Like a lot of triathletes
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the
water. Sometimes I love the water. But I hate
that blanket of disappointment that covers me
when I emerge from the water and see that awful
swim split on my watch. If you’re a rotten
swimmer in this sport, your day usually starts
with bad news.
I’m not a good swimmer,
at least I haven’t been.
And there are those awful
workouts. The appeal of getting up at 5:30 AM
to be in a cold pool by 6:00 AM is lost on me.
Because of that, I rarely do it. And because I
rarely do it, I’m not a great swimmer. At
all. My biggest success in twenty years of doing
triathlons was coming out of the water third in
a local triathlon. And that was a long, long time
ago. Put me up against the best swimmers in the
sport and I go backwards.
To me a wetsuit is my best
ally and swimming is what you do when your boat
sinks or before you get on your bike.
In triathlons if you want
to be good, you have to find your way to being
at least a decent swimmer. Four months ago I was
a long way from decent. Today I am much better.
I have renewed my love affair
with the water. It took almost an entire lap of
the globe and four months work to do it, and it
remains a work in progress. But the biggest revelation
I can share with you is that this morning I swam
long and hard and loved it. I was in the lane
with the fastest swimmers. A man who swam in college,
a woman ranked fifth in the nation in the 1650
in her age category, a fitness instructor on the
cover of a men’s magazine. This afternoon
I will once again swim long and hard and I am
looking forward to it. And yesterday I had a swimming
experience so wonderful, so beautiful, so dream-like
that I will carry it to my end.
I’m in Curacao right
now, writing this from my hotel room at the Lion’s
Dive Hotel. Curacao is a small island in the Dutch
Antilles about 35 miles north of Venezuela in
the southern Caribbean. This is Doug Stern’s
Triathlon Training Camp. Interesting characters
from all over, but mostly New York, make the trip
here to escape the winter weather and begin their
season in the sun and transparent water of the
Curacao is a country mad about
swimming. Even with the ocean never more than
a couple miles away the island is dotted with
pools. Each morning we train in a massive 50 meter
pool with a beautiful ocean view. Cruise ship
passengers watch us practice. In Curacao it is
mandatory that every child learn to swim. Yellow
buses disgorge loads of quaintly uniformed school
children as we leave our early morning workouts.
The ocean is the environment down here. And to
learn to embrace the ocean, to survive in it,
to live in it and with it, is critical to daily
life on Curacao.
In and of itself Curacao is
an unremarkable Caribbean Island. The giant white
cruise ships with names like “Adventure
of the Seas” spill their passengers into
jewelry shops and casinos and seafood restaurants
every morning and afternoon. A massive oil refinery
accepts the cargo from a constant stream of tankers
and belches acrid smoke from some vague and menacing
process. The island has a low rumble of activity
and the landscape is not much to look at. Until
you put your face in the water. Then Curacao shines
like a newly shucked pearl in the sun.
This is the place to come
to fall in love with the water. To fall in love
with swimming. This is the antithesis of the 6:00
Swimming in Curacao is fun.
Doug Stern has had us in the
water every day here, twice a day. We do open
water swims in five foot swells where jellyfish,
barracuda, boats and presumably other fearful
things bump us down the food chain. We churn out
laps in the pool using all manner of weird swimming
contraptions designed to isolate, manipulate,
optimize and humiliate our swim strokes to maximum
efficiency. We practice strokes on dry land, do
stretches at the breakfast table and the dinner
table. I even swam with dolphins here, watching
their purpose built swimming bodies demonstrate
the most efficient stroke of any mammal as they
pulled me around the ocean.
But mostly, we discover the
essence of swimming. That fluid, beautiful, grace
of passage through water where we are weightless
When I was a kid I loved the
water. Long days at the pools were filled with
improvised athletic challenges like who could
hop the fence into the deep end without the lifeguard
seeing you and who could touch bottom in the deep
end. We had a weird pool called Seashore Pool
that was huge and round with a concrete island,
“The Tower”, in the center. The Tower
was festooned with slides and diving boards. It
was a rite of passage to be able to swim past
the fence that marked the deep part of the pool
and make it to The Tower in the center. We practiced
holding our breath and spying on the girls from
school in their bathing suits, even before we
knew exactly why it mattered. We dared each other
to perform “Australian head dives”
from the high board and had “Cannonball
contests”. We lined up at the pool when
it opened and stayed until it closed. It was respite
for our parents during the long summer and adventure
for us with little else to do around town. When
we were kids, Seashore Pool was our Curacao. We
played in the water, we got comfortable in the
water, we learned to love the water.
Seashore Pool was torn down
decades ago to build a “real” pool
here in Dearborn. The kind you and I use when
we swim endless, monotonous laps back and forth
concentrating on stroke mechanics and watching
that awful black line while counting off endless
laps. It makes you faster, but it doesn’t
make you any more fun. I think Seashore Pool being
torn down for the new “Olympic” fifty
meter pool was the end of fun for me in the water.
