Monday, September 24, 2012

Beating the Odds with Swim Across America - Long Beach

June 1, 2012

Janel Jorgensen, President of Swim Across America, contacts me about a new event being organized in Long Beach, Calif. This inaugural event will raise funds for the Todd Cancer Institute of Long Beach Memorial Hospital, supporting both lung cancer research and patient care programs.

I'm told Swim Across America - Long Beach will be directed by Steve Munatones, the guy who wrote the book on open water swimming, literally. He will stage the event in the Marine Stadium, a tidal fed basin originally dredged to serve as the rowing venue for the 1932 Olympics.

A variety of distances will be offered, up to 10K, on a course built to emulate the open water course of the 2012 London Olympics. Also, it will happen at the culmination of the 2012 Global Open Water Swimming Conference. All these factors combined sound very promising to me. I tell Janel I’m in and become the first swimmer to register.

In the weeks leading up to the event, I rally my team of generous supporters and raise nearly $2,400 for Todd Cancer Center. As I thank each donor, many of them thank me back for giving them the opportunity to help. How refreshing is that? Nearly all, I notice, have had unfortunate connections to cancer. Cancer survivors, those actively in the fight and those mourning the loss of loved ones all know firsthand the pain that cancer causes. They want to pony up and I am grateful for their support.

September 22, 2012

Just hours after taking off from Tucson, I am boarding the Queen Mary, the retired ocean liner moored in the busy port city of Long Beach. It’s the site of the 2012 Global Open Water Swimming Conference and Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Dinner. Gazing out the round portals at the sea life, I inhale the marine air and marvel at the stark contrast between this scene and the dry desert I’ve just escaped.

As I find my way to the Grand Salon for the dinner, I first hear, then see, Martin Strel. With his thick, Slovenian accent, he is immersed in conversation with an admirer. I am not nearly as star struck as I thought I’d be in the presence of the Big River Man. Having watched the documentary of his unprecedented swim 3,375 miles down the Amazon River, I’d been impressed by his endurance, his audacity to take on the murky waters and, most of all, the fact that he drank a bottle of wine every night of his journey.

Which reminds me, it’s cocktail hour and I’m looking forward to a glass of wine myself. Knowing not a soul in the room, I approach a table toward the back where a woman is sitting by herself. “Are these seats taken?” I venture. “No, please sit,” returns the kind voice of Guila Muir, my newest friend in the world of open water swimming.

Like me, Guila is not a marathon swimmer. She’s a Seattle-based business consultant who also leads small group swim excursions year round in the Puget Sound through her sideline business, Say Yes! To Life Swims. Guila is looking forward to her vegetarian meal. I, on the other hand, having ordered rubber chicken, am looking around for a waiter who might serve me a nice glass of wine. To my astonishment, there are plenty of waiters but no wine in sight. Sensing my growing desperation, Guila instructs me on the whereabouts of the Observation Bar. Two decks up, I find the art deco lounge and get my wine-to-go in a plastic cup.

Back in the Grand Salon, we’re soon joined by another tablemate, Mariusz Wirga, M.D. I recognize his name instantly as the leading fundraiser for tomorrow’s swim. His team, Beat the Odds, is also in first place. Not that I’ve been checking the website every day. He also happens to be the Medical Director of the Psychosocial Oncology Program at the Todd Cancer Institute, the event’s beneficiary.

During Dr. Wirga’s eight-minute presentation, barely audible over the din of dinner, he speaks passionately about the powerful role of hope in healing. As he speaks these words, I’m reminded of the wonderful teachings of Dr. Bernie Siegel, author of Love, Medicine and Miracles. Dr. Wirga speaks with honest concern about his patients at the Todd Cancer Institute. Whenever he has a patient who learns they have 50-50 odds to beat their cancer, he explains to them that statistics are just statistics and every person has their own fighting chance to beat the odds. Hope also plays a role in cancer research, as scientists around the globe test new theories and treatments. I realize that this doctor’s caring heart sets him apart. His inspiring words stand in contrast to the numerous speeches delivered by hall of fame inductees about their various personal accomplishments. What Mariusz is accomplishing is not for him but for others. Immediately afterwards, he excuses himself so he can get up early and swim 800 meters to fight cancer with his kids.

Late to join our table is hard-at-work John Muenzer, vice president of Open Water Source, the company hosting the Global Open Water Swimming Conference. He talks of bigger better conferences to come now that sponsors are taking note of the growth of the sport and professional event planners will likely take over.

According to, John conquered Lake Eerie from Point Pelee, Canada to Cedar Point, Michigan, a distance of 34 miles in 24 hours 10 minutes, in 1983. After taking an extended “break” to raise seven children (!) he conquered the English Channel in 13 hours 12 minutes in 2009.

Somewhere in this darkened room also sits the legendary Diana Nyad, barely recovered from her bout with jellyfish on her most recent thwarted attempt to reach the Florida Keys from Cuba, and adventure swimmer Jamie Patrick, who attempted a 360 swim of Lake Tahoe this summer but was pulled after 12 hours and 24 miles when inclement weather threatened to swamp his safety crew. I never lay eyes on either of them, much to my disappointment, but I trust they are eating like horses. As much as I admire these swim heroes, I know I’ll never swim a marathon unless my ship sinks and I’m forced to do it. Otherwise, I lack both the will and the guts. Still, I’m happy to be in Long Beach to help Swim Across America raise money to fight cancer. That’s a marathon in itself that’s lasted 25 years and it isn’t over yet.

Mariusz, Guila and John are all long gone when I disembark the Queen Mary. I’m anxious to find my hotel, 20 minutes away by car. When I do, I discover it’s the site of two rowdy wedding receptions and a night club advertising the return of Sammy Hagar, or his look alike, tonight. In spite of all the noise, I fall asleep easily watching the Oregon Ducks shut out the Arizona Wildcats on ESPN.

September 23, 2012

After a leisurely breakfast overlooking a small marina and several oil derricks, I head to the Marine Stadium, about a half mile away, and check in for the swim. It’s a beautiful SoCal morning, sunny and warm. There’s a good crowd on hand including more than 400 swimmers plus volunteers, parents, lifeguards and spectators, including marathon swimmers from 19 different countries, none of whom are swimming today, to my knowledge. Event directors reportedly had to turn away more than 800 late registrants due to permit constraints.

I stop by the Why I Swim banner and pay tribute to a few of the people I’m swimming for this year. I have to come back twice to add more names. Cancer gives us far too many reasons to keep making waves. I notice lots of kids have signed the banner with the acronym NEGU. The table volunteer explains that it stands for “Never ever give up.” A local kids’ swim team adopted the slogan after a young teammate battled cancer.
Kids and cancer are two words that shouldn’t exist in the same sentence, but they do. My nephew, Andrew, battled leukemia from age 5-8. He won his life back. He’s one of the lucky ones. The odds get better every year, thanks in large part to the research funded by Swim Across America.

