Sunday, September 23, 2007

"You never know what you can do until you try"

I'd just finished the September Splash mile swim in Wildwood Crest, NJ. and had retired to the women's restroom/makeshift locker room at the Bayview Inn to change from wild, unkempt swimmer to Normal Person (a transformation that is purposely never quite complete). A girl of possibly about seven or eight was there with me, both of us commiserating about our colds.


Just two days before my swim a nagging cough that never seemed to cause me any real problems picked up intensity, woke me up at night, invited its best friends in to stay, and they invited their best friends, and the racket made me lose sleep and concentration. But I'd looked forward to this one last fling in open water before the season ended, and so prayed, hoped, poured cough syrup and ginger tea down my throat, and kept Hall's drops by my side. It seemed that nothing was working until finally the morning of the race--when the coughing calmed just enough to give me hope.

Even so, I took no chances. En route to the race, the wrappers of one cough drop after another filled the trash bag, as I cast about for ways to replicate the effect of these drops without the inconvenience of sticky wrappers and the constant taste of imitation lemon and honey.

No matter. Once I arrived, the buzz of activity distracted me from worrying about my condition. I met with friends, chatted, did some yoga stretches, and when it was time to start, I felt calm, ready to go.

My goal had been to break forty minutes, but I had to reset that--just beat last year's time. Very low bar: last year, under-trained, I swam in fits and starts, lost a pair of goggles and almost lost two swim caps (I'd worn two for warmth). The goggles are now somewhere in the depths of Sunset Lake unless some lucky swimmer retrieved them, but a kayaker helped me recover the caps. All this because I realized at the start that I could not see well through the aqua tinted goggles that looked so attractive in the store but made everything look dark on an overcast day--and so pushed them up onto my forehead. Having learned from that experience that clear goggles were the way to go, I returned this year with the clear goggles, and added to those a 5.25 mile swim still in my muscle memory, many more yards of training swims... and the cough. This last made it an achievement for me to reach the starting line, but I also knew that a better swimmer was about to enter the water this year than last.

When we started, that better swimmer revealed herself. Holding to a steady bilateral breathing rhythm, staying at least with the back of the pack swimmers. I didn't have to raise my head every few strokes to check with kayakers about my direction. I was swimming fast enough to see other swimmers nearby. Progress. I felt more at ease, more confident and even seemed to have escaped the cough that was plaguing me on land. Out here I was free, light, in my element.

The markers came more quickly too. In the Cross-Bay swim they were a mile apart, so having them more frequently was a luxury. Last year, they might as well have been a mile apart for the progress I made. This year, I was more focused, stronger. Yes, I did occasionally check with kayakers on the direction, and yes, toward the end, I went a little off-course, trying to catch a swimmer who had just passed me and also had gone off course. Fortunately, we were both "herded" back toward the beach by the ever-watchful kayakers, and although the gent had temporarily led me astray, he also motivated me to swim harder. If our mis-direction cost us time, his passing me and making a race of it may well have given that time back to me. In any case, this last surge of competitiveness kept things interesting, and for that I thank my rival whom I didn't get a chance to meet afterward.

The time on the clock when I drew close enough to read it was 43something. Not as fast as I'd hoped, but my best time on this course. I don't know the official time, but after negotiating the rocky footing in the standing depth water and reaching the stairs to take me back to dry land, I think that I still slipped in under 44 minutes. Considering that I hadn't been sure I'd be able to start, and that I hadn't pushed full-tilt in this race due to the cough, I was pleased. I knew I had a faster swim in me, felt more comfortable with open water swimming--enjoyed this swim, in fact--and want to make a habit of this.

The little girl I met in the restroom afterward had the wisest parting words. When I told her I hadn't been sure whether I'd be able to complete the swim because of the coughing, she turned to face me and said very seriously, "You never know what you can do until you try." Out of the mouths of babes....


Other highlights: slapping hands with a woman who finished soon after I did--"I did it!"--her joy at completing her first open water mile resurrecting in me my own first-timer's excitement....meeting with a veteran swimmer, a woman in her 70s, who can make considerably younger swimmers eat her wake and who did the Chesapeake Bay 4.4 mile swim this year, reminding me that age is a number, not a limit... and finally the woman asked a fellow swimmer about the numbers marked on our arms, reminding me that these numbers set us apart, made us, for her, a special breed. The numbers will wear off, wash off, but I hope we carry within us that specialness. The woman, told about the swim, then said admiringly, "I couldn't do that!" But who knows... maybe she will reconsider or maybe there is something else she is considering doing and maybe she will think, "why not?" and reach deep and try something she's secretly wanted to try.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Cross-Bay Swim, August 3, 2007

A shorter version of the following was published in the Fire Island News. This is an unabridged version.