In my job in the military
we were constantly wet, often in and out of the
water with loads of too much bulky gear, frequently
in scary water in the dark hiding from an imaginary
enemy as we trained to become creatures from the
black lagoon. It looked cool in photos and movies,
but it was cold, uncomfortable and frightening.
I remember that one of the men in our small unit
died jumping from a helicopter into the water.
I stood guard at his funeral, next to his girlfriend
who wept so hard she could not stand. I learned
to hate the water then.
Last fall I visited a close
friend of mine at her beach house on Lake Huron.
Her house is at the end of a point and she sees
the sunrise and the sunset over the water. We
swam together in her front yard, the great lake.
The water was clear and the bottom sandy. She
told me she pictured herself as a mermaid; that
she loved the feeling of water on her and slipping
through the lake unencumbered. She grew up near
the water. She is an excellent sailor. Her family
owns a fleet of various boats and uses words to
describe the water I don’t recognize. When
we swam she dropped me instantly. Water seems
to offer no resistance to her. I couldn’t
understand it. I had no idea how she did it. She
was graceful. Even during the winter she is graceful
on the water in its frozen state as a figure skater.
She did Ironman last year and said she “had
fun”. For her, swimming is fun. For me it
was laborious toil. I wanted to like it as she
did, but I just didn’t.
In triathlons I love the sensation
of passing people on the bike, sometimes hundreds
of them, and actually holding my own (sometimes)
on the run. But in the swim I get clobbered. It’s
always easy to find my bike in the transition
area, it is one of the last ones there. I never
felt “right” n the water. I never
felt good. I never felt like I did back at Seashore
This morning we rode our
bikes from one end of the island to the other,
about 30 miles. Along the way some of the people
in our camp rode a bus loaded with barbecue equipment
and foil wrappers of marinated fish and chicken
along with coolers of iced drinks. We packed beach
equipment like towels and sunscreen and snorkels
and flippers and cameras. We loaded it all on
the bus to meet us at the end of our ride. We
were riding to a magical place called Knip Beach.
Along the way the bus occasionally passed us with
a broadside of anonymous buttocks framed in the
windows and then pulled over to cheer us on and
offer fresh water bottles.
On the way to Knip Beach we
ride through cactus desert to a high cliff overlooking
a crystalline, turquoise cove- shy and hidden
from the rest of the coastline and protected by
a massive reef off shore. Knip Beach is one of
those places you see on postcards during the winter
but don’t dare stare at too long. The sun
casts shadows on the bottom in twenty feet of
water. In the dive shops they sell little laminated
plastic cards with color pictures of all the species
of exotic fish in the sea. Each one of them lives
at Knip Beach. Cowfish, Surgeon fish, Parrot fish,
Moorish Idol, Snapper, Sea Bass- all the fish
on the little plastic card are right here. It
takes about twenty minutes to see a specimen of
each. The only ones missing are the menacing ones
included on the card just to impress your friends
when you get home.
At Knip beach you do not swim,
you levitate. You glide effortlessly through buoyant,
invisible water as though your stroke gave you
wings above a fairy tale coral garden. The curious
fish look at your goggle eyes and then go about
their business of finding morsels of whatever
they eat amongst the rocks and massive brain corals.
You are suddenly sleek here.
The fish mostly ignore you because they presume
you are one of them. And that is the highest compliment.
Hovering above the white sand
bottom I used the things Doug Stern had taught
us: Rotate from the hips, keep your elbows and
palms tight but your stroke wide, look for your
hands in the water. Follow your arms to swim straight.
And suddenly I was a swimmer again. It didn’t
just happen like that, I have been in the pool
five days a weeks for 23 weeks now. My body has
changed, my shoulders ache. And now I can swim.
But in Curacao I learned to love swimming. I learned
how easy it is to go fast. How good it feels when
the water slips around me, and me through it as
if the resistance is suddenly gone.
I’m still no contender
for the swim prime at Ironman, but at least now
when I am swimming in a triathlon I am actually
racing, not just surviving until I can get on
my bike. I understand why my friend wants to be
a mermaid. In Curacao I loved being in the deep
ocean, out amongst the wild waves- a wilderness
For most people the breakwater
or the beach swimming boundaries may as well be
the end of the earth. Go beyond and peril is guaranteed.
For Doug Stern and everyone in his class on Curacao
it is the gate to the playground. Doug takes us
out in the blue water, where you can’t see
bottom. He teaches us to swim alongside waves
crashing on rocks and over ephemeral peaks and
valleys of seawater. People on boats point at
our bright orange swim caps as we swim in the
open sea and marvel. Doug shows us there is almost
nothing to fear out here.
And this year in Curacao,
slipping above the sandy floor of Knip beach on
a magical Caribbean day I found out I loved the