Why Do I Swim Today?

This morning, Friday, June 20, I will enter the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York, with nine other swimmers attempting to swim 13.2 miles (as the crow flies, not as the swimmer swims) to Beacon, New York. It’s Stage 3 of 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim, which is an eight-day, seven-stage swim totaling 120 miles from the Catskills to New York Harbor. It’s put on by the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers (CIBBOWS) and is in its fourth year.

In addition to being a marathon open-water swim event, it is also designed to raise funds and awareness for Riverkeepers Hudson River Water Quality Testing Program (no, we are not human test tubes) and Launch 5 Hudson River Environmental and Safety Foundation.  So I’m privileged to be doing something super challenging and for two great causes.

But why me today?

I’m an “athlete,” sure, in the sense that many of my fifty-something friends are “athletes.” Fifty may be the new forty, but to race directors and organizers of every sport across America, it’s like a 0% interest loan from the Federal Reserve; guaranteed money in the bank. A forty-something I know captured the spirit perfectly several weeks ago as we were cycling in the Black Bear Triathlon: “So this is what you decided to do to celebrate turning fifty?” He was able to make this slightly snide remark because I had my age marked on my right calf, part of the triathlon race rituals, my own scarlet letter screaming to all who I was and what I was about.

But swimming, especially marathon open-water swimming, is a small, almost hidden corner of the athletic universe. No waiting for lottery results to see if you and 39,999 of your closest friends will get the privilege to run the <insert your favorite city here> Marathon. So this has the cachet of being a small, unique event as well as a real head-scratcher to most folks you tell about it.

I swam Tuesday night before the 8 Bridges swim with a local group of mostly triathletes, in the Schuylkill River just north of Philadelphia. A number of my companions were fantastically fit twenty- and thirty-year-old athletes who think nothing of training for a 140.6 mile Ironman. But tell them you’re about to embark on a thirteen-mile swim and they step back and get dizzy telling you how nuts that sounds (sort of like the Group W bench in Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant). So being able to stop an amazing athlete in their tracks as they praise you for being some sort of superhuman freak of nature is pretty sweet.

But that isn’t really it either.

I’m a broken human being. Full of flaws, I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of. For the last thirteen months I’ve dealt with that head on. That makes me just human, I know, but we all experience our broken selves as a singularity; a lone, isolated event with a unique sense of isolation and despair.

Turns out, like dirty rivers, we can be healed, even a knucklehead like me. It just requires a little perspective, and practice and learning to, sometimes, just live in the moment. I often mocked this type of bumper-sticker philosophy (very common in my sometimes crunchy granola neighborhood of Mt Airy). How could I possibly live in the moment, and ignore “the facts” of my own life?

Being broken down, sick and tired, and a little desperate turns out to be powerful medicine. It humbled me and opened up my mind, slowly, when I allowed it, to give me some perspective.

Perspective like this . . .

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Earthrise from the surface of the moon

Swimming in open water gives you fantastic perspective. You’re immediately small and not fully in command at the beach, on a lakeshore or a riverbank.

My earliest swimming memories are from Harvey’s Lake, Pennsylvania, where my grandparents had a summer home. I learned to swim in that lake at Sandy Bottom beach (now some fancy private facility) and on the dock of my grandparents’ second summer house. I loved swimming from that dock. Down the steep hill from the house to the road, and down some more to the lake and dock house I’d run every morning. At the end of the dock, the lake opened up to what seemed like another world on the other side (even though I had driven around and past that spot many times). It was probably less than a mile, but it seemed like a much greater distance.

It would always take me a few days to get comfortable swimming in the lake. The water changed temperatures it seemed for no reason. It was clear to about eight feet nearest the dock, but then dark and scary. There were living, breathing things in the water, which sometimes touched my feet and legs and gave me a jolt of fear. But slowly I’d find myself in the water. Each day I could venture a little farther out, until my grandmother, aunts, and uncles would yell to me that I had gone too far, to be careful. That was the sweet spot, the special place, looking back at their miniaturized figures on the dock, voices echoing on the water.

