The waves appeared ten feet high and, according to the red flag that whipped in the wind nearby, we weren't supposed to enter the water. It was the day before the Gulf Coast Triathlon in Panama City, Florida. Fifteen of us had been training for the last five months with Team In Training to do this half-ironman race. Coming from New York City and swimming in nothing but predictable, chlorinated pool water, we had not planned on battling waves this size. Some of us giggled nervously, goggles in hand, as we stared at the water that swelled and crashed in front of us. Others were stone quiet. Despite the red flag, we all attempted a practice swim. Between each wave that pushed us back to shore, there was only a matter of seconds to swim forward. Even diving far beneath the huge waves seemed to offer no refuge from the violent churning of water. Only five of us were able to make it past the breakers. When we left the beach, dragging sandy wet suits behind us, there was an unspoken chasm between those who were confident about the swim and those who now worried.
That evening, as thousands of triathletes filled the white beaches for the pre-race dinner, the race director tapped the microphone and asked for our attention. "Because of dangerous water conditions," he said, as we paused from our perogie dinners, "we may be cancelling the swim. We have started setting up a run-bike-run course. The final decision, of course, will be made tomorrow morning."
I looked at my teammates in disbelief. No swim? A triathlon without a swim? That just wasn't right. I knew the water was rough and this was a matter of safety, but I came here to do a triathlon not a duathlon! That night, I silently prayed for the swim to be on, knowing full well that, down the hall, some of my teammates were wishing for just the opposite.
When the alarm woke us the next morning, my roommate and I rushed onto the balcony. Even in the early morning darkness we could see the water was substantially calmer. My prayers had been answered. The swim was on.
Two hours later I was surrounded by hundreds of other swimmers clad in wet suits and yellow swim caps. I offered last minute smiles and words of encouragement to the women on my team who were still nervous about the swim. During the last minute of the countdown, I put my goggles on and turned into a world of my own. I was aware that the near cancellation of the swim added an extra elation to the rush of adrenaline that always comes just before the gun goes off. I clapped and hollered with those around me as we leaned over and stared ahead at the waves that crashed toward us, challenging us to swim against them. When the gun went off, we rushed into the water, knees high, until, with one shallow dive, running turned to swimming. Splashing arms and legs alternated with deep dives under rising waves as we made our way past the breakers. After the first buoy, we swam parallel to the shore and began to spread out.
The image that came with every other breath is ingrained in my memory. Each time I turned my head to the right, I glanced out past a stretch of water to the shore, where the pinks and oranges of dawn colored the horizon. The heightened sense of being alive made me smile even as I rose up and down with the swells of the ocean.
It is true that appreciation is often brought about when something is almost lost or taken away. The ocean swim of a triathlon is no exception. It is the only part of the race when there is no road to follow, when we race against each other with the strength of our arms, when we propel ourselves through elements we are not meant to live in. And as we finish the swim, there is an odd but exhilarating feeling that comes with emerging from the ocean. Though three sports comprise a triathlon, it is the swim that make triathlon the unique race that spans both sea and land.