With these thoughts I work my way through the crowd toward the small beach. The first swim is about to get underway and the beach is full of little tykes getting ready for their first 100 meter open water swim. Excitement is rampant.

With a splash, they’re off, returning minutes later through the shoot, wet and panting, receiving high fives from Janel Jorgensen, a former Olympian. The faces on the first finishers look proud. Tears spring from the eyes of some of the late arrivals. Janel cheers them up. The competitors are too young to understand that their efforts today are not about winning or losing, they’re rather about giving people hope.

A quick warm up during the 800-meter swim proves that the water is a perfect temperature at about 68 degrees. There isn’t a ripple on the surface and swimming in salt water feels great, as always. Plus, as the announcer explains, there aren’t any large animals in gray suits to worry about, always a happy thought.

At 10 a.m., the 5K swimmers gather on the beach in the same group as the 1.5K and 10K swimmers. After a beach start, we’re told we’ll all swim left, clockwise, shouldering a series of yellow buoys on our right. I would do three loops of the rectangular course, finishing my 5K in between two floating platforms, one hour and 22 minutes later.

Salty and a little sore, I drive back to the hotel, shower off all the brown silt, check out of my hotel and return to the venue dry and refreshed. 10K swimmers are still slugging it out in the water and I am deeply relieved not to be one of them.

Upon returning, I visit several of the exhibit tables lining the shore and am thrilled to meet members of Dr. Wirga’s research team from Todd Cancer Institute. They all look so young and full of hope. “You guys are doing it,” I tell them. “You’re the reason we’re here. Keep up the good work.”

Janel announces that the inaugural Swim Across America - Long Beach event has raised more than $40,000. Donations are still coming in. Chalk up another successful event for Swim Across America, an organization that’s raised more than $40 million to date. As she recognizes top finishers and fundraisers I’m happy to see my friend Mariusz and his team recognized.

“Next year, June, you can join my team,” he says. He hands me a Beat the Odds team t-shirt in a gesture of friendship. I graciously accept it, knowing full well that June’s Swim for the Cure will be back. Only next year, we’re going to up the ante with more swimmers and more donors. With your help, we’re going to raise more dollars for Swim Across America and the fight to conquer cancer. I can’t wait.

Until then, my friends, stay strong, swim long and beat the odds.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Swim Across America Greenwich-Stamford 2011

On June 25, 2011, I took part in my third swim for a cure with Swim Across America in the waters of Long Island Sound. Instead of going for the maximum distance, my goal this time was to raise the most money. Nine teammates and more than 300 donors joined forces to accomplish this mission, proving that sometimes it’s better to go deep than to go long.

Together, June’s Swim for a Cure team swam 14.5 miles that morning and more importantly raised more than $55,000 for the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy based in Stamford, CT. The non-profit organization provides private grants to researchers all over the U.S. who are on the brink of discovering new and effective treatments for all kinds of cancers. We were proud to be the top fundraising team at this event and here’s why.

"You have cancer.”

One year to the day before this event, my dear friend and past SAA donor, Richard (Dicky) Burns, was told by doctors he had throat cancer. Like his wife Cricket, a cancer survivor herself, Richard was determined to beat it. He was game to try anything, including an enlightening visit with a spiritual healer who seemed to miraculously erase his tumor, baffling his doctors. Nonetheless, he proceeded to undergo two grueling months of conventional radiation and chemotherapy treatments, for added measure. I was just one of many friends and relatives who corresponded and sent him prayers and happy thoughts during this time. The treatments left him weak, in pain and unable to swallow. He lost more than 50 pounds before he was declared cancer free and began clamoring his way back to health.

He was still clamoring when I called Richard in early April to tell him about the Greenwich-Stamford swim and ask his permission to swim this event in honor of him and Cricket. He asked many good questions. Who was the beneficiary, what kind of research were they were doing, what was the date of the swim? He might have paused for a second when I told him the date, but if he did I didn’t take notice. Yes, they’d be honored. Yes, he would come. Maybe he’d even swim. He didn’t let on about the significance of the date until much later.

Within a matter of days, June’s Swim for a Cure team was beginning to take shape and funds were already rolling in. My brother Peter was instrumental in recruiting swimmers and donors. Several lifelong friends, all graduates of Greenwich High School, also signed up to swim in support of Richard. It didn’t matter that some of them had not swum a lap in 30 years.

In May, Richard found a pool and a coach in Manhattan and started training. He counted his progress at first in feet, not yards. The exercise helped rebuild his atrophied body. About the time he started counting in yards, he had officially committed to swim the ½ mile open water event. By the time I showed up to swim with him at Asphalt Green in Manhattan four days before the event, he was able to swim for 45 minutes straight. He told me he might even try to swim longer than a half mile on Saturday. My husband, Bill, would kayak beside him.

While the first part of our week back east had been picture perfect summer weather, the days immediately prior to the Greenwich-Stamford swim were very stormy, dropping torrential rains and churning up the Sound. The day before the swim, some of us swam the buoys in white caps at Tod’s Point. We weren’t wearing the white caps. The waves were.

That evening, some members of my team joined us for dinner at Rocky Point Club overlooking the Sound, where angry waves lapped at the sea wall still. It was so blustery, the American flag and the burgee were flying perpendicular to the flagpole. Even the pool had waves in it. I was a little nervous.

That same evening at Rocky, I noticed a pretty young lady with very short blonde hair walk by. I remember thinking, wow, that’s a bold cut for a young person but she wears it so well and what a beautiful smile she has. I did not know I was looking at Brooke Lorenz, a star Rocky swimmer and water polo player whom I would learn more about tomorrow.

Fortunately, after we left Rocky, the wind died, the rains held and the seas calmed. Still, few of us slept very well. When the first of us arrived at Cummings Point near Dolphin Cove in Stamford before 7:00 the next morning, a slight chop accompanied the incoming tide. The skies were overcast and the air was heavy with haze, nearly obscuring from view the landmark red and white lighthouse located a mile or two off shore.

At the registration table, Richard officially signed up for the 1.5 mile event. Like a cancer treatment plan, he now had no choice but to get through it. I could tell he was nervous, but I knew that achieving such a feat was important to him. He wanted to push cancer behind him with every stroke. This was the mantra his trainer had taught him.

As more swimmers arrived, I struggled into my required wetsuit and made my way down to the beach for the start of the 3-mile swim. There were eight of us, including two former Olympians plus my old lifeguarding buddy Stan Berizzi and his daughter Sam. Stan lost his brother Frank to cancer six years ago. Our families swam together as kids. Now we strained to see the bright yellow buoys that marked the course. Half were partially masked by waves and the other half were around the corner, out of sight. Luckily we had boats to follow.

With the sound of a horn, we were off and stroking. It didn’t take long to realize the waves were putting up a decent fight. The course would take us offshore toward the lighthouse then right, or south, down the coast toward Manhattan. Just opposite Rocky Point Club in Old Greenwich, the course would turn on a right angle in toward shore then right again, back along the shore to the start. We would do this 1.5 mile route twice.