Eating Waves for Breakfast: Adventures at the Maggie Fischer Memorial Cross-Bay Swim
Dialogue at work recently:

“How was your summer?”
“Well, I did a five mile swim…”
“On purpose?”
We both laugh.

Had I been told in my less athletic days that I would swim five and a quarter miles across the Great South Bay, I would have raised an eyebrow myself. But yes, in fact, … on purpose, following in the wake of swimmers past and present who surprised themselves with capacities they never knew they had.

The year is 1927. An eighteen-year-old girl, Anna Zoeller (later, Anna Dennis), is awakened to the news that she has something very important to do. That something, as it turns out, involves swimming across the Great South Bay, an event in which her friend, impressed by her swimming ability, had entered her without her knowing. Once at the Fire Island Lighthouse, where the swim is scheduled to start, she quickly changes into a swimsuit, and dashes into the water to begin her swim. So reports the her son Bill Dennis on the web site for the Maggie Fischer Memorial Cross-Bay Swim ( The second woman to finish the swim that year, Anna was “proud to have competed and for having the stamina to complete the entire course.”

Fast-forward eighty years. It is August 3, 2007.. Kayaks and swimmers line the bay beach in front of the Lighthouse.. A flurry of last-minute preparations is underway. Check-in of swimmers and kayakers is almost complete. The air is filled with nervous, excited chatter, and finally, it is time to start. The 2007 Cross-Bay Swim has begun. The swimmers are en route to Gilbert Park in Brightwaters, 5.25 miles from their starting point. These swimmers too hope eventually to share Anna’s pride at completing the entire course. While some hope for a winning time or a personal best, others will be happy simply “to have competed,” their victory not dependent upon place but upon reaching the finish before the four-hour time limit expires.

While much has changed from the early days of the Cross-Bay Swim, whose beginnings are said to be in the early 1900s, the pride in competing, the triumph of completing the course remains and draws swimmers of diverse ages and abilities to the starting line every year for their chance to test themselves in this watery field of dreams known as the Great South Bay.

Three-time swimmer Jim Sconzo, who succeeded in talking his brother Tom into the swim this year, is familiar with the sense of accomplishment the swim offers: “Anytime you take the ferry across to Saltaire,” he relates, “you will always say ‘I swam from here to there.’” And Rob Roos, who completed his second swim this year, agrees: “There is just something about looking out across the bay and knowing that you made it across.”

Records of earlier swims are spotty—the list of past winners starts with 1950 and is missing names even at that, although readers of the web site are invited to supply missing information—but the swim’s more recent history grows more easily traceable. A hiatus occurred between 1964 and 1968. Then the race was discontinued after 1977 and again restarted in 1999, when it was dedicated to the memory of Maggie Fischer, a seventeen-year-old lifeguard who had planned to swim the 1999 event but who died in a car accident a few days before the swim took place.

Rather than turn inward in their grief at losing their daughter, her parents, Bob and Mary Fischer have sought to give something back to their community in the form of a fund to assist other families facing loss: Proceeds of the swim now go to the Hospice Care Network Children's and Family Bereavement Program. Swimmers and others are encouraged to donate or raise money to be donated to this program. (See sidebar for more information.) Moreover, they are very deeply involved in the organizing of the race, and all the details that go into making it a success.
And if the growing numbers of participants and increasing amount of money raised is any indicator, the race has come back stronger than ever. Inspired by a good cause, a decades-old challenge, and, in some cases, by their love of Fire Island and the Great South Bay, swimmers keep coming.

For some, who remember Maggie Fischer, the swim has special meaning. Amanda Rosen, for instance, was especially drawn to the swim for this reason. “I remember when Maggie passed away,” she says, “and I wanted to do the swim in her memory.” Rosen also sees the swim as a chance to reconnect with friends and says that the swim “has become a reunion for all of my girlfriends to get together and see our growing families.”

