Sunday, September 16, 2007

We respond with a resounding, "Why NOT??" (posted by Clara)

The act of diving (or in Mallory's case, awkwardly falling) into the frigid, choppy water eight miles from the South Boston shoreline may have sealed our plans for the next year, but it was merely the culmination of years of speculation and preparation. It all began early in our friendship... someone suggested that Mallory (already an accomplished distance swimmer) should swim the English Channel, and I jokingly replied that if she did it, I would too. I don't think I could put my finger on the actual moment in time when our grandiose plans morphed from being in jest to being deadly serious, but I think some part of me has always wanted to tackle the great white whale of open water swimming.

For most of my life, I've enjoyed pushing myself higher, harder, and faster. I came into my own as a distance swimmer at around 14 or 15, but I always chose to swim all the longest and hardest events available in my age group, long before I was any good at them. Why? Because other people were scared to swim them. 400 IM? Mile? 200 fly? Bring it on! Anyone who has ever played a game of ultimate frisbee or water polo with me knows that I always willing to sacrifice personal safety to win, and in my freshman year in high school, I wanted so badly to be the one to swim the furthest without taking a breath that I swam until I passed out. In short, if a challenge presents itself to me, I love to take it on.

Of course, pool swimming has its own obstacles. There is always the challenge of posting faster times, swimming longer and more difficult sets, etc, etc. But at the end of the day, you're still swimming in highly controlled, laboratory-like conditions. Some pools may be a little warmer, or more poorly lit than others, but within reason, every single pool race has the exact same parameters.

Not so with open water swimming. If it's cold, choppy, rainy, you just have to suck it up at TAKE it. Open water swimming is you against nature, and she is a fiery and unpredictable opponent. And every race is totally different, even on the same course. Yeah, sometimes it's so cold you can't f-ing pee, and the water is so full of minerals that your suit-rub spots are bleeding, and that stupid landmark you're sighting just never seems to get any closer, but when you finally pull yourself out of the water at the end... well, there's nothing like it. So why do I want to swim the English Channel? Because it's there!

That all being said, I don't think I would have ever seriously considered actually making a Channel attempt if it wasn't for Mallory. When she swam (and won) the 7.8-mile Little Red Light House swim in New York, the furthest I had ever swum open water was a mile, and that was in a dinky man-made lake. The next summer, when she swam 28 miles around Manhattan Island, I had made it out for a 2-mile ocean swim in San Fransisco bay, but I was still clearly playing catch-up. She's my partner in all of this madness, but she's also my inspiration. So in 10 or 11 months, when I'm ten miles in and ready to die, Mallory, who brings out my craziest and most hard-core traits, will be my motivation to just keep swimming.

You might be asking yourself "Why?" (Posted by Mallory)

On August 18, 2007, Clara and I took a momentous leap into chilly 60-degree water for an 8 mile swim, thereby cementing the pact we had made years earlier. I'm not really sure how it got started: I'm sure the initial seeds were planted by family and friends, who upon hearing about my open water swimming adventures, countered with "So when are you going to swim the English Channel?" For me, that was it. The notion had been implanted. Now I understand that they were teasing me, a fact that has become glaringly apparent by their reactions as they learn of my plans for an August 2008 crossing. Before, when I boasted of my future plans, these same people would smile and nod, and maybe offer a small word of encouragement. Now they look on with disbelief as my childhood dream becomes a reality. I am, in fact, a freak. Very few people in the world enjoy a challenge as much as I do. I enjoy the daily grind of training, of pushing myself past imagined boundaries and achieving more than thought possible. I have found my niche with open water swimming.

The sport of open water swimming is a lonely one. Over the course of my pool swimming career, I have trained with hundreds of comrades by my side. I can count on one hand the number of people who have trained beside me in a body of water not chlorinated. There are so many more uncontrollables. The water can be any temperature, any color, and can have ANYTHING floating in it. It is usually impossible to see the bottom, and even if you could see the bottom, you probably wouldn't want to. Boats fumes can choke you and make you nauseous. Worse yet, boat propellers could strike you and severely injure you. Jellyfish can sting you, fish can nibble on you, and yes, a shark could theoretically bite you.

In spite of all this, I have found someone who shares my passion and who is living this dream beside me. It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Clara that she is doing this. As she came out of the water on August 18th, having been fighting the waves and chilly temperatures for almost four hours, she was completely unfazed. As I shivered in my sweats, winter hat, tennis shoes, and gloves, she declined so much as a towel, and was content to sit right there, looking out on the beach.