I swam a lot after that and then I stopped. Some of those swims in between were in open water, rivers, lakes, and streams and were just for fun. But swimming became a sport and was done mostly in a twenty-five-yard pool with crystal-clear water. I loved being a part of my swim club, high school, and college teams. The camaraderie was great, even though the work was hard and frequently tedious. But at twenty-one, I found other interests and pursuits that consumed me. Post-college life became very hectic. I tried to swim, but found that every time I went to the pool, I hated it. I had no imagination and all I thought possible was chasing a black line on the bottom for exercise. Nothing spiritual, nothing fun, just the tedium of the pool and clock. So I stopped even trying.

Then a funny thing happened. I had kids, who, it turns out, didn’t see swimming as all about an endless black line, heavy breathing, and a clock. The pool was just a place to cool off, be held by their dad, and test their boundaries. It was just another place to have fun and feel loved . . . with me!

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Matt and me, summer 1999, campground, S. Ontario

I love the picture with my son Matt in my lap at a campground pool in southern Ontario. Now I would be the one sitting in his lap, his 6’1″ frame easily surrounding me. He never got bit with the swimming-as-sport bug (football and baseball are his thing) and he won’t give Phelps or me much competition in the pool. But you know what, he still knows how to splash, play, and have fun in the water.

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Carlos and me, Children’s Hospital Philadelphia, Feb 2006

My younger son, Carlos, is more of a waterbug although he’s not wired to be a competitive athlete. But Wednesday afternoon, there we were together playing catch and tag in the pool. And me holding his nine-year-old frame close, walking and whispering together in the water, like we did those two long weeks when he was in the hospital as a young boy.

So my kids have taught me I could have fun in the water again.

I’ll set off today, blessed with a number of tools that swimming laps can never provide. The first is a child’s love for the water, especially the open water of a lake or a river with its distant shore in sight, but maybe just out of reach . . . ?

I’ll be blessed to know I’m just a small, slow, dot on the surface of a mighty river. And I’ll be connected to all that lives and breathes and draws life from its waters, so I won’t be inconsequential. Not fully in control, but not insignificant or meaningless either.

I can’t fail either, because I began the journey.

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Capri Djatiasmoro, Ederle Swim, 2013

That’s Capri Djatiasmoro, a veteran and real champion of open water swimming. I met her accidentally, when I was assigned as her “observer” last summer at the Ederle Swim. She didn’t quite get to the beach at Sandy Hook that day. She was the first swimmer in the water and I believe the last swimmer out and had a magnificent swim. She had a great kayaker who knew the waters, tides, and currents on the voyage that day. The last few hours I was almost frantic: “What do we need to do to help her get on the beach?”

And when it was all done and the decision had been made by her to end the swim, I looked over and saw her and was stunned. She was happy, relaxed and smiling.

I’m glad I snapped that picture becauses it offers just as much perspective as those amazing NASA pictures from the moon or Voyager 1. Seeing her laughing brought a calm to me. She had a great swim and knew it. We had all worked as hard as we could to help her to the beach, but it didn’t happen. Oh well, that’s life. Was I really so arrogant that I thought that seven little dots and two very small boats were in charge on the waters of New York Harbor? There was so much that none of us would ever be able to control, most especially the shifting tides and sea bottom, that itself had been shifted and sorted by a superstorm the fall before.

That day on the boat helped me continue to heal, feel less broken, and be more connected. Connected to my loved ones, especially those two boys who showed me how to just splash and play again in the water. Connected to a vast, unknowable universe and some of the people and places in between.

My training hasn’t been conventional or a straight line but I’m plenty fit and strong; stronger in fact than I have been in many years, maybe ever. My shoulder sometimes aches and I had to rush order a new suit and goggles because of course I lost my other new pair last week. But I am learning how to get my mind and spirit in the right place to take an adventure like this. I’ll pause along the way and accept and welcome the fact that the river and wind and spirits are more in control than me. I’ll be thankful for the many volunteers who labored over the logistics and  details to make this even possible. And I’ll smile a lot, especially when I get out of the water, wherever and whenever, because no matter what, I’ll have had a great swim.

“It’s only 13 miles . . .”

Postscript

I finished the swim in five hours and fifteen minutes; tenth out of ten swimmers. Thru Day 3 everyone has finished, which is fantastic. And being the last swimmer means you have the entire crew of swimmers, kayakers, and volunteers to cheer you across the final yards. It was spectacular.

 

Charles Bender runs, swims, bikes, and lives in the City of Brotherly Love.