Since its re-establishment in 1999, the numbers have grown from a low of 28 finishers in 2003 to 78 this year, including 46 newcomers.

Cara DeFrancesco is one of those newcomers. In fact, she took the particularly brave step of making the Cross-Bay Swim her first ever open-water event, although past experience as a competitive swimmer and her basic fitness (she is training for a triathlon) as well as sheer determination took her to the finish. “I consistently reminded myself,” she recounts, “that I was swimming for charity and not to win the race.” Even so, she happily reports that she beat her time goal by fifteen minutes, finishing just under three hours.

I am also a newcomer.

And perhaps one who would have surprised the early swimmers. Or perhaps not. My childhood athletic glory occurred mostly in my daydreams.

As a child, I would spend August in Saltaire with my family, until my father’s passing in 1965, after which visits were shorter, and in recent years especially less frequent than they used to be.
In the annual Labor Day Weekend swim meet held in Saltaire, I raced in the 25-yard freestyle not for first place but for second-to-last place. In fact, I feared deep water until I was ten or eleven, so swimming lessons didn’t progress very far in any case, until I finally surrendered that fear. In recreational program pecking order, I generally was the last chosen for teams. None of this surprised me. It was simply how things were. Yet if I was no star athlete, I did remain active, enjoying long walks, sailing, and, once I overcame my fear of deep water, swimming.

I did not begin to see myself as an athlete until, in my 30s, I discovered running—and ran countless road races, including seven marathons, the first on my fortieth birthday. Living inland, I swam less willingly: pools held no interest: they were too confining, artificial, roped off and linear. The bay, when I could swim there, was liberating. So was running. Both brought me outdoors, close to nature. But curiosity drew me back to swimming—even in pools. A masters’ swimming group formed at my local Y in 2005, and I decided to give it a try. I was hooked. The boredom of back and forth swimming was replaced by a variety of distances, effort levels, and even strokes. Better still, my running improved. And I returned to outdoor swimming when the coach talked me into a one-mile ocean swim. It had been years since I ventured past breakers, so yet again I had to conquer a fear, forge past crashing waves, and out to the first buoy to begin my mile. A changed person reached land.

Soon after that swim, on a visit to Saltaire, I mentioned my open water adventures to someone who then told me about the Cross-Bay Swim. My first reaction: Not a chance—way too long! But that still, small, bay-loving voice persisted. I hadn’t thought I could complete an ocean swim, yet I did. Why not this one?

And as the idea took shape in my mind, I realized that for reasons I still can’t quite articulate, I needed to do this swim.

With each increase in distance recorded in training, I was entering new territory inside me. I was meeting someone new. The unreachable distance became the recovery swim.

Does self-doubt as an athlete get washed away in five miles of bay water? Not necessarily. It is human never to be quite satisfied with one’s level of achievement, and I’m no exception.

But as I made my way across the bay on August 3, experiencing increasingly choppy waters, seasickness, and a conviction that this would be my last Cross-Bay swim (or as DeFrancesco observed about her last mile, “I am SO over this swim!”), I was meeting another layer of myself, and a surprising one, one that said, “I’m not sure I want to be finished. How many people get to do this?” Which was not to say that I wanted to rush right out to start a second lap when I finally reached the safety of “terra firma.” But, ultimately, the journey hadn’t just been across the bay. It had been into my soul as well.

My finishing “happy dance” shook out of me whatever remaining salt water I’d swallowed during the swim. But seasickness no longer mattered—or rather, it had become a badge of honor. I had not only finished, but had finished 35 minutes under the four-hour cut-off that had been my target time. As an added bonus, I even received an award: the first, and in all honesty, the only woman in the 50+ age group. Which, to me, meant being the oldest woman either brave or crazy enough to try the swim this year. I treasure that beautiful carved glass memento of my accomplishment.
Looking across the bay, I felt proud to have competed. On purpose, indeed.

How does the Cross-Bay Swim come together?
This event is truly a team effort, and it depends almost entirely on volunteers.

