Many open-water swimmers seem to have origin stories. A moment of revelation when one identifies – in a powerful and lasting way – with the experience of being in open water. In reality it’s usually more of a process than a single moment, but often there’s a particular event that seems to crystallize that process and lend it symbolic meaning (perhaps only retrospectively).
One of the great legends of open water swimming, Lynne Cox, turned her own origin story into an award-winning book. Cox’s story, too, was a process – but she also describes a moment from which the rest of the moments in her incredible career seem to flow. In 1971, she entered the Seal Beach Rough Water Swim and, as a 14-year old, won the women’s race and beat all but two of the men. Only a middling talent in the pool, Cox was encouraged by her coach, Don Gambril, to try open water.
Cox’s description of the race start sounds almost surreal, but I think many who’ve caught the open water bug will know exactly what she means:
The water was cold, salty, buoyant, smooth, and the deepest blue. And I swam as if I had learned to fly. I raced across the water. My strokes felt powerful, and I felt strong, alive, as if awakened for the first time. Nothing in the swimming pool gave me this pleasure. I was free, moving fast, feeling the waves lifting and embracing me, and I couldn’t believe how happy I was. It was like I had gone from a cage into limitless possibilities.
– Swimming to Antarctica, p. 28.
Some origin stories are rooted in failure. Another legend, Penny Lee Dean, attempted to swim the length of the Golden Gate Bridge as a 10-year old (4-foot-2, 50 pounds), but DQ’d herself 400m from the finish by touching a support boat. She describes the pain of failure, and the inspiration that followed:
I cried. I had failed, but promised myself I would never quit again. Someday I would swim the English Channel. This swim taught me about challenges I had never experienced physically or mentally in the confines of a swimming pool; it inspired me to attempt every open water swim possible.
– Open Water Swimming, p. 5.
Other origin stories seem almost accidental. If you ask Mark Warkentin how he got into open water, he’s been known to half-jokingly explain that he simply was trying to find a way onto the U.S. National Team, and the 25K seemed like the “easiest” (ha, ha) way to do it, because very few people want to swim that far. In 2006, he won the 25K National Championship, and made the team.
Is there any human sport more diverse than open water swimming? Not just diversity in terms of ethnic or socioeconomic background (though there’s plenty of that, too). I mean diversity in personalities, motivations, and character. Some are former pool swimmers looking for new challenges. Others have no formal swim training, but just like being in the water. Some are world-class athletes. Others are slow swimmers, but succeed through world-class persistence.
All you need are a suit, cap, and goggles – but really, you don’t even need those.