The St. Patrick’s Day Swim Lesson

There’s crazy.

And then there’s swimming off the coast of Connecticut on St. Patrick’s Day.

It started with a bizarre notion that maybe, perhaps, with the mild winter we had… just maybe it would be warm enough.  Do you think?  Could it be?  I searched the databases of NOAA for ocean temperatures.  They came up right away!  That NEVER happens!  It was the first time I ever found water temps on NOAA.

45 degrees F.  (7 C, for my Canadian friends).

Just warm enough.  Couldn’t do less than that.

I was so excited!  45!  Warm enough to swim!  The lakes up here were all still frozen over.  My dreams of swimming in April weren’t melting into reality.  Can’t do less than 45, just can’t.  So I was ecstatic that the ocean was up to snuff for me!  Yes!

WAIT!  I stopped in my elation for a second as logic and sensibility dawned momentarily.

After all, there’s crazy… and then there’s swimming off the coast of CT… IN MARCH.

Okay, so I backed up and talked to a few people to be sure that I had their support.  Words like “Fun” and “Great” are always good to hear from people who love you.  And they will say it, but not at the expense of your well-being – this I firmly know.

“Be sure you have a warm up plan,” one of them cautioned me.

Here’s the part where my superhero friends come in.

…Can I tell you something? 

It is the most intensely frightening thing, not getting into cold water, but getting back out of cold water.

My fingers don’t work.  My skin feels tight around me like a shell, constricting my movement.  I often can’t think.   Answering simple questions becomes so difficult as my mind struggles to formulate coherent thoughts amid its primary desire to keep my blood flowing and to keep my body warm.  I only know that I am cold and that I must get warm.  Then I start to shiver.  But I don’t just “shiver”, my body convulses in huge, shuddering earthquake shrugs of my entire physical being.  The seizing can be so intense that I can be effectively debilitated.

In a humbling, strange, fragile way… I am intensely vulnerable.  My insides feel the alarm of it.  Not just of being so cold and in such danger from that, but to be so… utterly helpless.  It is with calm and collected patience that I must will my fingers and feet to work long enough to get me back in warm clothes.  The mental part is not left in the water.  I must have enough thought power left to energize myself to be okay for, perhaps, the most difficult part of the swim – the part where I need help getting out.

It’s not something I can ask of just anybody, though I am becoming more and more comfortable with my capabilities and my responses to cold water.  Preparation is the key.  Really.

And how do I prepare for these cold water excursions?  I put on my swimsuit and my cap, run around my house, and then jump in a 46 degree shower for 20 minutes.  It works!  I was actually able to swim in the ocean on St. Patrick’s Day.

It took me 9 minutes to get in… past the shock waves of pain and the tremendous violence of the cold battling my body.  For the next 11 minutes, I swam back and forth in the bay.  Back and forth.  Getting my head in, getting my face in.  Getting used to it all.  Feeling my arms work in patterns that they know from my miles and miles, hours and hours of training in pools.  Getting past the blindness of my eyes just not wanting to see because of the freezing headache I felt shutting down my facial expressions.

I looked at the pictures later – the ones my superhero friends took while all I could do was think about battling my way into the cold.  I looked so peaceful.  So relaxed.  It looked so easy.  It didn’t look like violence or pain or suffering or bitter numbness or agony.  It looked like I belonged there.  It looked like I was safe and strong, not vulnerable and helpless.

Seeing my strength from outside eyes and knowing my weakness from inside eyes, I was so amazed.  It dawned on me that nobody else really sees that the people on the shore are the ones who make the whole thing possible.  Really.  My dearest, truest support crews and friends.  The ones on the beach in CT.  The one on the dock at Spring Lake.  The one who has been in the kayak next to me through storms, events, moments, memories, and into cold, cold waters.

If I am fearless… if I am strong… if I am anything at all… it is because of the people who sow their lives into me who are not in those pictures.  They are the ones who encourage my journeys in, and who shelter me on the coming back out.

Sometimes they look at me with such love.  And sometimes with concern.  And sometimes they study me intently and carefully.  Sometimes they smile that special smile that is reserved for moments of glory!  And sometimes they just look at me like…

… well…

Like there’s crazy… and then there’s me!

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