribly heartbreaking. It is such a tremendous loss to the public health field, to the swimming world, and to Charlie’s family and friends. I was grateful I had a small yet meaningful conversation with him. And I was so sorry I didn’t get to continue it after our amazing swim in brutal conditions. Charlie’s death has plagued me (as I’m sure many others), sending me into bouts of shock and sorrow, followed by a flip-flop into the acknowledgement and recognition of the enormity and delight of my accomplishment.

I will try to focus on the high I felt after finishing, because it brings a real smile to my face, true joy. I can’t believe I did it. And I need to focus on that, while being mindful of the truth of that beyond-bittersweet afternoon, in order to keep moving forward in my own swim career, wherever that takes me.

p.s. Thank you to all my swimpals who were there with me for Stage 6, especially Jennifer, and to Richard for being the River Whisperer and guiding me expertly down the Hudson.