The team formation begins when the swimmer first decides to enter, since each swimmer must arrange to have a kayaker accompany him or her. Kayak support is critical to a swimmer’s success. As Bob Fischer explains, “we advise everyone not only to be a strong swimmer but to have a strong kayaker who knows how to navigate in the tidal conditions we encounter. Each year we have more kayakers drop out than swimmers, just to show how tough it can be. Without a kayak, a swimmer is in jeopardy. We worry about that every day.” It was my good fortune to have Eric Fleming, a kayaker from Hamilton, N.J., who has ten years experience and who has escorted swimmers in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (28.5 miles) as well as the Atlantic City “Around the Island” Marathon Swim (22.5 miles). Although we were temporarily separated at the start—kayaks were sent out first so as to reduce crowding at the start—once we were reunited, I needed only to keep my eyes on the kayak, and felt perfectly comfortable doing so.

But even so, we were grateful for the help of the race support kayakers. Led by Dave Faverio, these kayakers helped to “trouble shoot.” One of the kayakers, seeing me swimming alone during the first mile, offered to find Eric for me, and within a few minutes, Eric pulled up next to me. He had been looking for me, and thought I had already gone by. (I’m flattered by his estimate of my speed, but no, I was still chugging along in the back of the pack.) Later, we received some help with navigation, and at all times, I was aware of kayakers and support boats nearby, so I never felt unsafe throughout the swim.

As challenging as the swim is, the kayakers encounter the same conditions while tending to someone who depends upon them. Fortunately, from all reports, they find satisfaction in assisting swimmers. “In many of these events,” says Eric, “if i did not help out, they would not be able to do their swim.” He also views kayak support as a chance to see “new places.” The challenges of the longer swims he’s escorted have prepared him well for the Great South Bay, which he found easier than conditions in the Manhattan and Atlantic City swims.

While some of us met our kayakers for the first time the day of the swim (I had been in e-mail and phone contact with Eric but our first meeting took place when I found him waiting for me at the ferry terminal in Bay Shore), others have known their kayakers for many years. Rob Roos is accompanied by his best friend from high school, and Amanda Rosen normally has her husband kayak for her. Sometimes, however, emergencies arise, and both swimmers and kayakers must rise to the occasion. When Amanda’s husband was injured at the last minute and could not kayak, her friend Kendra King found herself in a role she hadn’t planned on: with no kayaking experience, she was asked to step in. Assured that she was a good kayaker, she was doubtful, but learned quickly enough, helping Amanda to a sub-three-hour finish. A rough test for a friendship, but the two weathered it.

Besides the kayaks, an elaborate network of support boats and volunteers on both land and water must work together. Take the average number of details that need attention in a 5k run, cube the total, and add water. That will only begin to account for the responsibilities a swim director faces. Fischer describes the swim as “a pleasure to organize but a logistical nightmare. We bring together two land locations with very different needs: the start location must check in swimmers and get all the forces together in a very short period of time after the boat arrives from Bay Shore.
“We must account for everybody and disseminate that data accurately to everyone on the committee boats and on the mainland where the official records are kept. That requires several channels of radio communication. At the finish line we have cadres of people dedicated to making sure all the swimmers and kayakers are accounted for during the course of the swim.

“On the water we have Coast Guard, police, fire/rescue, harbor and squadron boats as well as many volunteer boats. They all stay in contact: they monitor the progress of swimmers and guard the course from stray boaters who may enter the waters. On occasion they run interference when someone barges through. We rely on the captains and their marine radios for bay related matters, and we have a team of ham radio operators on each boat to relay time information and other course statistics to the finish line people. The radio channels are at capacity for much of the time!”

To ensure that all goes well, the organizers begin planning meetings as early as December of the year preceding the swim, says Mike Pallotta, who oversees many of these operations. Pallotta originally worked alone but discovered that for the swim to be successful, he needed a network of people so that if one individual needed to step down, there would be a back-up system in place.
Peter Zendt, working the first mile marker, cites the challenges of checking swimmers through the “gates.” (At each mile there was a “gate” formed by a buoy on one side and a boat on the other. Swimmers were instructed to do their best to swim through these gates, or at least have the kayaker update the boat crew on his or her swimmer’s whereabouts.). At first, he says, there is an “adrenaline rush,” and he finds himself rushing from bow to stern making sure he has counted everyone. Later, the crowd spreads out, and the job is easier, but boats must remain on the course until all swimmers have either finished, or, in some cases, drop out. Ensuring that everyone is counted poses a challenge when many come along at the same time. Zendt praises the organization of the swim, mentioning in particular, Brandt Rising, who directed the volunteers on the boats, providing each volunteer with a packet spelling out his or her responsibilities, ensuring that everyone went out prepared, knowing what to do.

