Open water swimming is quite different from any other athletic activity in which I’ve participated. Jumping in the middle of the ocean - in the dark - and swimming to shore, for fun. Spending 6 hours swimming back and forth in a box filled with chlorine, because the training plan says so. Applying ball-bearing grease or a “yellow waxy substance secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals” (aka lanolin) to one’s armpits and between the legs – to prevent chafing. All in the name of sport. And the list goes on.
Open water swimming is unpredictable and the swimmer is at the mercy of Mother Nature. This is very unlike other sports, which usually have a controlled environment.
"If a person is running a marathon, he knows it will be 26.2 miles. He knows the course and where it begins and ends," Laura says. "Open-water swimmers deal with tides, chop and wind. They often have to use a support boat to determine their target. Depending on currents and tide, a 25-mile swim can become a 30-mile swim. Imagine the start of a marathon and the official says, 'We're going to begin here, and in the middle of the race we're going to surprise you with hills and turns and drastic variations in air temperature. Eventually, we'll tell you when you're done.'" – Laura Cox (younger sister of open water swimming legend Lynne Cox in an interview with ESPN)
As a ballerina my body was simply a gracefully applied brush stroke on the contained canvas that was the stage. My role was to express a sequence of artistic movements planned by a choreographer that lasted minutes. As a rower at UC Berkeley, I was a member of a team of eight, moving across the water in unison within a fiberglass hull, at the direction of the coxswain. Our course was predetermined, and the finish line - though at our backs - was clearly within reach, and no more than a few minutes away.
Open water swimming is quite different. My stage is the vast and deep ocean. And I am only a visitor in a strange aquatic land for which I am ill equipped and certainly not choreographed.
In my few short years of participating in this sport I have come to understand and appreciate my body in a completely different way. My body is the vessel that will carry me across the seas. And that vessel must be as sea-worthy as possible. This is not an artistic performance for your viewing pleasure. This is not a race made swifter by the sleek lines of a fiberglass hull and the power of 7 other human beings. This is a sport where my body is the vessel rolling the dice with chance and the powers that be.
I am in awe of the ability of the body to keep up with the expectations and goals of the mind.