By Judith Morgan Gray
I am standing knee deep in the open water of Lake Washington in a roped off area close to the shore. It is 6:30 am and a hesitant breeze ruffles the water’s gray surface disturbing the dank smells of algae. Around me are about 20 women in my age group, several wearing black full-body wet suits, others like me in skimpy colorful racing suits, and all of us wearing purple tight-fitting bathing caps. We have visible black numbers drawn on our upper arms and invisible magnetic straps attached to our ankles. I adjust my swim goggles for the umpteenth time. It is eerily silent except for the soft slapping of the wavelets rippling over the smooth stones at our feet. I bend down to splash myself with the stingingly cold water. I suck in my breath when the water strikes my breasts and shoulders and crawls down my bare back. I recall my father scooping up handfuls of water which he tossed over his back and shoulders upon lowering himself into a river or the ocean and then swimming away. He would be surprised and pleased to see me here this morning.
Straight ahead of me across the vastness of the lake, I see the group of elite swimmers curl around the first buoy and strike out across the horizon like a row of randomly spaced-commas. I cannot even conceive of myself being that far away from the shore somewhere between those tiny orange buoys. I shudder with fearful anticipation — or is it just a deep desire to get this section of the triathlon over and done with? My heart is thumping.
Suddenly, the blaring of a horn breaks the silence and from the mouth of the loud-speaker, the count-down begins: “ten, nine, eight, …..”. I have intentionally positioned myself in the back rows of the group having heard that the congestion near the front can be dangerous, if not life-threatening. I stumble forward until I am waist deep, then duck my chin and plunge head first into the swell. Around me is a vortex of kicking legs, flailing arms and billowing splashes. Peering through my goggles I can see the lake floor, murky brown and densely littered with the Washington State’s quarantined noxious weeds, Milfoil and Hydrilla. I can’t help but taste the water. It reminds me of the stale water in my unkempt fish tank when I siphon it out by mouth during the tank cleaning process, which was always well overdue. Now that I am actually swimming, I listen to my slow even breathing – the deep gasp of air in through my parted lips and the ensuing release of a shute of bubbles forced out of my mouth in a burst of rejection. This rhythm keeps me going.
Every now and then, I lift my eyes and focus straight ahead on the buoy which continues to grow larger, yet remains unattainable. I must reach it, I tell myself. I gain some confidence by thinking back to the months of training — in the Juanita High School swimming pool during cold winter evenings and in Martha Lake in the late summer afternoons when the sun was still high in the sky and families occupied the sweeping lawn down to the water’s edge. Martha Lake was half a mile across and back, roughly the same distance as around the course I was now pursuing. I can do this!
I am conscious of the heft of my legs in synchrony with the lift of my arms and the steady rhythm of my breathing. The full length of my body rolls from side to side driven by the sweep of my shoulders, the thrust of the up and down kicking motion, and guided by my focus on the buoy ahead. Finally, I dog-paddle around the third and last buoy, pause to catch my breath and then set off on the last leg. The stream of swimmers has thinned considerably. I can see the two large red banners on the shore ahead and a crowd of people lining the exit ramp. It appears so close, yet I know that I still have far to go. I can tell that I have slowed down by my increasingly labored breathing and the deadening fatigue in my upper arms. I am determined to save a remnant of energy for the final 100 yards. You will finish strong, no matter what, I tell myself. I am close now. I see two swimmers ahead of me being helped out of the water and guided up the slippery ramp. I close my eyes and force my weary arms to keep going until my fingertips feel the soft sand of the shore. I made it!
I am on my feet, bent over and slogging forward to step onto the ramp. Someone is shaking or pulling at my hand. I hear the sounds of cheering, clapping and laughter. I do not pause however; there is no time to waste. I walk quickly and then begin to run while removing the goggles and stripping off the purple cap. And I head towards the bike racks.
Judith Morgan Gray was born, raised and educated in New Zealand — Aoteoroa. Upon receiving a graduate scholarship to the University of Southern California, she traveled to the USA with her two children to study and teach, publishing three books on dance and over a million copies of 365 Days of Creative Play with co-author Sheila Ellison. Judith writes from the U.S.