The result: swimmers had high praise for the organization of the Cross-Bay Swim, and with good reason. Besides the extra care taken to ensure the safety of swimmers, there were the extras: Besides the color coded swim caps that helped volunteers track swimmers, at the finish, each swimmer received a towel with the race logo, a bag containing a finisher’s medal and two t-shirts—one for the swimmer and one for the kayaker. Swimmers, kayakers, volunteers, and their friends and family were also treated to a generous lunch at Declan Quinn’s restaurant.

Add to this, the efforts of those involved with the Hospice Care Network’s Children and Family Bereavement Program, and this event is a winner.

To support this event, whether through donations, volunteering, or sponsorship, you can contact
Donations may be sent to
Maggie Fischer Memorial GSB Swim PO Box 332
Brightwaters, NY 11718

Want to try the swim?

Advice from organizers and swimmers

Swimmers have successfully finished with varying levels of experience and training. Training plans have ranged from a mile swim once a week to a detailed Excel program with daily workouts. After successively longer swims, I chose to swim the race distance in training, simply as a confidence boost, but not all swimmers do so. Amanda Rosen offers her own reason for preferring not to: “I would know what I was getting myself into and I wouldn’t do it!” But the common denominator, as Rosen offers, is that swimmers should be “in great cardiovascular shape.” “Be ready for four hours in the water,” Bob Fischer advises, “most of it with no idea where you are.”
Open water swim experience will help a swimmer to cope with tides, currents, and sighting. Jim Sconzo spent about forty minutes per day swimming in the ocean. While training in a pool can build endurance, it can be a shock to come from the protected environment of lane lines and an easily visible opposite side of the pool to an expanse of water with a mind of its own. Strong swimmers such as DeFrancesco managed without open water experience, but Ideally swimmers should have a combination of training, experience with open water, and endurance.

What to take along:
The kayaker provides not only navigational support but also storage space for food, drinks, and other supplies, but swimmers should travel light: sunscreen, lip balm, Body Glide or Vaseline (or other anti-chafe product of choice), seasickness relief product of choice, and snacks that you know will agree with you.

Experimenting with food choices during training is vital, since you will have a better idea of what works during the swim. I learned, for instance, that the sports gels I relied on for running didn’t sit well during my swim workouts.

Since a towel is provided to swimmers at the end of the race, bringing one is unnecessary, but you might want to have a t-shirt/shorts or warmer clothes (depending on the weather) available when you finish.

I gave my kayaker a camera to take some pictures of me but since I didn’t stop for any refreshments (not recommended, by the way), he never had a chance to use the camera. A good photo and snack opportunity occurs about halfway through the swim, as there is a sandbar and standing depth. I might have been wiser to take something at that point, but I was on a roll and did not want to stop. Later, seasickness took away any appetite for food. My advice: eat when you have the opportunity.

I can hardly offer advice on preventing seasickness, but products recommended to me were ginger (which could be in the form of ginger snaps), acupressure bands, and Dramamine (although on Dramamine, opinion was divided; swimmers should try the medicine before race day to be prepared for its side effects).

Upon finishing:
“Cross the finish line before looking around you for friends,” DeFrancesco advises. “I would have come in a whole minute sooner if I had done that.” Once finished, though, enjoy the moment and thank the volunteers and organizers. They have worked hard to make this event a success!

For those with children:
Amanda Rosen, a mother of a one-year-old recommends hiring a baby sitter for the day. “You are so tired after the swim that it is exhausting to follow your little ones around,” and “it is nice to visit with everyone you haven’t seen in so long.”

What to expect afterward:
The swim can be quite draining physically. The time spent in the water is close to the equivalent of time spent running a marathon. Although the fastest swimmers can complete the course in under two hours, it is not uncommon to spend three to four hours swimming, so be patient with yourself in returning to your regular workout schedule. Like marathon runners, swimmers should replenish fluids and carbohydrates, as well as protein. Vitamin C is also helpful in boosting the immune system. Remember, you will have taken in a lot of bay water, so boosting your immune defense afterward makes sense.

You may, at some point during the swim, have vowed, “Never again!” But perhaps you now find yourself checking out other swim web sites and planning for future Cross-Bay swims. I have news for you: this means you’re officially hooked. Happy swimming!