The wind pelted the rain into us as the producer pointed towards the choppy waters of the Potomac River. “Our actors will jump in here, swim a couple of strokes out, then loop back around and come out the ramp on the other side. Wendy will be doing the whole course which goes several hundred yards out past the bridge, then back around to finish the mile.” I clutched my coat around me, looking down the banks towards the bridge. September, and I was already shivering.
“There will be cameras on the banks of the river, a camera shooting down from the bridge, there’ll be cameras in kayaks, and a swimmer in the water with a Go-pro.”
My hand went up. “The character I’m doubling… her clavicle was broken… Will I have to swim this entire mile lopsided?” I was only slightly reassured. “Once you get past the bridge by a couple hundred yards, you can just swim normally.”
Past the bridge. Half a mile. Upstream. Open water. Cold.
The distance marking buoys were being placed by men in a dirty little power boat. 200, 400, 1200, the numbers kept growing bigger, and my mouth growing drier at the thought of what I had to do tomorrow. People train for triathlons for months. Years. I had been given 24 hours. I’d be swimming a mile. I’ve done it before, but not in open water, up stream. Not without a wetsuit because the cameras needed to pick up the mottled bruise on my left clavicle. Not without building up to that kind of distance. Synchro requires doing a variety of movements using different muscles every few seconds. Doing the same movement repeatedly and extendedly is entirely different. And I wasn’t doing nationals this year… my time at the pool had been more coaching than swimming… I’m not in shape. But I’d been cast in a movie. I was the best swimmer they had. The job fell to me. I had to bring it.
I didn’t sleep the night before. My alarm went off at 2am for a winding drive to the parking lot where the film crew was setting up a few miles from the race. I sat in the make up chair at 3am while a grotesque, angry bruise was painted onto my shoulder. My age “28” was sharpied on the back of my calf (a high point… Yeah, we were shooting from a distance, but I can still play 28, people). An early fall chill nipped the air. We made our way past the thousands of athletes and supporters of the Nations Triathlon. An announcement rang over the loud speakers. “Wet suits are permissible in this race!” That meant that the water was colder than it had been the day before. Fart. I couldn’t wear one because it wasn’t in the costuming cards. I had to show off my artfully bruised collarbone. I buried my nose into my parka for every last vestige of warmth I could gather into my body.
They marked a number on my arm. They put a band with a chip around my ankle to tally times… left ankle so that it wouldn’t interfere with the chains of the bike I wouldn’t be riding, thank God. Port-o-potty with the masses. No trailers. No base camp. No support besides my rock star boyfriend who drove, God bless him, carried gear, chairs, and prayed with me before I was escorted past the unending wave of athletic humanity to the water’s edge, where I had to leave him to go to the dock.
The producer waited with me. The grimy froth of trash and debris lapping around the corners of the dock had been skimmed off the day before. I wouldn’t have to dodge plastic bottles. I had that going for me. The wave we were looking for was women in their twenties in pink caps. I was to swim out to the 1400 mark, wave my arms to the camera operators to help them find me in the mass of pink-capped humanity, do several strokes of my lopsided freestyle, then switch to breast stroke to “take in the architecture of the bridge… she has never seen the view from this perspective.” However, when the busy guy orchestrating the swimming portion of the actual race discovered that the agreed- upon signal to the camera folks was waving my arms, he informed us that it was forbidden because it would cue the lifeguards to drag me out.
I offered a solution. Fortunately, I don’t have to use my arms in water to stand out. I explained that I can do things in the water with my legs that in no way resemble drowning. I think it’s safe to say that this had not occurred to them, so I felt a little proud that synchro could save the day. The swoopy doubles hybrid from the Gypsy routine that I’ve been working on became the cue and the Potomac got what was perhaps its first taste of synchro. Point the lens this way, y’all.
Cue’s decided, we hunkered down to wait. Friggin’ cold. I was a total wuss. The other competitors didn’t even have the luxury of a parka, because there’s nowhere to put it before they got in. They had to stand in long stretches of cattle cues wearing nothing but bathing suits and the bodies next to them. The first wave of competitors finally arrived at the gates; these were the Olympian God types, the first finishers, the ones likely to be on the podium at the end. The type I would eventually be playing when I was no longer body-doubling the “injured” lead. Hard core folks were given the first wave. They were muscled, lean, and efficient looking. Most of them wore wet suits. I shivered. They lined up. The horn blew, and they were off.
