As 2015 came to close, the endless torrent of unrest that had flooded my thoughts finally slackened, revealing the most beautiful and pristine pool of tranquility. I do not think I ever remember feeling so content. That persistent internal conflict which had consumed me following my successful Farallon Islands swim, gradually gave way to a much-needed reprieve. Until last month I had been unable to even partially grasp the reality of my achievement; a special dream I had worked tirelessly to realize, felt oddly abstract. Countless press interviews, several notable award nominations and documentary filming occurring in parallel only compounded my detachment. It was all so surreal, I could not help but feel as though it was someone else’s story.
And while I vividly remembered the fear, pain and exhaustion of this journey as my incredible team expertly shepherded me safely across the Gulf of the Farallones, I was unable to believe that I had not only completed it, but also come back alive. With increased shark activity around the islands leading up to my swim, my constant and dominating fear of failure was trumped by a fear of a devastating shark attack. News of my good friend Simon’s close encounter with a Great White shark during his swim, just three miles from the islands, and a mere 10 days before the beginning of my swim window, was especially sobering. As I counted down the days, hours and minutes, I quietly prepared for not coming back; all of my personal affairs were in order, including my laundry - clean and folded - just in case.
Blessed with a safe passage, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. Congratulatory acknowledgments for my accomplishment spread across national and international news outlets, and I received thousands of emails and messages from family, friends and strangers. Despite this whirlwind and even the addition of permanent scars on my torso caused by chaffing from my swimsuit, I could not comprehend what had occurred. For months I vacillated aimlessly between disbelief and shock, giving way to a storm of denial and detachment.
In the days and weeks following my swim, I tried unsuccessfully to process my experience. Viewing the news clips online, reading text messages, emails and Facebook posts… none of it seemed real. And all I could do was cry. Tears not of sadness, but of thankfulness and absolute disbelief. This disconnect lasted so many months that I am embarrassed to admit that today many of these messages remain unanswered, including voice-mails I have yet to listen to. The few messages I replied to months ago felt vacuous at best, lacking the honest emotion and gratitude I have felt intensely during the last five months. My swim was such an incredibly life-affirming experience that it left me completely awe-struck with just how powerful the mind and body can be if you allow yourself the opportunity to face your fears. After a short period of answering emails and methodically checking them off my “to-do” list, I stopped.
Instead I watched with amazement as my body transformed effortlessly. My physical self, it seemed, was ready to move on. But as that armor which had shielded me from cold Pacific waters - an almost 40lb weight loss – slipped from my frame, I felt a deep loss. I simply was not ready to let go of the experience I had yet to process, despite this dramatic physical metamorphosis.
Ironically, an unexpected near-death experience in early December provided the breakthrough I needed. After a freak accident on land, I found myself in an ambulance – lights blazing and sirens blaring - on my way to a local hospital. Unable to breathe and in excruciating pain, I was diagnosed with a punctured right lung and admitted for treatment.
During the days of my hospital stay, I endured countless chest x-rays, blood tests and constant pain medication. Face-to-face with my mortality following the most unexpected mishap, I had no choice but to surrender. Hooked up to an oxygen machine, I was literally stuck, granting my mind with a peculiar but precious opportunity to catch up. Indeed, the running away from my thoughts came to an abrupt end.
Walking leisurely through the long lush grass with my canine friend Macy, we pass the old walnut tree, a curious pet lamb, and two equally friendly calves. As the blazing hot sun begins to set in the west, a glorious pink glow floods the blue horizon. We make our way down the meandering track to the lake that forms the picturesque centerpiece on my parent’s sheep and cattle farm. Surrounded by hundred year-old oak, copper beech and eucalyptus trees, I spot the calm waters adorned with pink and white water lilies, and smile. Sitting for a moment to appreciate finally being home with my family, an important annual trip that seemed uncertain until I received medical clearance less than 48 hours before my flight, I am struck by the timing of a much needed and long awaited realization.
I really did do it. I swam from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge.