Please pardon the cross post (w/ Open Water)...maybe more traffic here...

Here's my Sunday:

Plunge for Patients, Wildwood, NJ

"All that we do is touched with ocean, yet we remain on the shores of what we know."
--Richard Wilbur

Picture me back in my childhood--my terrified avoidance of deep water, of jumping or diving in, of any water- (or for that matter, land-) related risk. My instructor tried very hard, did his best to persuade me that upon entering deep water, I would not automatically drown, immediately forget how to swim, be sucked underwater and held there. I was stubborn for a few years, held out, dug my heels in.

Over time, however, I slowly shed my fear and became a swimmer, taking risks, taking dives off the high board, learning to swim in the ocean.

But as I grew up and my time near water became less and less, some of the old fears returned. It didn't matter so much, I told myself. I'm really more a runner than a swimmer. And I do in fact love to run. It was in pursuit of improving my running that I returned to the water--and to the ocean. I returned to the depths where the monsters lurked.

The monsters are not sea monsters, not sharks, not even the perennial jellyfish and crabs, not the powerful waves that can make saltwater swimming such an adventure. They are the "what if's" and I could hear them as I wavered about whether to swim in the Plunge for Patients where I again found a swimmer I didn't know existed.

"What if there are sharks? Didn't a boy just get attacked in Surf City?"
"What if a wave smacks me into spin cycle and I drown?"
"What if this is the day a tsunami strikes New Jersey?"

(You'll note the very rational nature of these what-if's.)

But thankfully I have guardian angels: the friends who pray for and support me and convince me it'll be okay, that sharks are elsewhere, that spin cycle happens in washing machines, that tsunamis aren't scheduled to make an appearance in New Jersey this year. Oh, they don't say these things literally, but I hear their voices quieting the what-ifs, little by little, by saying, "you're a strong swimmer" (thanks, Beth), "If you've done an open water swim, you can do this. It's smooth once you get past the breakers" (thanks, Mike), "I'm going to do it" (thanks team-mates), and "you'll do fine. I'll be right beside you" (thanks surfboard lady who showed up near the first flag) or speaking in actions by driving me the 90something miles to do this swim (thanks, Neil).

When I first joined the Masters team at my local Y, Mike, my coach, mentioned the Plunge for Patients as something he was hoping to convince us to swim. But when he said it was an ocean swim, I had serious doubts. Oceans? I used to dare to step past the breakers, dive into waves and body surf them in, but from long lack of practice and some spin cycles, I backed off, and my visits to the beach included walking or running along the shoreline, maybe getting my feet wet, maybe in some daring moment, getting up close and personal with a wave, but a mile swim, through breakers? Um, not me! Except that Mike is persuasive and talked about what a great cause it was and swimmers met patients and their families afterward. And so I couldn't really say no. What I did was to file away the idea, put it on hold, but the day was getting closer, and my swimming skills improving, thanks to the regular workouts Mike supervised or e-mailed.

Still, I procrastinated, didn't preregister, didn't look at the logistics of going (causing Neil and me considerable frustration as we drove all around the Wildwood/Cape May area looking for last minute shelter for the night before the race). Fear was speaking to me--we found a cabin at a campground just in time for me not to decide to bag it and skip the swim (and too late for anything but a dinner of ice cream, strawberry smoothies, and a power bar I shared with Neil).

The next day at registration, as Mike had mentioned would happen, I was given something besides the usual race goody bag and t-shirt, swim cap, something in addition to the body marking that swimmers undergo before an open water event.

Like the other participants, I was given a typed copy of a story--a true story--of a patient who had more to contend with than breakers and "No Vacancy" signs, a cancer patient named Dan, who, had participated every year in the Plunge for Patients, then developed leukemia. He refused to give up on his treatment or his swimming, tapping into the wisdom from swimming to help him fight his illness. "Both the endurance swimmer and the leukemia patient have courage," Dan wrote, "but it's the leukemia patient who must reach deeply and constantly to hold on to courage." Dan's last time at the Plunge was 2004; he died later the same year.

But I admit that I learned all this only later: when I received the story, I was a bit distracted, was nervous about the race, a bit sleep deprived from our long search for accommodations, and so put the story in my bag to look at it later, not realizing I needed to also include his name as well as my race number on my arm. I'd also forgotten at that point about swimmers meeting either patients, their families or both. Fortunately, the meeting did take place, and I did read the story afterward. But I didn't realize at the time just how important it would be for me to finish the race.

I saw Mike and team-mates Denise and Carrie, met Beth, an online friend, for the first time, and took a hesitant pre-race dip to feel out the water, Beth urging me to put my goggles on and take a dive, Mike telling me basically what to expect and reassuring me. Still, when they held off the start for almost an hour because of the fog, cancelled the three-mile swim (bringing the 3-mile people to our start) for the same reason, and seemed to be considering whether to cancel the mile swim, I have to admit to a little prayer that I?d be spared my trial by water.

Nope. The director announced that we had the go-ahead, and assembled us all in the water, me following the crowd and praying like mad and thinking, "no way to back out now." We gathered at a point where breakers were lifting and rocking us around, and in the middle of my subvocal "oh my God's" and "I can?t do this's" and "I'm so scared's," we received the signal to start. Suddenly, I was in the midst of a crowd of people swimming madly toward the first buoy, many of us adopting the Tarzan style of head up swimming.

My goggles made the whole scene look darker than it was, and all I could see were walls of water coming at me, with just a hint of sky. Water hit my face, splattered into my mouth, and I seriously entertained thoughts of turning back. But when I looked back, the scene was just as intimidating. The breakers behind me, crashing onto the sand--would I be churned around inside of them? And when I looked ahead again, a young man beside me was being urged on by his friend, while a woman on a surfboard cheered us both on, told us we were almost there, that she'd stay with us, that we could grab her board if we needed to. I switched from Tarzan-crawl to breast stroke to catch my breath, deciding to save the crawl stroke until I rounded the flag, where as Mike promised, the going did look smoother.

Once around the flag, I swam alongside the surfboard lady, talking with her every so often. Then I found myself slipping past her, and she called to me, "good, keep going! watch for the next flag!" I followed other swimmers nearby, sighted every so often, found myself in a rhythm of regular swimming pool crawl stroke and sighting and breast stroking. The process grew more comfortable. I felt safe as long as I could see other swimmers and follow them, found myself even enjoying the swim, rocked back and forth a bit by waves but finding no sharks, no spin cycle, no tsunamis, just other swimmers and buoys with flags and people in kayaks and people on surfboards. Then I saw either the same or a different surfboard lady with the same reassuring voice: "This is the last flag. You can turn toward the shore now." I told her I wasn't good with waves. "Follow me," she said. I did. "You're doing great," she said. "Keep swimming. You're almost there." And then I could touch bottom. Got smacked once or twice by a wave, causing a leg cramp--but no spin cycle. Just allowed the waves to lift me up and carry me to shore. Found myself in knee deep, then ankle deep water.

Saw Mike and Carrie near the finish clock, cheering me in. Ran up the sand as well as the leg cramps allowed. Neil met me with his ever-present camera. I smiled.

I am a swimmer again.

Post script: After the race, I heard the announcer reading the names of the patients whose stories swimmers received. I pulled "my" patient's--Dan's--story out of my bag, read it briefly then, heard his name called, and told the volunteer nearby that I had the paper with the story. She told me to stand, and she'd find the family. Looking in their faces, I saw their love for this person who faced the "what if's" and showed what the human spirit can accomplish. Then I was especially glad I persevered. He and they deserved nothing less. His spirit may, indeed, have been rooting for me all along.