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Love And Hate
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom and flipper share an intimate moment.

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 surrounding sea.

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 AM workout.

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 and sleek.

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 pool.

Until yesterday.

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 of water.

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 water again.