An email I received prompted me to take this journey back in time to Distance Week 2012 and that very first day at Sandycove. I am glad I sat down and wrote it, seeing it all so vividly in my mind’s eye once again. It’s good to look back, now and then, and to remember where you came from so that you can appreciate where you are and celebrate where you are going…
The truth? I felt like the one mere mortal dwarfed by the shadows of the gods of swimming.
I had heard the tales of cold water endurance, seen pictures of the Distance Week swims, and listened in rapt wonder at successful English Channel ventures. The very soul of the extreme doesn’t burn any brighter than it does in the swimmers at Sandycove.
On that first day, I stood listening to Ned Denison give his introductory welcome to all of us 2012 Cork Distance Week participants. I can’t remember the statistics and numbers of successful Sandycove Island Swimmers who had crossed the English Channel, but I remember Ned saying that the Island was magic and the water around it was lucky. He encouraged us to take advantage of it. Despite my shyness and propensity to feel awkward and rather intimidated, I couldn’t help thinking that that was why I flew 3,000 miles, spent however many dollars, and took all this time off work – to take advantage of whatever this place and these people, whom I so admired, could offer me. I wanted to learn. I wanted to swim. I just wanted whatever I could get out of every opportunity I was given.
Ned invited us to raise our hands as he listed different swims that people in the crowd had completed. He assured us that it didn’t make anybody any better than anybody else; it was just that some of us had had more opportunities than the others. I remember watching as the folks around me raised their hands and I was overwhelmed by the caliber of swimmers amongst whom I so nervously stood. There were saltwater swims, freshwater swims, coldwater swims, all of them long distances; it was an international smorgasbord of astounding marathon swimming achievements.
Somewhere, toward the end, he called my very own 10-mile Kingdom Swim in Newport, VT. I raised my hand and smiled, feeling strangely humbled and honored at the same time. It was on the same list, after all, as all those other marathon swims. Nobody looked at me like it was just a 10-mile swim. Perhaps, there is nothing “just” about me. I’m here after all. At Distance Week. To swim 50 miles in one week in 50-60 degree water. In saltwater. In freshwater. Twice a day every day for seven days. I was bound and determined to do the Torture Swim and wondered how I would do at the six hour swim at the end of it all.
At the end of introductions, we suited up and headed down the slipway and into the water. I was quivering with nervous energy. There were, after all, so many variables. How would I feel in the cold water? Could I swim in it for two hours, let alone six? Would I have trouble in the saltwater? Was I going to be too slow to find somebody to swim with? Would that be a problem?
The sun was shining. The sky was that fierce, dazzlingly clear blue. I stepped into the water and it didn’t seem that cold. It actually felt quite pleasant to me. I didn’t know the temperature, and I didn’t much mind. When I started to swim, it didn’t seem to take me so long to get going and it didn’t even hurt! I smiled to myself. It seemed my training had worked – the 45 degree ocean swim and the 42 degree freshwater swims. The long, bitterly cold showers during the winter months were a constant practice until the ice left the Vermont lakes again. I’m not sure when I last felt warm.
The salt was an adjustment. I can remember the odd taste in my mouth and how uncomfortable I first felt in the gritty texture of the water. I didn’t have much opportunity to swim in the ocean back home. But when I came around the first corner of Sandycove Island and lifted my head and looked out to sea, feeling the tug of the mysterious power of the tide, I just knew I was in love with it already…
There were locals stationed around the Island to make us newcomers feel welcome. I managed to find a buddy for that first swim, another American who ended up starting off about the same time and about the same speed as me. We fell in with a super speedy Irishman who accommodated our first lap around so that we knew what we were doing. As soon as we had been around the Island once, he wished us well and took to swimming at a far more comfortable pace for him.
We continued, my buddy and I, around Sandycove again. I was impressed by the shallows of and the life in the water. I was quite taken by the beauty of the surrounding Irish landscape, too, every time I lifted my head. Everywhere I looked, whether above water or under, my eyes were constantly delighted.
That is Ireland, I thought to myself over and over again. Ireland!
As we came around the second time, my buddy headed for shore. I wasn’t feeling cold and was enjoying myself. Indeed, I felt so grateful to even be here! I just wanted to keep swimming! I waited in the bay until some other swimmers came around. Emboldened, I suppose, by the fact that I just felt so wonderful to be in Ireland swimming, I asked if I could swim with them. They assured me that that would be fine.
“I am a bit slow,” I offered apologetically.
“Oh, there’s no such thing,” one of them said. “There’s only what’s natural.”
I smiled, suddenly feeling very welcome. We introduced ourselves. Now, I was swimming with Catherine and Lisa. The three of us went around the Island again. Catherine, then, departed our company and it was just Lisa Cummins and I. I had heard of Lisa’s double crossing of the English Channel and she had so inspired me. Her story was just incredible. I couldn’t believe that now, here we were, swimming along side by side.
That was a wonderful feeling that I had never felt before, swimming side by side with somebody. I hadn’t ever swum in a group of open water swimmers before that day. I had only ever swum with people in a pool and that was always so competitive and I was never fast enough. I had never found anybody with whom I could keep such a steady pace before. Here, I was in such good company. To find yourself stroke for stroke, side by side without competition; it was a kinship that I didn’t expect. Lisa and I hardly spoke, but it didn’t matter. There was a sense of safety when we checked in with each other and a sense of belonging that seemed to transcend anything I’d ever quite felt before. If we could swim along together so easily, maybe we weren’t so very different after all. Maybe, as Ned had said, we had had different opportunities… but we all carried the same passion:
When we closed our eyes, we saw the sea.
Lisa and I finished our last lap of that first swim and headed for shore. I arrived to find some very worried faces. I had concerned my two non-swimming friends who had made the trek to Ireland with me. They had watched everybody else come in… and couldn’t find me anywhere. They had shared their concerns with Ned who was, also, standing there awaiting me. He had forgotten that Lisa was there and they all thought I was lost on the very first day. Who would have thought it? I hadn’t intended to be the last one out, and certainly hadn’t meant to concern anybody. I was just having fun!
“How many times did you go around?” somebody asked me as I made my way onto the slipway.
“Just four,” I replied, feeling bad that I had caused so much angst.
“Four,” Ned corrected me. “Not ‘just’, anything.”
I think all I did was smile and nod in reply. But to me, his words went past the number of laps I swam around Sandycove. They convinced me that I was supposed to be here. I trained for this. I came ready. I can do this. There isn’t anything “just” about me. This is a place where I belong. These are a people with whom I simply fit.
I am proud to say that that first day of Distance Week set the tone beautifully for the rest of it for me. I attended and swam at all sessions, a personal goal I had set for myself. I find myself regularly relying upon the mental strengths I found during the Torture Swim. I even swam the entire six-hour swim at the end of it all, something I hadn’t necessarily expected of myself. Not only did I do all of that, but Distance Week was full of firsts for me – first open water swimming in a group, first long ocean swims, first river swims, first time ever seeing jellyfish, first time ever swimming through THOUSANDS of jellyfish, and – most importantly – the first time I have ever felt so welcome and so included by any group of athletes.
I left Ireland counting myself as one of those athletes. In that lucky water around that magic Island, I found a part of me I never knew before.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s what Sandycove does best.