I wasn’t sure how long it actually took a tried and true bad@$$ to finish an open water mile. I didn’t have a watch or my phone but started looking for finishers in what – in my warped sense of surreal time – I guessed to be twenty minutes. I didn’t see them. My searching intensified. Nothing. I started getting anxious. If even the hard core, well trained athletes are taking this long, how am I going to make it? I knew I could swim for an hour; dude, I’m in the water several hours a day, several days a week. But with synchro, you work different muscles every second. It’s veeeeeeeery different from the grueling repetitive motion of a single stroke. My right arm went protectively to my left shoulder.
Then I saw it. A blaze of color across the sky of breaking dawn… a rainbow. Hope! Seriously, it was like it had been scripted into the movie. I nudged the producer next to me. “Look!” He acted like he was busy and had other things to do, and he was, and he did, but the director inside me found me bossing my boss, saying, “Make sure they get it!” He glazed at me as if I was indeed the bossiest person he’d ever met, but he followed the line of my finger and was on the walkie-talkie a moment later. “Yeah, did you see the rainbow? Did you get it?” Another one appeared just above it a tiny arc. It felt like they were there for me, for this film, for all of us who were launching into this adventure, because God is just that friggin’ awesome. A bit of my heart quietened.
A couple of the Olympian rock stars sprinted out of the water to get to their bikes. Wet suit covered, six packed marble. My competitive edge was triggered. I was aching to know times. How long would I be in there? How would I compare? I’m supposed to be one of them…
A wave of pink caps arrived, but they had much higher numbers written on the backs of their legs. I loved that there was a school of women in their fifties and sixties, of all colors, shapes and sizes, ready to launch. They didn’t have marbleized six pack abs, but hey were smiling, geeking out with each other, fidgeting with their gear… getting their game on. They gave me courage. I can do this.
The production team and I waited until the wave of twenties landed. I handed my Angelfish parka to an assistant and became one of the adventuring masses. I slipped into the cue. The cameras were rolling. I was on. I slipped my feet into the water, expecting the numbing chill to go up to my knees, and smiled happily at the women next to me as my shins were enclosed in water. “Not that bad!” They smiled back a similar relief; the water wasn’t so chilly after all. The horn blew. I was in. I was off.
I was blind.
This water was cloudy as mud. At the bottom of my stroke my hand disappeared. I couldn’t see from the middle of my forearm down. I cleared my goggles and wondered what kind of nastiness my eyes might become infected with if I didn’t keep them free of water. I couldn’t see the feet I knew were kicking just inches from my face. Cameras are rolling. This isn’t about you. Don’t extend the left arm… reign it in…only a half mile to go crooked and you can open up. “Oops, sorry,” I apologized to the woman next to me whom I’d accidentally clocked. Another one appeared in my armpit. The woman in front of me switched unexpectedly to breast stroke and I nearly got a powerful heel upside the head. I hadn’t prepared for this but was thankful for my synchro training which has helped me learn to take an accidental punch. The Washington Monument was under my right armpit, and a woman was under my left.
I looked at the buoys as laps. 200. 400. 600. I can do this. When I got to the 1200, nearing the George Washington Bridge, I got nervous. What if they can’t find me? I was supposed to give them the cue at 1400 but decided to give them a prequel just in case they needed to track me sooner. I rolled onto my back, did the gypsy swoopy doubles thingy, and wondered: These people behind me who have no idea a movie is being shot must have no friggin’ clue what I’m doing right now.
Side note… the TRI script includes a few lines about the talking to yourself that happens in an event like this. Those voices came. Some of them were me, and some of them were the imagined voices of the other people in the water with me. What the heck is she doing?!!! What’s with the legs? Who does she think she is? I’m trying to swim here! Outta my way! People had been training for this for months and years; I didn’t want to be in anyone’s way but, frankly, I found the voices entertaining, something to keep me company, and keep me engaged without the dancing, the music and the friendship or visibility I usually have in the water.
I was still pretty far from the bridge and had no way of knowing whether I’d been spotted. I would do the swoop again at 1400. A little further, and I grew nervous. Will they find me? 1400. Swoopy! Three times for luck! I moved on, figuring that if the cameras hadn’t found me, then they were blind as I was. I got into character, pulled a couple more lopsided freestyle strokes, and shifted gears.
The character I was doubling had never done a TRI before. I hadn’t either, so no acting there needed. I heard the director in my mind. “She’s never seen anything like this before.” I breast stroked towards the bridge, taking it in. The water smelled cleaner than it was. There were carvings in the bridge, curling designs gracing its arches, lions snarling from the center of its pillars. I soaked it in. A quick glance showed me the camera. Don’t look in the lens. I hope they have me.
Once I was fully under the bridge, the sound changed. Echoes of splashing water and humans’ breathing. It was surreal. I was off camera, and I knew that once I was emerging from the other side, they would have me in their sights for maybe eight more minutes, depending on how fast I swam. But this moment was mine. Life takes you to such amazing places, doesn’t it? This moment, under this bridge, with all these people in water… it’s like a bubble in time. This memory won’t be confused with anything else, ever. This one gets filed special.
I emerged from the other side, breast stroking past the 1600, and restarted freestyle. Kayaks with volunteers and floatation devices were close by in case anyone got into trouble. Left shoulder was hurting. Rotator cuff. I felt like a wuss. My physical therapist Godmothers voice came for a visit… “you shouldn’t be swimming right now.” Just twenty minutes in and l was already tiring. My defeated voice came. You could just stop. The rest of the race is not on film. They can’t expect you to do this. You haven’t trained for it, you just found out YESTERDAY! Your shoulder, the one with the rotator cuff issues, hurts, doesn’t it? You can get out just by waving your arms. My stronger voice interrupted.
I rounded the bend lopsided. Just a few more minutes and I can open up. I’ll be in this water, and past that marker I can be me. I swim this rest of this as me. I’m gonna finish this as me.
I was going back under the bridge again. Clear of the cameras, I opened up. Aaaahhhh! It felt so much better! It brought a surge of energy. This was mine. I found comfort in the repetitiveness of the breathing, one two three, breathe, one two three, breathe, one two three. I was getting thirsty. I normally swim with a water bottle parked at the end of the pool. The water smells cleaner than it looks… Ew. No friggin’ way. Not THAT thirsty, thank God. The voice in my head started designing a camel pack for long distance swimming. I was half way.
The kayaks started to become party perches. People were stopping to rest, or work out a leg cramp while floating on lifeguard buoys. I saw smiles. I paused, egg-beating, and thanked an older gentleman kayaker for being out here with us. He thanked me for thanking him and complimented my smile. “Dad paid a lot for it. Thank him!” and I pointed towards the sky. He laughed. “I’ve got a couple of daughters. Paid for a couple smiles myself.” I waved as I pulled away from him.
I was no longer an actor, I was an athlete. The cameras were off. I was doing this extraordinary thing, clicking shoulder and all. It struck me as funny that the “broken clavicle” I’d been favoring was the same shoulder as my bad rotator cuff. I pushed, listening to what my body could take, finding that it could take more than I thought it could the day before while I stood in the pelting rain on the bank. I saw that spot now, and saw the ghost of my yesterday self from a very different perspective.
I can do all things. I can do all things…breathe… I can do all things… breathe… I can do all things… breathe… through Christ who gives me strength… breathe. The Bible quote replaced my one-two-three.
