Swimming with Sarah Thomas

Those of us who follow the marathon swimming sport know that on September 6th, 2013, Sarah Thomas stepped into the choppy waters of Lake Memphremagog in Magog, QC.  Thirty hours later, she stepped back out of the water at the same location, having swum 50 miles total to complete a double-crossing of the lake.

I was there to watch her start her historic swim.  My friends, who would be crewing for me on a single crossing that very evening, and I pulled into the parking lot at the beach at 11:40 am.  I was surprised to find only Sarah and her crew there.  We were the only ones to see her off.  We set to work helping out as best we could.  What a privilege to be a part of that moment!  To offer some sort of help that might aid in the success of such an incredible, incredible swim.
Sometime shortly after noon, Sarah set off.  We cheered her on as she left the beach into some extremely challenging chop and wind. I was so impressed to watch her go.  No complaining or hesitating.  You could tell that she was committed to this venture.  You could tell she was ready to take it on.
I had never met Sarah before that day.  I didn’t know what to expect from such an accomplished swimmer.  She had swum a double crossing of Lake Tahoe earlier that summer – 44 miles.  I didn’t know what other swims she may have completed, but I could imagine that there were many.  She was fast and strong and knew what she was doing.  I was so impressed and inspired by her… and a little intimidated.
The truth is, I’m kind of intimidated by most swimmers.  I was a Summer Rec Swim Team dropout by the age of fourteen.  I was never very fast.  I had a hard time trying to figure out the strokes, probably because I started every practice by taking off my coke-bottle-thick pink glasses and stuffing them in my shoe for safe-keeping.  When swim team was over in mid-August, there was no other place to swim until it started again at the end of June.
Now that I’m older, I still find it challenging to find a place where I belong among other swimmers.  At the pool, people my age are always several lanes over – swimming really fast.  It’s hard going to open water races or swim meets.  Suddenly, it’s not about loving the water – it’s about being categorized by my age and my speed and my event.  I can call it an ‘event’ rather than a ‘race’, and feel better until I get there.  Once you’re there, somebody will invariably remind you that this is a competition.  By the way, it doesn’t matter how much you love the water: you’re not very good at swimming if you’re not fast.
Sarah and I are about the same age.  She’s fast – so very fast!  And technically, In Search of Memphre is a race.  Like I said, I was intimidated.  After all, she was just so much better than me.  I was so glad that she was doing a double crossing of Lake Memphremagog.  That made it an entirely different event from mine.  I wouldn’t have to be compared to her standard.  I knew I wouldn’t measure up, anyway.
I started my single crossing of Lake Memphremagog at midnight that night.  We passed Sarah somewhere in the darkness, and I thought of her then.  I thought about how hard she must have trained and how hard she must have worked.  I wondered how she was doing.  I hoped she would make it.  …I really hoped she wouldn’t pass me.  Although, I wouldn’t have been too surprised if she had.
Sometime later, when I heard that the other two swimmers had been pulled out, I was glad to hear that Sarah was still swimming.  I wanted her to make it, all those 50 miles.  Wouldn’t it be so great if I could be there when she finished?
The last ten miles of the swim were absolutely miserable for me.  My feed made me terribly sick to my stomach.  Somewhere, just about the time that that sick feeling started, I paused for a feed and Natalie told me that Sarah sent her regards.
“What?” I asked.
“Sarah said to say hello to you,” Natalie said.
Some part of me was absolutely astonished by that. 
 …Sarah Thomas is thinking about me?  
I sent my regards back to her and kept swimming.
It happened a few more times.  I would come up for a feed and get a message from Sarah.  It baffled me and all my insecurities.  Of all the things she could think about on her swim… why was she thinking about me? 
At the time, I was so sick, I couldn’t devote much energy to returning the favor.  But after I finished that swim and after watching Sarah finish her swim and when we sat opposite each other warming up – she looked at me and said, very simply, “I thought about you a lot.”  I can’t remember what she said next, but it left me with the impression that I, in some way, helped to encourage her to keep going.  
I took those words to heart.  I was both honored and humbled by them.  I’ve thought about them a lot in the days after the swim.  I realized that those few words and her thinking about me made me feel like we were in that swim together.  The same lake.  The same conditions.  The same hard place. 
Open water swimming is a different kind of sport.  Not only are you working your body and begging it to perform a technical function repetitively for miles, you are doing it in an alien environment which can vary tremendously any given day.  Once you depart terra firma, you will not touch land and nobody will touch you until you reach the other side.  Your air is rationed.  You’re propelled by your own strength.  You are suspended in a fluid medium other than air.  The only other people who may even begin to know what you are going through as you swim a particular body of water, are the other swimmers swimming with you at the exact same time.  There is a camaraderie and a connection in that.  It goes beyond speed.  It goes beyond technique.  It goes beyond age.  It goes beyond accomplishments and experiences.
For me, Sarah’s sentiments went beyond all of those other things and brought me right back to them.  Sometime later, I read Sarah’s synopsis of the swim when I (finally!) discovered the marathon swimmer’s forum.  I wasn’t sure what to do when I found my name:
“During the rest of the day, knowing Bethany was out there and swimming motivated and propelled me forward. Had she dropped out or not been there, I may have called it quits, too. But, we kept on swimming. Bethany and her crew, me and mine.”
As I was mulling it all around in my mind, I couldn’t help but marvel that, for once, I was swimming with someone my own age.  Someone fast.  Someone accomplished.  And the fact that I was swimming – the fact that I kept swimming – made a difference to her.  It meant something to her.  
I might have inspired her as much as she inspired me.
And that… that just made all the world to me.
Somehow, even though I was swimming in a lake I considered home, Sarah Thomas was the one who met me at the door with wide-open arms, like I was a long-lost relative.  Even though I know that I belong, I was still glad to feel it with such certainty.  I belong in that water.  I belong with other open water swimmers.  I belong in this group of amazing, incredible athletes.  Even the fast ones.  Even the accomplished ones.  I’m one of them, too!  I love that that’s what we do.  That it’s what we’re about.  Finding a body of water.  Getting to the other side. Recognizing each other.  Encouraging each other.  
Inspiring each other.
The next time I swim a race or an event, I will remember that.  When I start to feel insecure or when I look at my times and wish I was faster or stronger or whatever…  I will remember this.  I will remember her thinking of me.  I will remember that my swimming inspired her.
I will remember the time that I went swimming with Sarah Thomas.

4 thoughts on “Swimming with Sarah Thomas

  • Bethany, there is a reason I seldom post thoughts about open water swimming on my FB account … I just have to read yours and copy them (mentioning that you wrote it, of course). I feel exactly the same about so called races, they mean nothing to mean, getting there does the trick for me and I am happy with that, if faster than expected, fine, if not, fine. Great writing about what open water swimming for pure amateurs like us is all about.

    • I guess I didn’t see this comment as I was on my way to England, but thank you, Thomas! Getting there is what it is all about.

  • I know what you mean! I get…anxious…I guess, at races or even training with a group of people because I feel like swimming out in the open is just my special thing…just because someone goes faster than me doesn’t mean they should be deemed “better”. I loved you post. I also loved your post about your dog swimming with you in a race. Our golden retriever, Maddie, is an amazing swimmer due to our training sessions and also surfs with my dad.
    I followed you over from the marathon swimmers forum. I’m swimchica623. 🙂

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