Origin Stories

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.

lynne cox
Lynne Cox


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.

8 thoughts on “Origin Stories”

  1. Great post. All I have got to say is if you haven’t yet, find your own story. I feel like I’ve already got a few good moments, but still looking for something divine.

  2. I always liked the swim of tri best despite not growing up a swimmer. When I started masters I realized how much I had missed out on. When I found OW swimming I found my niche.
    BTW, H2Open magazine needs stories like this as long as they are fewer than 601 words.

  3. Hello there!

    This year we’re announcing the 69th Annual Roy Webster Cross Channel Swim in Hood River, OR. We’re looking for teams to come and do the swim and thought your teams might want to get involved. The swim is a little over a mile long, starting on the Washington side of the Columbia River and ending on the Hood River, OR side.

    Let me know if this is of any interest or if you’d like more informaiton.

    Thanks for your time,

    Alex Morris
    Marketing Assistant
    Hood River County Chamber of Commerce

    1. There were early rumors that COWS would come back, but Fat Rabbit Racing hasn’t rebounded and no other race directors have posted open water events in central Ohio. The closest will probably be the Ohio River Swims (0.5, 1.2 and 2.4 miles) in mid August. Lake Erie usually has a 1 and 2 mile event in July. PA, IN, and MI all have events too. Big Shoulders 2.5 and 5K just opened registration in Chicago. 6 hours isn’t a long drive…

    2. Try it – you might like it!

      Here’s an idea: Why don’t the Sharks put together a 5x5K relay for Noblesville on June 18? Easy drive, gorgeous venue, great organization.

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