Tiring more, I began to think in terms of shortening the remaining distance by staying closer to the buoys, but the outskirts were less crowded. There was evidence at this point, that many more swimmers were hitting a wall. Strokes were getting sloppy… lots of breast stroke and breathing. I pulled out to the side, rolled onto my back and shifted into elementary backstroke. I teach this to the folks learning swimming as “Chicken, Airplane, Soldier.” I flashed back to the warm water pool with a legion of little ones on the stairs. I become a drill sergeant. “AttenTION!” The kids stand at their best wiggling, giggling, goggled representation of attention on the stairs. “Chicken!” They put their hands at their waists. “Airplane!” Their arms shoot out to their sides like they’re flying. “Soldier-like-you’re-proud-of-yourself!” Their arms swoosh to their sides, their chests up, chins high. “Again, chicken, airplane, soldier like you’re proud of yourself… chicken, airplane, soldier like you’re proud of yourself…” I run the words of “soldier like you’re proud of yourself” together rhythmically so that they’ll keep their chin’s back, their chests up, and have the time to ride the momentum from the push they get. Efficiency, confidence; yes they can do all things…
In the Potomac, breathing on my back, I started giggling, recalling the little ones who can’t seem to execute the moves without saying it aloud, propelling themselves like robotic squids across the surface of the water, repeating the words and the moves I taught them. My heart kathunked. I love it. I love them. My water bugs. A tear dropped into my goggles.
I was finding the heart of the race.
Nap time was over. It’s only been about 25 minutes since you got in. What kind of time can you get? There was that chip on my leg. The finish line was in sight, maybe a third of mile away. I looked at the course. The Washington Bridge was behind me, the Washington Monument to my left. I will forever see it framed in the curve of my wet arm. Get it done, breathe. Get it done, breathe. Get it done, breathe. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this. You can do all things.
I rounded the last buoy, almost sorry it was almost over. The conversation had been a good one. I saw the ramp. As I approached, I wondered how deep it was, and what was the incline? Would I be grazing my knees on it? Blood schmood; I’ve been dinged up before. I was noodled. My muscles were squishy and my brain was ablaze with a new fire. I found my footing and was up the ramp without bruise or bleeding. I had done it. It wasn’t the critical voice in my head that said it. It was the other one.
You did it.
Only one producer was left on the launching pad, holding a towel and my Angelfish parka. I later looked at the video that my beau took, and saw that I was doing a loose hipped saché onto the dock, as others were jogging past me to get, not a towel, not a parka, not rest, not comfort, but a grueling bike ride, and half marathon run. They blazed past me.
They’re only a third of the way done.
They are capable of more.
You are capable of more.
I felt something in me metabolically shift over the course of this swim. The conversations I had were as life changing as “Will you marry me?” But the me… was God.
I was enfolded in a towel, tattooed arms, and the superhero cape of my Angelfish parka. I walked dazed past the family and friends of a competitor still in the cattle cue of swimmers waiting to get in. They found her with joy, signs, and clamoring cheers. One looked like she might be Mom. One looked like he might be Dad. Some might be siblings or friends, but this singular competitor viewed through my transformed eyes, was just bombarded with raucous goofy support, and it made me miss my family. I missed my mom. I missed my dad. Yeah, I knew that they were “up there” and always with me, but c’mon… It’s different than having someone holding goofy signs and screaming “Whoo HOO!”
I looked with teary gratitude at the man holding my Coach Wendy bag, and the folding chairs, the one who had been waiting anxiously for me to get out of the water and to know that I was Ok since he’d held my hands in prayer before letting them go into the unknown. The one who now was on a mission get me warm, dry, and fed with something more than the paltry brown bag with the pathetic lonely slice of turkey “sandwich” that Craft services had assembled. We inhaled the meager rations gratefully. I randomly teared up for the rest of the day.
The imagery, voices and metaphors of the day are not lost on me. I am launching into a large, uncomfortable, scary part of my life. Transformation does that. I suspect there is victory at the end. I am strong enough to take it, because I’ve got that other voice countering the negative one. I’ve been blessed with a physical vehicle that allows me to do extraordinary things. And I’ve got that double rainbow arching over me. Mom. Dad. I’m surrounded by people who love me, and respect me, and sometimes get up at 2am and carry chairs and pray with me before I do insane things. Yes I am terrified, but I am uplifted, and I can do all things.
The gym where I work has a sign outside. This week it read: “The only difference between ‘try’ and ‘triumph’, is a little ‘umph’.” I have TRI’d. I’m bringing “umph”.
Triumph is just around the next buoy.
It’s already here…