To my knowledge, nobody who is at least 40 pounds overweight, whose concept of a workout is walking up the driveway carrying groceries, and who was the slowest swimmer on her swim team for all the years she was on the team; nobody like this has ever woken up one day and randomly decided that today they would swim the English Channel. All great accomplishments are the compilation of small, consistent, great choices. The choice is there, whether or not you make it is what determines where your journey will end.
Let’s start this story with the slowest swimmer on the Rutland Vermont swim team ever. Of course, there is no corroborating evidence to attest to my slowness, other than my own memory. But this is my blog, and I don’t care so much for the facts in this instance. Just trust me. I was slow. They put me on the outside lanes for every race. My fastest time was 3 seconds too slow to make the State competition. While my little brother was off setting Rutland Swim Team records and competing at States, I was probably at home reading Shakespeare.
You must understand, I was not lacking in athletic genes. Both my parents were quite good athletes in their day. I was not awkward, at least, not physically more so than any other teenager. I am, however, shaped like a barbarian… and not agile or quick, despite my passion to just keep trying my best. As soon as I had to try out for soccer and basketball, I was rejected. Swim team was the only other place that accepted anybody and everybody.
I liked swim team, because I liked the water. Okay, okay; I LOVE the water. I like the beach because there is water. I like lakes because of the water. I like looking at water. I like drinking water. I like rain water. I like pictures of water. If I believed in past lives, I’m sure I was a sailor in one of them. A cruel, heartless sailor whose only passion was for his ship, the adventure, and the ocean vast. He was, of course, once in love with a beautiful noble woman. But while this sailor was tried and true on waters blue, he could never find the words that he thought would endear so gentle a creature. So he never spoke to her and took to the sea as a means of escape. But every rise and quell of every wave only chastised him for his insecurity and beat his lonely heart until it did not beat anymore for love and human compassion; instead it only kept rhythm with the tide… but I digress.
Probably most of the reason I liked swim team was because it involved swimming. I was not good at competing – always wanting to be some measure of good enough and never quite getting there. But, you know, if I am anything, I am stubborn. Every year that we could sign up, I kept it up because I liked swimming. It must have been the water calling me and my spirit answering.
At first, I really tried. But then, after awhile of slowly making my rounds in swim team, being passed by everybody, I took to daydreaming. Daydreaming about being an Olympic gold medalist and about swimming the English Channel. Actually, most of my Olympic daydreams involved my own tragic death, somehow. Fingertips within reach of the wall and a world record and then… I would just be dead. Just floating there, lifeless. Almost within grasp of the most amazing achievement I could imagine! Then, dead. I never worked out the reason why… I’m sorry… am I boring you? Anyway, since the Olympic aspirations were impossible (never mind traumatic) I set my sights, instead, on the English Channel. Set my sights distantly, of course. This just means that I saw it as an attainable goal and I would do it at some point in my life.
From the time I was a child, long before swim team, I had wanted to swim the English Channel. I don’t know why, really, or how somebody so young thinks about such things. But I recall, at five, watching various movies in which a Channel swim was mentioned and I remember watching swimmers in dark waters at night struggling through the most terrible of Hollywood conditions. In my little brain, there was nothing more perfect. Just you. Just the sea. Just you and the sea. I don’t know how or when I first decided, I think the seed was planted and grew up without me realizing it. I would put swimming the English Channel down on my list of life goals and in my fake obituary and every time it was warranted by any class assignment.
Well, swim team was only for 6-8 weeks in the summer and I could only do it for three or four years. I didn’t pursue swimming after that. I didn’t know how. There wasn’t much availability for it where I lived. In the last years of my high school career, I gained fat and not muscle. In college, I began to exercise more. I found that I liked doing things by myself. If I didn’t have anybody to compete with, I wouldn’t ever feel like I wasn’t good enough to continue. So I kept to myself, and I slowly, over the course of years, began to find a space where I just enjoyed being active and where I could do anything… Because there was nobody around me to tell me that I couldn’t!
Then one day, only a couple of years ago, a friend of mine started training for a triathlon. I offered to swim with her. I got in the water, and I pushed off from the wall… and I swam. I thought it was odd when I could just keep swimming. I didn’t seem to get tired. We swam together many times, my friend and I. I watched her struggle through laps, working so hard to build up endurance and to improve technique. I puzzled at the way I just kept going. Every day. Every length. I never got tired. The question it birthed didn’t quite come with words, but more simply pulsed with a passion.
“I wonder how far I can go.”
I would go and swim until the lifeguards nudged me and told me to get out. I would swim until the pool closed. I would swim and swim and swim. And I could always, when I was done, push myself out of the pool. I was never too tired. 60 laps, 100 laps, 200 laps… the numbers went up. Time left me. I would swim. I wouldn’t stop for any reason, ever. I would go dehydrated and wouldn’t drink or eat anything during. One such day, I jumped in the pool and started to swim. 100 came and went. Then 200 laps. Then I got into the 300’s. My legs cramped and gnarled so bad that I couldn’t kick them. I dragged them along behind me, determined to keep going. I made it to 400. And I placed my hands on the wall and I could still push myself out of the pool.
“I should train for something.”
So I began. I looked around and I found an 8 mile swim in a couple of months. I signed up for it. But the fact of the matter wasn’t lost on me that if I could swim 8, I could swim 10. If I could swim 10… I could swim 15. If I could swim 15, then I could swim 20. If I could swim 20… maybe I could swim the English Channel. That very first, very persistent dream suddenly leapt off the lists of dreams and goals and into possibility. I had always said I would do it. I had always said so. Now, it finally appears to be within my reach.
I bet you that I can do this. So I think that I will.
That my friends, is the very long beginning to this oh-so-incredible part of my life! Here we are! Training, traipsing, traveling, unraveling, and swimming, swimming, swimming…. who knows where this journey will take us, in the end landing us on a distant French shore. Consider yourself invited along! There is so much more to tell; mermaids, fish, storms, kayaks and kayakers, toenail polish and, most importantly, miles and miles of open water…