By the time I rounded the farthest buoy and headed in toward Rocky on the first lap, I was plenty fatigued. I was only a quarter of the way done. Swimming in toward shore with the waves gave a few minutes of reprieve until the next turn took me back on the long stretch toward the starting beach. Breathing left, in between gulps of sea water, I gazed at all the coastal homes I’d sailed past a hundred times in my youth. There was Leslie’s grandmother’s house, the Notter’s old house, the Campbell’s, the place where we used to buy lobsters…. Reminiscing proved to be a nice distraction from the chafe now growing on the back of my neck.

As I approached the first shore buoy at Cummings Point, I was having serious reservations about starting the second round, much like cancer patients must dread their second round of chemo. I bucked up. Suffice it to say the second lap was far less pleasurable than the first. I trudged along at a steady but un-miraculous pace until my feet hit the sand. I greeted my wet and panting teammate, Tom Markey, on the beach. Coming in just ahead of me, he was the top male finisher in the ½ mile event. So much for his not training.

Since I had to be in the water early, I missed Richard’s address to the crowd about why he was swimming. But I knew whatever he had said had been very moving by the way everyone on shore applauded him when he came in. He was a survivor all right. He’d kicked his cancer and now he’d completed his metaphorical journey, too. His smile was huge as they handed him a towel.

After the last of 225 swimmers were in and accounted for, I did have the privilege of hearing Brooke Lorenz speak. I recognized her immediately as the pretty young lady with the cute hairstyle I’d admired at Rocky the night before. Brooke, having just completed the 1.5 mile swim herself, talked about why she swam.
Last summer, having just graduated from Greenwich High School, Brooke was a star athlete looking forward to beginning her freshman year at Arizona State University. She had even kicked off the summer season by doing SAA’s 2010 Greenwich-Stamford swim. Then, just before leaving for college, she was diagnosed with lymphoma. Forgoing her first two semesters of college, she underwent an extended course of 12 chemotherapy treatments. The treatments eventually killed the cancer but not before destroying much of her athletic body from the inside out. The treatments also took away her mane of gorgeous, long, blonde hair. Her spirit, on the other hand, only grew.

This poised 18-year-old now talked to a tear-filled audience through a megaphone about the three words nobody should ever have to hear: “You have cancer.” She explained that she swam for the doctors and nurses and caregivers who helped her get through her treatment to rid her body of cancer. She swam for all the scientists who came before to conduct the research that allowed her to live for this day. She swam for loved ones lost. Most of all, she concluded, she swam for everyone in the audience who has yet to hear those three words: “You have cancer.”

This single event raised more than $450,000 to fund research for new and better treatments and eventually, a cure. To swim and fundraise with a team of friends for such a worthwhile cause was absolutely one of the highlights of my life. It deepened friendships I’ve long cherished. It gave us all genuine reasons to celebrate those friendships. But even as meaningful as this whole experience was, I’d trade it in a heartbeat for the day that I have nobody to swim for; the day when the whole world is cancer free. May that day come sooner, thanks to you.

Until then, we’ll keep making waves. Swim long, stay strong, go deep, my friends.

Footnote: My brother, Peter, was the top individual fundraiser for this event, raising close to $20,000. Richard was second. Other teammates included: Gary Boyd, Tom Markey, Joanne Trout, Brad Hittle, Kurt Jomo, John Schinto III and Theresa Plavoukos. Thank you all!!

Tax deductible donations are still being gratefully accepted at

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Six Miles for a Cure

Open Water Log
July 28, 2009

Exactly three days ago, at 5:45 Eastern time, I was sitting in a small outboard motorboat tied to the dock at Larchmont Yacht Club in Westchester County, New York. The stars were still out when I’d arrived at 5 to check in for the 6-mile swim. Stars were a good sign. It meant the sky had cleared after the long night of thunderstorms. I was awake on and off all night listening to them.

Now dawn was breaking and the eastern sky shone pink over the still harbor. Tide was ebbing to a dead low. My boat captain, Walt, was on his third cigarette, and I was choking.

Relieved when he’d finished his last drag, I was struck by the irony. This was a swim to help find a cure for cancer, after all. Walt threw the butt overboard. It sizzled and I watched it float under the dock. I wondered what other floating debris I might encounter during my three-hour tour.

It was July 25, 2009, the date of the 17th annual Long Island Sound Swim. In spite of the worst economy in 20 years, this Swim Across America fundraiser had drawn the largest number of swimmers to date. Most would swim the one-mile event. Some would swim the four-mile event. I was one of four registered to swim the full distance from Glen Cove, Long Island back to Larchmont. It would be my longest open water swim to date.

As we awaited the other three swimmers at the dock, Walt answered my navigational questions. The total distance was 6.2 miles point to point. I could see for myself that there’d be no waves to contend with. There wasn’t a ripple in the water. In a shorter swim, I’d always be up for waves, but today, I was perfectly content with calm. The swim would be direct, Walt said, because the tide was still on its way out and wouldn’t turn until around 8:25. By then, I figured, I’d be more than halfway across and the incoming tide might even help push me to shore.

Tides can push you to either side of your intended landing spot, forcing you to plan ahead and navigate accordingly. Ever since this tide had reached its high mark earlier that morning at 1:56 a.m., lunar gravity had been pulling more than eight feet of water out of the Sound. That’s a lot of drainage. As the moon rotates around the Earth, the bulging tides follow it to either side of the planet, producing two lows and two highs every 24 hours. The fuller the moon, the higher and lower the tides. Today, according to Walt, the tide would not pose any issues for me and I believed the old salt.

Just then, one of the other four swimmers boarded our boat. I was eager to meet her. She was a tiny woman, with the build of a marathon runner: no body fat and legs like sticks. She held in her arms a full wet suit.

With Sound temperatures fluctuating somewhere between 65 and 70, I had been feeling anxious all week. I’d never been in water this temperature for three hours before. I had brought my sleeveless “shorty” wetsuit with me just in case. Earlier that morning on the dock I had met a triathlete from San Diego. I noticed he was wearing an Ironman Arizona baseball cap, so I struck up a conversation. I wanted his advice. I told him of my dilemma: to wear a wet suit or not to wear a wet suit. In more than 40 open water swims, including several in the chilly San Francisco Bay, I had never worn one.

“I’d wear it,” said the triathlete.

“Yes, but you’re used to wearing them. You’re a triathlete,” I said.

“Yeah, but I was a swimmer before I became a triathlete. It’s not a race, remember. It’s just a fun swim. Believe me, you’re going to want the wetsuit.”

My decision was made. Wetsuit it is. Now, the skinny swimmer in my boat was strenuously pulling on hers. It was thick and shiny, like seal skin.

“Have you done this swim before?” I asked.

“This will be my third time,” she said. “I’m really slow. It takes me so long. I can run 200 miles no problem, but this is the one event where I feel like I could truly drown,” she said. “The only reason I do it is for a friend,” she added.

“I’m doing it for a friend, too,” I said, pointing to Paul’s photo which I’d had enlarged on fabric and pinned to my tee-shirt. Paul had lost his battle with cancer two months earlier. When Paul got sick, I felt so helpless. When he passed away, I wanted to pay tribute to him in some meaningful way. It seemed fitting that I was swimming today in his memory, raising money doing something I love for someone who loved swimming as much as I do.

“I did the four-mile distance here two years ago, but this will be my first time doing six,” I offered.

“Well, the four is more like three and the six is more like eight,” said the marathoner flatly.

My heart sank. Eight miles? Was this woman kidding or just trying to psych me out?

“Last year, the GPS had me going 7.2 miles and it took me more than four hours,” she said.

With currents, a person could easily swim an extra mile or more. But that was not likely today. Either way, I was here to embrace the challenge, whatever it held. There was no room for negativity in my head. Just then, as if by divine providence, a large blue boat pulled up to our dock.

“Why don’t you take Jillian over with you so she can get started,” Walt yelled to the blue boat’s captain. He nodded. And with that, the marathon runner hopped out with her wetsuit half on and boarded the other boat.

They pulled away, carrying the last of the kayaks and paddlers that would accompany the six-mile swimmers.

Walt said, “She does this swim every year, but she is really slow. Best she get a head start.” That sounded like a great idea to me.

Meanwhile, we waited. And waited. I was enjoying the tranquil view from the boat. (That's Long Island in the distance). Walt was getting more and more impatient. He alternated dialing his cell phone, swearing under his breath, and shouting into his walkie talkie. “Where are those other swimmers?” he kept saying.

Long minutes passed. How could anyone be this late? I was getting antsy myself. I’d gotten up at 4 so I could be here at 5. Now it was already 6:15 and we hadn’t even left the dock.

Finally, after lighting his fifth cigarette, Walt got a hold of someone on his radio. Turned out the swimmers we’d been waiting for were already across the Sound, waiting for us. “Yup, they’re ready to start,” came the voice on the other end. “Where are you?”

“We’ll be right over,” Walt said, meaning we’d be there in 15 minutes. “I don’t know how they snuck by us,” he muttered. He fired up the motor, untied the lines and carved a slow swath out of the harbor.

When we got past the no-wake zone, he opened it up for a smooth ride across the Sound. It was about 70 degrees and hazy, with visibility of about four miles or so. I made note of landmarks along the way. Behind us loomed the latest Trump Tower, one of many high rises to which The Donald has sold his name. It was the tallest building visible on the Westchester shoreline and would be the landmark I would site on my return swim.

The water remained flat as we maneuvered through several thick lines of debris. Debris tends to accumulate in lines where currents or tides converge. Mostly, it looked like seaweed to me. No shoes or tires or anything. Even though something like 54 Long Island Sound beaches were reportedly closed three days earlier after heavy rains produced unhealthy storm drain runoff, the Sound indeed looked clean to me. Still, I intended to swim with my head up through those slicks.

In mid channel, a sturdy tugboat pushed a massive barge southward toward New York City, which lay somewhere through the haze off to our right. We passed about a ¼ mile behind the barge and could still see and feel the churning of the tugboat’s propeller wash. Ahead, the Long Island shoreline was coming into view. First, Sands Point with its large estates came up to my right, then into Glen Cove we went. It is a deep, wide cove that continues to narrow for more than two miles into Hempstead Harbor, with shore points marked by green trees as far as you can see on both sides.

About a thousand yards from our landing beach to the left (Morgan Memorial State Park?) we finally saw the kayaks and other boats. The three other swimmers were already in the water, making their way towards us. They had started without me. I was disappointed but I didn’t blame them. We slowed to neutral and my kayaker, whose name I never even caught, paddled up to us.

“Whenever you’re ready,” said Captain Walt.

His comment caught me off guard. I was still in my clothes. As I scrambled to disrobe and put on my wetsuit, I asked the kayaker, “Where did they start from?”

“They started back there,” he pointed to a deserted beach. “You can start here, and swim with them, or you can start back there from the shore, it’s up to you.”

That was a silly question. “I’d like to start from the beach if that’s okay.” I hadn’t come all this way to cut it short.

Walt put it back in gear and motored me in as far as he could at low tide. “That’s as far as I can bring you,” he said.

“Do you have anything you want me to carry for you?” said the kayaker.

I’d nearly forgotten. I dug into my bag and passed him an orange Gatorade and a few packets of “Gu” I’d picked up at the bike store in Tucson.

Tucking my hair into my cap and affixing my goggles, I asked Walt “is it in neutral?”

“Yup,” he said.

And with that, I jumped feet first off the gunwale. Water filled my wetsuit. It didn’t feel as cold as it had the week before, when I’d arrived from Tucson and did my first practice swim. At that time, it had taken me 10 minutes just to get in, and another two minutes to regulate my breathing. After that, it felt great. My brother’s boat registered the temperature that day at 66 degrees. Today, I figured it must be warmer, even with last night’s rain and the early morning hour. Still, it was borderline wetsuit weather to me and I was glad I’d put mine on. At least that worry was behind me. I’d never swum 6 miles anywhere except in an 80 degree pool, and only a few times at that. This was new territory.

I stroked about 100 yards into shore. I used it as a warm up, swimming until I could clearly see the bottom. Visibility is never great in the Sound, but it was better than my swim here two years before when warmer water brought with it blooms of algae giving the water a hideous yellowish-brown tint. This year, it looked closer to a sea foam green to me. Visibility was three to four feet.

When I was in close enough to firmly stand, I put my feet down on muddy silt and turned to face my kayaker.

“So which way do you want to go?” he said. Very funny.

“How about I just follow you,” I said.

“Good, I’ll stay on your left, and I’ll be here whenever you need anything,” he assured me. “Whenever you’re ready.”

I liked my kayaker already. His presence was indeed reassuring, considering I’d be swimming the whole way alone. My only goal, besides finishing, was to pass the marathon runner in the full wetsuit. I could see her splashing off ahead in the distance. I figured she had about 500 yards on me. I checked my watch. It was 6:35. “Okay,” I said, “here I go.”

And just like that, on my own command, I was propelling myself across the Sound.

I felt good from the start. Never cold and never hot. The wet suit was not too cumbersome. It was very lightweight. And thankfully, I felt no sign of the injuries that had been plaguing me the past several weeks: the pulled latissimus dorsi/rib strain; the sprained toe; the hematoma on my shin; the shin splints; or the bruised hand. Some were the result of overtraining. Most were from sheer clutziness. Ice and Advil were my best new friends, along with Gary, my chiropractor, Nadine, my massage therapist, and Stan, my acupuncturist. In company like this, I felt a bit like Dara Torres minus the talent, not to mention the 12-pack abs.

Training for this particular swim, I learned many good lessons. When your muscles get fatigued, treat them kindly with plenty of rest and massage. The harder you work, the more recovery you need—not less. Start your taper before you pull a muscle doing a simple sprint. Don’t walk too closely or too fast behind your dog, lest she stick a leg in front of your toe on your way down the hallway to watch Wimbledon finals on t.v. Don’t go for long walks in borrowed tennis shoes, no matter how pretty the scenery. And definitely don’t wear stupid heels into Manhattan; you might do a swan dive down the stairs trying to catch the train.

A superstitious person might have construed such incidents as one big reason to call it quits. But a half hour into this swim, I knew I was right where I belonged. The yellow kayak was to my left, and Walt was hovering somewhere downwind. I couldn’t smell his fuel fumes or his cigarettes.

But sliding between my fingers I could certainly feel a million jelly lumps. Leidy’s comb jellies, or sea walnuts, are harmless, clear gelatinous jellyfish that are abundant in Long Island Sound. They feed on plankton. If I focused my eyes close enough, I could see their multitudes through my goggles. Big ones. Little ones. And lots of ‘em. It was as though I was swimming in jellyfish soup. I wondered what would happen if I swallowed one.

Within the first hour, I passed the marathon runner and her escorts. She wasn’t as slow as she and Walt let on. But I never saw her again after that, nor the other swimmers, wherever they were. The shoreline finally fell away first to my right and then to my left, and I knew I was finally parallel to Sands Point. I still hadn’t left Long Island. I had also come up on the first slick of debris. I lifted my head and said “Eww.”

“It’s a lot of yuk,” said my kayaker. “Keep your mouth closed.”
I did. Head up, I stroked through the slimy brown seaweed and foam. I glanced at my watch. I’d been swimming for an hour and ten minutes. More than one-third of the way there.

"Do you want something to drink?” said my kayaker. It was so nice to have company.

“Sure, I’ll take a sip.” I floated on my back and raised my goggles. He handed me the orange Gatorade and I took a few swigs. It tasted sweet. I’d never had the luxury of hydrating during a swim. Or stopping. Or conversing for that matter. “Where are we?” I asked.

“About two miles out. There are the four-mile swimmers ready to start.” He pointed to the left where I could see many boats bobbing off Sands Point in the distance.

“There are so many jelly fish in here,” I told him.

“Really, did you get stung?”

“No, they’re just the clear ones,” I said.

“Last year, my swimmer got stung twice in the face by red jellyfish, he said. “It was really bad. But it was much warmer last year,” he added.

I’d seen those nasty red jellyfish in these waters. But not today. I handed him back the Gatorade. Replaced my goggles, and said, “Thanks, okay, let’s go.”

I did about ten strokes of backstroke then flipped over and continued stroking. The wet suit was beginning to irritate my skin around the arm holes, particularly on the front side of my right shoulder. I had meant to borrow some Vaseline or Glide from one of the other swimmers but never got the chance. The tingling was very minor. I put it out of my mind.

A little while later, a spied a new boat coasting just off my right side. I breathed right a few more times and saw three men waving. I recognized the man holding a green bottle. Yes. It was my husband, Bill. I popped my head up and lifted my goggles.

“Hey, you made it!” I said, genuinely surprised. He’d been dead asleep when I left the house at 4:30. I checked my watch again. It was 8:30. I’d been swimming for nearly two hours.

“These are my friends, Todd and George, and this is my husband, Bill,” I explained to the kayaker who waved hello. I felt like I was at a cocktail party in the middle of the Sound.

“How are you feeling?” Bill asked.

“Chafed,” I said. The irritation had grown from mild to bothersome. “You?” He smiled and raised his beer. Hair of the dog. We’d been out at a friend’s 50th birthday party the night before. I’d been the first to leave at 11:30 and drove a half hour home in a downpour. He got a ride home and stumbled in after 2.

“Where are we now?” I asked my trusty kayaker.

“About half way.”

Only half way? It couldn’t be. I must be closer. I could clearly see the Trump Tower now. I didn’t want to look back, afraid that Long Island would appear closer. After breaststroking through some more “yuk” I put my head down and swam. I focused on long, accelerated pulls. My friends stayed with me for a time, then sped off. I told them it would be boring. Later I learned they’d given their last beer to the blue boat’s captain and needed to replenish their cooler.

As I continued to swim, I could sense the change in the tide. I felt like the current was with me now. After a while, my kayaker signaled me left. I followed. Three more times, he signaled me left again. He was good. We were a team. Either I was swimming crooked, or the tide was pushing me north.

After about a half hour of this, I felt unmistakable turbulence beneath my body, like I’d swum over a scuba diver. I looked down but could see nothing but darkness. I lifted my head and saw nothing on the surface. But I had my suspicions. “Am I in a school of fish?” I asked. I’d seen boils of baitfish all week out on the Sound.

“I don’t see anything,” the kayaker calmly said.

“Well, I feel them. Not their bodies, just their current.” It was eery. But before I had time to worry about being caught up in a Bluefish feeding frenzy, the mysterious current and whatever was causing it disappeared. Darn. I was hoping it might be porpoises. They’ve been spotted in the Sound, apparently. Something new since I lived there, like coyotes and Lyme disease.

By now I could clearly see the red roof shingles of the Larchmont Yacht Club, an imposing structure that looked really close, about 15 minutes away, I figured. I was relieved because my shoulders were really aching now, my arms had gotten very heavy, my stroke rate had slowed and I was getting hungry. Plus, the chafe had now spread to my left armpit, the back of my neck and my lats. And to add insult to injury, something venomous had gotten inside my suit.

15 minutes of purposeful swimming and the building looked no closer than before. But that’s impossible. Could I really be swimming that slow? Every stroke was a chore. And then suddenly I saw the bottom up close. Rocks covered with starfish. Lots of them. I popped my head up. “Hey, I can see the bottom here.” But I was a long ways from the beach.

“That’s not good. We must be on a shoal. We better veer left and get you around it safely. Be careful!”

We took a sharp left, away from my intended target. I was swimming very slowly and with care, examining every rock and starfish below. It was no more than 3 feet deep. I could have stood up. Finally, the bottom fell away again and my kayaker led me back around to the landing beach. There were other swimmers now. I could see their caps. I could see people on the beach. Another kayaker joined me to my right. “You’re almost there,” he smiled.

But I was not almost there. It was yet another 15 minutes of painful swimming until I finally reached shore. And no sandy beach was this. The bottom was covered with large, slimy rocks. Very difficult to stand. Impossible to walk on. I tried. I fell backwards, nearly taking someone out. “Sorry,” I said, and I sat there, trying to figure out how I was ever going to stand much less walk over these round slimy rocks without breaking my tailbone. I sculled forward until it became too shallow. Then I crawled on my hands and feet like a crab. A hand reached out. I grabbed it. I was up. I had finished. I limped off the rocks.

