Saturday, May 30, 2015

Two Bridges and a Swimmer

Home from the 2 Bridges Swim, put on by CIBBOWS.

The experience was as much a roller coaster as the waves that shook me to the core, the current that pinned me, it seemed, in a single place for eternity. ("That playground is STILL THERE??")

But learning to ride this roller coaster can break open the soul.

To walk to the Mid-Hudson Bridge along the shore, from the start to the turn-around would likely take a fraction of the time it took me to swim that distance. I'd no doubt have a camera along, take pictures, and return to the finish comfortably, likely in time to snap pictures of finishers.

But comfort is not what you get swimming in this river. I knew that to some extent even before starting and had some worries about swimming in a river whose currents and tides could sweep an unwary swimmer off course and into danger. Yet precisely for this reason, the river fascinated me--it was alive, dancing, taunting, slapping us silly.

It's one thing, however, to stand in awe--another to swim.

The 2 Bridges Swim is so named because... well... two bridges are part of the course. The first is reached against the current, which is flowing from the ocean. We were directed to swim to that first bridge, circle the buoy just past the stanchion, and proceed to the next bridge, go under it, and likewise, circle the buoy on the other side, before proceeding to shore, circling another buoy near the shore.

Simple, right?

On a map, yes. In the water... not so much.

The swim toward the Mid-Hudson bridge was the most frustrating one I’ve ever undertaken.

From fighting the current, it was a short step to fighting myself. Those tapes: "You suck at this! Do you really think you can do these swims? You're no athlete!"

And honestly, I'm no superstar. I don't finish at the head of any pack. Classmates in high school PE argued over who had to take me on their team (those choose-up-sides days). However, be that as it may, another something else--not a voice but a drive, a need, something unarticulated but as strong as that river current--saying "this HAS to happen!" The old swim instructor from childhood days whom I channeled in that channel--the one who tried for years to get me to stop fearing deep water--I called on him a lot. And I also called on people physically present such as the kayakers and a "swim angel" (one of the volunteer swimmers who lend support in the water, swimming alongside people if needed). My swim angel was a Godsend. He hung with me, having to do sidestroke to stay slow enough to keep me company (I was doing at that point an increasingly imperfect crawl). This man guided me to a stretch closer to the shore where, he said, the current would be gentler. And knowing someone was next to me, my task was simplified: stay with him.

I saw a swimmer being taken out, another clinging to a kayak and I was at times tempted to follow suit, but something kept telling me, "keep swimming, keep swimming!"

Eventually, we reached the bridge and the buoy; then he set off to help a swimmer behind me.

Smooth going from now on, I hoped--except that my legs were cramping until I could barely move. But in fits and starts, I began to make more progress. Still, I felt very isolated and alone in the middle of that river, waves breaking around me (but at least pushing me in the right direction).

Seeing the Zodiac boat, I waved to ask them to come closer--really, just needed their presence and reassurance that I was still going the right way (not wandering into a shipping lane as we were warned before the race not to do). I also mentioned the leg cramps--but told them just not to go too far away, in case they came back.

After that, encouraged by long-awaited progress, I swam more comfortably, felt more relaxed. Soon enough, I was starting to close in on the other bridge and wondered if I could stand yet another swim against the current, even to go to shore.

However, that question was moot because suddenly, the Zodiac boat was in front of me. "We're sweeping the course in five minutes. Do you want to just swim to shore?" It took me a nanosecond to evaluate my chances of finishing the whole course in five minutes--and absolutely no debate to say "yes."

My swim angel appeared again and together we swam to shore, as I hoped that would be less stalled than the swim to the bridge had been. Fortunately, progress was quicker, and I could see to the bottom; however, standing I was going to reserve for when I reached a human being who could help me up--which happened when my hand touched ground and swimming had to be replaced by walking.

What did this roller coaster ride teach me?

If I really savored the moment, the now, what I’d have done, in retrospect, is forget the fact that this was going to take longer than I wanted and simply enjoy the ride.

Yet I have no regrets, except that if I were to do it again, I’d learn more about how the Hudson flows, how to swim it, how to not panic if waves (and sticks) hit me, how to focus on the mere fact that I’m in one of America’s great rivers, swimming! The Hudson is a tough river.

Swimming in it takes more understanding of how rivers flow, how to flow with them, how to find beyond the “please rescue me” fear the fierceness to swim deep—which isn’t to say swim underwater, but swim deep inside me, swim so that the water hitting me in the face holds no terror, but instead, wonder. I need to not forget what I learned in the pool, or am still learning. I often do resort to survival mode, yet if I truly experience where I am, I believe it would be a truly wonderful swimming experience.

Swimming there isn’t for the fainthearted, and I don’t feel any sense of failure that I didn’t swim the full course. I know this is a learning process and that the river taught me a hard swimming lesson—but also more importantly a lesson that I can take elsewhere.

Sometimes life tasks can feel endless and there seems to be no progress at all, and in fact, it seems as if forces are pushing me backward. But when I reach impasses like that, I can know (a) that if I persist, I can make progress and (b) there is help if you ask for it, even if you’d rather not. Finally, (c) success or failure has less to do with such yardsticks as “finishing” but also has to do with the knowledge that for today, I did the best I could in a setting in which I was fearful and uncomfortable but really, in retrospect, full of wonder at its power.

I had an experience not many people are privileged to have—to swim in one of America’s great rivers, a river that’s such a significant part of our history. It’s not a comfortable swimming pool. It has its own rhythms and rules, has its own presence, its own movement. Respecting it, honoring not only its beauty but its demands will heal us, make us more its partners, not conquerors.

And I thank my friend Nabil for telling me about this swim, encouraging me to join it, and giving me a ride there. He took on the 5k and ran into similar issues, although he was able to do a full lap and nearly two but was also ushered in prematurely.

I met some wonderful people who take on adventures others might think crazy and we might even at times in the process question our own sanity--yet emerge laughing, sharing stories, breaking bread--and even (some of us) having a beer!


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