The time on my watch was 9:50. I’d crossed the Sound in three hours and 15 minutes. I could barely lift my arms when someone offered me a towel. I wondered how anyone crosses the English Channel at race speed for nine hours, then fights through those wicked currents to reach the rocky coast of France. It was unfathomable to me. This was a leisure swim by comparison. I trudged up the beach to check in. Oops. Then I remembered that I’d left my kayaker somewhere back in the shallows without so much as a goodbye. I didn’t have a chance to thank him. I don’t even know his name.

I hope he knows how much I appreciated his calm demeanor and able assistance during my swim. Hundreds of volunteers like him made this event possible. This year’s Long Island Sound Swim raised $850,000. One small step in the fight against cancer; one giant leap for me. Thank you for taking the journey with me. Stay well.

Other Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank a number of other people who supported me on this swim, including Susan Scheerer, for allowing me the honor of swimming in memory of Paul; all of you who wished me well and made donations to Swim Across America for my 2009 Swim for a Cure (together, we have raised $7,395, with more pledged and always welcome at; Mary Bellin, for making the beautiful commemorative quilt; Andrew Clark of Performance Fitness, for making me strong; Coach Jordan Stoughton, for helping me swim better, longer; my husband Bill, for all his patience, help with fundraising and getting me ice; my brother Peter and family for hosting us all week back east; Janel Jorgenson, for running such a great organization; and all of my swim mates at Skyline Masters Swim Club, for sharing their love of swimming with me.

And to everyone out there who is battling cancer: Hang in there. Fight the good fight. Until there's a cure, we'll keep making waves. (Click here to see a map of the Long Island Sound.) To learn more or join my swim for a cure, click here. Ever dollar counts!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Swimming the Sound

Swim Across America, a non-profit organization that raises funds for cancer-fighting causes around the U.S., offers several Long Island Sound swims every summer. I’d always wanted to swim across the Sound and four miles from Sands Point to Larchmont, NY sounded just right to me. I signed up for the July 28 event. It would be my longest open water swim to date. My personal goal was to raise $5,000.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2007, I continued my usual pool training, four or five days a week, about 15,000 yards or so. I also began to reach out to family and friends with news of my fundraising endeavor. I invited them to join June’s Swim for a Cure, and to my delight, they responded with enthusiasm.

This edition of my Open Water Log takes you inside my final preparations for the swim and the event itself. Together with my generous team of supporters, we accomplished something we can all be proud of. Over 50 donors have so far joined me in raising more than $8,000 for Swim Across America and its cancer-fighting beneficiaries. I am ever so grateful to my fundraising team. I promised them all a full account. This is their story as much as it is mine.

Friday, July 20, 2007

With one week to go before my big swim, I woke up in Santa Barbara half way through a Southern California college tour. To my delight I discovered a wonderful long-course pool located directly across the street from our hotel—and they had a Master’s workout. I was in heaven. We spent the day touring UCSB. Then, before joining the evening workout, I walked down to the nearby beach with my kids, with every intention of taking a dip in the ocean, my second of the season. The first had been a chilly, heart-jolting dive off the back of a sailboat off Catalina Island in mid June. People I know swim from that island 20+ miles across the shipping lanes back to Long Beach, without wetsuits—at night! Even in the blazing morning sun, I couldn’t withstand the bone-chilling temperature long enough to swim more than a few pathetic strokes. I’m guessing it was in the low 50s that day, better suited to the California Gray Whale I’d seen mid channel the day before.

At the beach in Santa Barbara now, I watched several swimmers enter and exit what appeared to be a busy swimming bay. Most were clad in wet suits—bad omen. Moments after we’d set down our towels, we watched a large pod of dolphins swim across my intended path. Exciting, and unnerving. After the large animals had moved up the coast and out of sight, I waded up to my knees into the murky, kelp-filled surf and stood there a long while before beating a reluctant retreat. As I sat back down on the beach watching my kids play in the waves, they egged me on. “Come on Mom, you like this, remember?”

I tried the positive approach. I do love the ocean, I do, I do, I do. Then the cowardly lion in me set my sunny side straight. I just don’t particularly like the thought of swimming out there all by myself…in unfamiliar waters…that you can’t even see through. This was typical self talk at the edge of the unknown. I’d been there many times. It was important mental exercise. The winner of the conversation would either be the hero or the victim. I knew I really had no choice.

After about 20 minutes of see-sawing, I mustered the nerve and ventured in long enough to swim about 250 uneasy yards out around one buoy and back. I wasn’t exactly hyperventilating. It was chilly, but not numbing. Still, I couldn’t see a thing below me. And nobody (at least nobody that I know of) was beside me. I was trying my best not to sprint.

Safely back on shore, I was elated. The accomplishment of overcoming my fear was far more satisfying than the swim itself had been, short as it was. My mental workout was officially over and it was a good one. I had emerged the hero. Wet and salty I arrived just in time for my physical workout in the pool.

I always enjoy dropping in on Masters workouts when I travel. As a visiting swimmer, choosing a lane is always a crap shoot. You don’t want to choose one that’s too fast, nor too slow. In this case, I sized up my pool mates on deck and chose the middle lane. It was a lucky guess. My two lane mates and I were right on par—except for one thing: It was backstroke day. This meant trading places. I’d lead in the freestyle sets, then I’d lag in the backstroke and kick sets. 3,100 meters later (half of them backstroke), my back muscles were thanking me, I think.

July 22, 2007

Today, down the coast a ways, I was finally able to swim long, comfortable “laps” along the beach, just outside the surf zone. I was in San Clemente, just north of the pier. The sky was overcast and drops fell intermittently. The water was clearer and much warmer than in Santa Barbara. The lifeguard stand said 68 degrees, but it felt more like 78. The surf was relatively flat, but my kids and I caught some good “body whompers” nonetheless. Yes, I do like this. I do, I do, I really do. And in less than one week, I reminded myself, I’ll be on the other coast, swimming across Long Island Sound.

“Ewwww, aren’t there, like, dirty diapers floating in that water?”
“How far is that?”
“Isn’t it freezing there?”
“You’re crazy.”

“I’ll let you know.”
“Four miles.”
“No, not in July.”
“Crazy for open water.”

I can’t help it. I was born half fish and raised in a salt water pool. Long Island Sound holds a special place in my heart. I grew up on the Connecticut side, gazing across its vast breadth at that piece of land, often wondering what it would be like to swim to the other side. I’ve seen its coves crusted over by ice in the winter. I’ve been rocked to sleep by its fog horns. I’ve watched sea gulls feast on oysters and mussels from its depths. I’ve fed dozens of loaves of bread to its ducks and swans. I’ve seen hurricane force winds whip it into a frenzy. I’ve sailed on it, waterskiied on it, hauled fish out of it, boated on it, fallen in it with my clothes on, and yes, swum in it countless times--just not yet across it.

I’d have to cross the country to get there first.

July 26, 2007

We rose at 4 a.m. Tucson time. By the time we laid our heads on our pillows in Connecticut that night, it was after midnight, east coast time. It had been a full, exhausting day of weather-related travel delays. I was glad I had a whole day to rest up before my event.

July 27, 2007

After waking up early to take my nieces to their swim practice, I enjoyed a nice swim in my original “home” pool, 25-meters of salt water, followed by a dip in the Sound. It was high tide, calm and perfect. The thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon never came. It was a beautiful day. The rest I so badly needed never materialized. I visited with old friends for dinner until way too late. Before retiring, I printed out the directions to Larchmont Yacht Club off the internet, and packed my swim bag—towel, water, goggles, and cap. It was after midnight again when I climbed into bed in the guest room on the second floor of the house where I grew up. My old neighborhood is surrounded on three sides by water, the same water I’d be swimming in just a few short hours from now.

July 28, 2007 Event Day

Predictably, I hardly slept a wink for the third night in a row. Intermittent rain showers pelted the roof throughout the night and early morning hours. In my semi-conscious state, I imagined stormy seas swallowing boats outside the windows. I was so tired from sleep deprivation. I half hoped that rain would force the event to be cancelled--just so I could sleep in.

The dawn was just breaking when I rose at 5:15. I peeked outside: The rain had stopped. A dull throb knocked inside my skull and I immediately downed two Advils. I brushed my teeth, put on my suit, slipped on some sweat pants, tee-shirt, hat, and was out the door while the rest of the household slept.

The lightening skies were overcast, and the air felt heavy with moisture. The pavement, leaves and grass were all wet. There was no wind. This was good.

Winding through the canopy of maple trees along the narrow streets of Riverside, mine was the only car on the road. Larchmont Yacht Club is situated a little more than half way between Riverside and New York City. The trip would take just about 30 minutes, I figured. I had left plenty of room for error, in order to ensure my check-in before the mandatory swimmers’ meeting on shore at 7 a.m.

Alone with my thoughts, but for the reassuring GPS voice guiding me to my destination, I was not at all nervous about the swim. I knew the distance would not be a factor, and it looked like the conditions wouldn’t be either. I’d seen glimpses of the Sound along the route. It was like glass. The closer I got, the more excited I became. Still, I strained to keep my bleary eyes open.

It was 6:20 when I pulled into the club parking lot. I found my way to the large tent where volunteers were checking in hundreds of swimmers for the one- and four-mile events. (The six-mile swimmers had been required to check in a whole hour earlier, and were already on their way across the Sound to their starting point on Long Island.)

After a mandatory interview during which I assured an official that I was capable of swimming one mile in less than 30 minutes, he cleared me for check in. I signed the waiver and my arms were marked “252” which matched the number on my neon pink swim cap. Officially registered, I strolled outside and took a seat on the sea wall to wait.

The harbor was peaceful and still, breathtaking with its moored sailboats rising with the bulging tide. The sunrise reflected pink against the lingering rain clouds. In the distance, an egret stood on a rock, eyes fixed on his breakfast in the shallows. To my right, the fog occluded the view of nearby Manhattan, which would have been clearly visible on a clear day. Even Long Island was barely visible through the mist.

I struck up a conversation with another swimmer seated to my left. It was not his first swim across the Sound. This was the 15th anniversary of this event and many locals, I learned, had done it every year. They came in various shapes and sizes, and all ages. Some had lost their hair, indicating an active battle with their disease. Others wore shirts in memory of loved ones lost. Many swam as teams, the team names emblazoned on banners. It was to find a cure that we were all here. In all, I estimated there were about 800 entered in the one-mile event, and about 100 of us entered in the four-mile event. Only four swimmers were doing six miles.

The meeting commenced by the flagpole at 7 sharp, right on cue, and the four-mile swimmers gathered around on the lawn to listen to the race director. It was not a race, we were reminded. Times would be displayed at the finish, but it would be our responsibility to make note of our own times, if we wished. This was a big part of the reason I was so calm. No competitive nerves today.

The incoming tide, we were told, would be pushing us west, toward the city, so we were to keep the large orange buoys lining the course to our left. Sometime during our swim, the tide would go slack. A giant balloon hoisted high above the clubhouse next door at Larchmont Shore Club marked our beach finish. (The distance was actually something less than four miles, I was disappointed to learn.) Kayakers would be present to assist anyone in distress. If we should experience any distress, such as numbness in our hands or feet, we should flag down a kayaker, but NOT try to board the kayak, he repeated. Hypothermia was not to be taken lightly. Boats would be standing by to provide emergency assistance.

I had not even brought my wetsuit with me. The water temperature was reported to be 68 degrees in this part of the Sound. But those thermometers were submerged on weather buoys, three feet under the surface. I guessed it had to be at least 75 on the surface. Very do-able. So why were all these people wearing wet suits, I wondered.

A few minutes later, we were being escorted down to the docks to board one of three large fishing yachts for the 20-minute ride over to Sands Point. I boarded one called The Impatience. The deck was crowded with swimmers who mostly seemed to know each other. One woman had had a baby three months ago. Now that’s brave. She was not wearing a wet suit and looked like an unlikely new mother to me. Her friend commented that she’d tried to keep up with her. They reminisced about the first time they’d done this event, 15 years ago, when they were 27. “The waves were three feet and it was so windy and cold, you couldn’t see anything or anyone around you, and we didn’t think to wear wet suits that year” one of them said.

Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you just never know what you’re going to get in open water. You just deal with the conditions Mother Nature dishes out, just as cancer patients deal with their cancer. Today the conditions looked like they’d be smooth as nougat, no nuts.

As we pulled away from Larchmont, the nauseating diesel smell of the engines dispersed. I contemplated the color of the Sound in the propeller wash. It wasn’t anything remotely like the electric blue of the Maui Channel. Nor was it like the chalky aqua hue of the San Francisco Bay, or the warm gray-blue of the Pacific off La Jolla Cove. This was a brownish, greenish, dark gray color with a hint of orange, perhaps. I could not quite put my finger on it. It was a color Ralph Lauren might be bold enough to introduce into his autumn design palette, or not. It really was not pretty.

Aboard the Impatience, I met a guy with a nice smile, from Michigan, or was it Chicago? His name was John. I forget whether John’s boss was one of the event’s founders or a major sponsor, but he’d flown in just for the event. Adopting my tour guide persona, I pointed off the starboard side to where would be New York City but for the poor visibility. “Really?” he sounded impressed as we gazed into the haze. I’d grown up seeing that impressive skyline across the water, and would never forget the day it changed forever.

It was to be John’s first swim ever in Long Island Sound. He’d done a training swim in Lake Michigan the week before. That water’s cold. Now he was squeezing himself into a full wet suit. I helped him stretch out the rubber around his shoulders and zipped him in.

Soon, we slowed to an idle off the coast of Long Island and awaited the 8 a.m. start. There would be an electronic beep signaling us to begin jumping off the sides of the boat and start swimming back from whence we came. Swimmers were now busy greasing themselves up with chafe-resistant salves and sticks. The clouds above looked dark. I put on my cap, goggles and sunscreen. I was ready.

Sands Point looked like it had some nice, private estates on the waterfront, their expansive lawns stretching down to the shore. Gatsby-esque. Kayakers made figure eights around the idling fishing boats. I exchanged waves with Janel Jorgenson on the committee boat. I’d had lunch with the former Olympian/executive director of Swim Across America last Summer on Cape Cod, to discuss the possibility of starting a SAA event in one of Arizona’s lakes. When I’d said hello to her earlier back in Larchmont, she was surprised to see me, and sounded delighted to hear how much money my team had raised.

Now, all the training and fundraising behind me, it was time. The long anticipation for every big swim always comes to an abrupt end. Suddenly, the signal came and people were jumping. I looked around for some empty water below and aimed for it with my pointed toes. I submerged a few feet and came up swimming, careful not to collide with anyone. I would not stop until I got to shore.

It was not the least bit cold on the surface. And there it was again, that color, up close and personal. Was it gold? Was it brown? There was not even a tinge of blue in it. Then again, my goggles were red. In spite of its unidentifiable color, the water was pretty clean. No flotsam or jetsam to speak of. Certainly no dirty diapers. No seaweed. No jellyfish, at least not the big, ugly red ones. (The little clear ones don’t count.) There weren’t even any noticeable lines of frothy brown sludge, the kind that look like the head on a root beer float, that you can usually count on seeing in the Sound, especially after a storm. I was grateful.

The current was with me and the salinity was buoying me high in the water. I stroked on, avoiding other bodies that seemed to be changing direction erratically. The big orange buoys were lining the course to my left, each about ¼ mile apart. They were easy to see and I was on course. Just keep swimming, Dory. Reach and roll. I thought about all of my sponsors, most of whom were asleep in their beds back in Arizona. Their support of my swim and this cause was truly overwhelming. And I thought of the many people I know whose lives have been touched, or snuffed out, by cancer. I swam for them all.

I couldn’t believe it. I felt so good. This could be the easiest open water event ever. Sure, I gulped a few mouthfuls of salt water and who knows what bacteria. But no waves were slapping me up side the head, giving me a black eye. And I was sure there were no man eaters lurking just out of sight, waiting for me to look appetizing. Neither were any man ’o’ wars wrapping their long tentacles around my leg. In fact, nothing at all was stinging me, at least not at first.

About mid race, as the water got noticeably warmer, I did feel a few sea lice stinging me inside my suit. Elsewhere they call them sea wasps. Whatever they are, they’re invisible creatures that inject their poison and leave a small welt, not unlike a mosquito bite. Nothing more than an annoyance. I tried not to think about them.

I broke stride only a few times, to readjust my ill-chosen, too-small suit and navigate through a few areas congested with swimmers. Other than that, it was a straight shot home. I never looked at my watch, but knew from the stiffness in my shoulders when I had about a mile to go. I then started overtaking lots of swimmers with yellow caps. These were the one-mile swimmers who’d started at 9. They were everywhere all at once. I threaded my way through them.

At 9:20, my feet touched down on silt and slippery, seaweed-covered rocks. I was on terra firma again, and weightless no more. I made note of the time on the official race clock as I trudged uphill through the sand.

“Congratulations. How are you feeling?” came a voice. The safety squad was making sure nobody was delirious.

“Fine, I feel great. It was great,” I sputtered. I did feel great, in a tired kind of way.

Wet and wobbly, I checked in at the finish table. They handed me a commemorative medal and a towel. I took them and strained to climb the steep cement steps. My quads were fatigued. I grabbed a Gatorade, put it to my pruned lips, and chugged the sweet beverage down.

Shower. I needed to shower. Those little buggers in my suit had to go. In the locker room, I had to wait for a free stall. One of the six-mile swimmers was washing her hair. “How was it?” I asked. I was wishing I had done the longer event.

“It was awful,” she said. “I was so hot. I almost stopped to take off my wetsuit and throw it in the kayak.” She did not look well. I waited patiently.

After a quick rinse, I discovered my skin was still covered with a thin film of microscopic brownish-green algae. It formed streaks on my new white towel. There was that color again. I felt like I needed another shower. But I also needed breakfast.

A full buffet awaited us and it tasted good. At 10 o’clock a siren sounded, declaring the end of the event. All swimmers that weren’t in by now were brought in. Janel addressed the crowd of swimmers and volunteers, thanking them for making this the longest-standing and most successful of Swim Across America’s numerous fundraising events. Beneficiaries, including Memorial Sloan Kettering, were presented a ceremonious check for One Million Dollars.

Never before had I participated in a fundraising event of this magnitude. Swimming for a cure was awesome. I was grateful for the opportunity to swim four miles in these oddly-tinted yet calm seas and also for the new-found camaraderie with swimmers I’d never met. But the money we raised for a good cause was the best part of this experience, by far.

Total exhaustion was now setting in. I needed sleep, badly. On my way out, I saw John in the crowd. His neck was chafed raw by his wetsuit, but he was still smiling. “See you next year,” he said.

I could barely keep my eyes open on the drive home. A good shower and a nap were in my immediate future. The whole morning felt ethereal. Back in my bed again, I slept soundly, another dream accomplished.

P.S. (Post Swim)
July 29, 2007

We enjoyed a celebratory dinner last night at the home of one of my oldest friends (also a major donor on my Swim for a Cure team). This morning, we departed on a drive up the coast to enjoy a visit with Bill’s sister, Sara, and her family. Sara’s son, Andrew, our seven-year-old nephew, is in his third year of treatment for Leukemia and his immune system is totally compromised. We had arranged to meet in a park, just as we had the last few visits, on account of the germs prevalent in closed public spaces.

Andrew looked like any normal seven-year-old boy, with a gleam in his eye and a cut on his chin. He ran and played with sticks and his eyes gleamed when he un-wrapped the Battleship game we brought him. He didn’t complain when he couldn’t accompany us inside the Gillette Castle. He knows the routine. So do his brother and sister. It’s been this way practically their whole lives, since his initial diagnosis in Spring of 2005, after he complained to his mother that he couldn’t sleep because his bones hurt. At seven, he’s seen more hospital rooms, needles, IVs and pills than anyone should ever have to see. “I threw up this morning,” he told me nonchalantly. Just another part of the routine. Andrew’s treatment is going well and we pray that it continues. He’s looking forward to visiting us in Arizona when he’s all better. Christmas 2008 is the goal.

Even though none of the money raised by Swim Across America goes directly to help Andrew, it will help to prevent suffering among other cancer patients like him, young and old. Until the day a cure is found, we will keep making waves. For more information, or to make a donation to Swim Across America, visit Swim Across America today.