We are all afraid of something. And maybe, just maybe, we are afraid of more than one thing. I know I am. Fear of losing my family, friends and loved ones is top of my list. Fear of failure is a very close second. Working my way through this list of fears (and it is a long list, trust me) includes fear of rejection, embarrassment, and not living up to my own expectations and goals for myself. Fear of sharks? Sure, but more of a healthy respect and strange adoration for these rather large marine fish, since I am often passing through their living room. I think they are beautiful creatures, even if their toothy smiles and athleticism for attacking their prey is a little intimidating. Each of my fears present different parameters required to conquer, some of these fears are simply out of my control, while others, with some persistence and effort, are easily overcome.
Ever since I was a small child, I have been terrified of big waves onshore. My Summer holidays at the beach with my brothers always seemed to include at least one frightening incident where I was held under by a massive wave, and tossed and turned like a rag doll through the surf. I would retreat to the beach with a few tears, seeking comfort with my warm dry towel, and eventually calming my nerves with a delicious ice cream. Over the years I would return to that same beach, though a little more timid and cautious than the year before. Every year I was lured by the promise of warm sand, salty water, ice creams on the beach, family time, and the seemingly endless freedom of school holidays. Fast forward many years, school holidays ended, university and work obligations took over. And in my mind the waves became bigger and scarier.
As a fairly newcomer to the sport of open water swimming, over the last 6 years, onshore waves have been an almost unavoidable component of my adventures. Determined to conquer my fear, I have since attempted to employ the exposure method during many of my swims. In 2012, I planned to swim the annual Bay to Breakers swim. A challenging South End Rowing Club swim that involves jumping underneath the Bay Bridge and swimming 11 miles along the San Francisco waterfront, underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and exiting at the notoriously rough and dangerous Ocean Beach. But I did not finish that swim. Terrified of the waves I could see breaking onshore, I opted for a DNF (Did Not Finish) and retreated to the support boat for a ride home. I was so disappointed in myself.
As my passion for swimming consumed me, I continued to swim around the world, carefully avoiding swims that involved surf exits. Except for one. The Oceans Seven challenge includes the infamous Molokai Channel, a very rough 35 mile swim with a surf exit. At the time no one really knew just how afraid I was of big waves, eclipsing more common fears of a possible Tiger shark encounter and the pain I ultimately endured from Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish stings. Yet thanks to a few strokes of bad luck (or good luck) after swimming for almost 20 hours from Molokai to Oahu, horrendous conditions (25 knot winds, and shifting tides) made an exit from the water at the usual infamous surf spot, Sandy's Beach, impossible. Instead I had to swim further down the coast and climb a 15 foot rock wall. Even to this day, I cannot adequately express the overwhelming relief and joy I felt with this scenario.
Aware that if I wanted to continue enjoying the ocean as a swimmer, I would ultimately have to overcome this fear, I began sharing my concerns with friends. And amazing things happened. Everyone rallied to help, pushing me a little bit each time. Last year I even swam in pre-dawn waters at Lindamar with 6-8 feet waves. Despite screams of fear, lots of hand-holding through the surf and some laughter from my friends (I seem to provide high entertainment value), I did it.
This morning I faced my fear once again, finally returning to complete the Bay to Breakers swim. It may have taken me four years, but I did it. And I did not do it alone. I asked for help, and feel tremendously grateful for the support I received. Escorted by my Aussie training partner, Simon in a kayak and my swim pod with Asha and Amy, we cruised through near perfect conditions along the San Francisco waterfront. As we passed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, we were even accompanied by few humpback whales who seemed to flick their tails in delight and encouragement just 100 yards away. The Aussie and Asha eventually guided me towards Ocean Beach and through the surf, all the while talking me through my doubts. Designated “surf angels” were even waiting to provide me with further assistance. Even my dear friend Joe Flahaven, who will be turning 80 next week, showed up on his surf board to help me. Walking up on that beach was an amazing feeling, as I was greeted by more friends from the club who woke up early to welcome all the swimmers home.
Swimming 30 miles from the Farallon Islands through shark inhabited water does not make me fearless. Crazy perhaps, but certainly not fearless. I was terrified of that swim for many reasons, not the least of which was fear of failure. I was also very concerned that I might not return home alive. In fact, I meticulously prepared for that scenario. But that is another story. Despite this, somehow I was able to harness that negative feeling of fear – of complete and utter terror – to fuel the tremendous excitement I ultimately felt, allowing me to slip into the water in the middle of the night on August 7th and begin my journey back to San Francisco. Reflecting on this experience, I know that what allowed me to stay in the water, and ultimately complete my swim was my incredible team of very special friends (and my Mum!) who dedicated their time and efforts shepherding me tirelessly through numerous obstacles of cold water, self-doubt, and extreme vomiting.
I honestly believe that if something scares you, or if you think you cannot do something, that is exactly when you should do it. And you do not need to face that fear alone. The key to all of this is surrounding yourself with friends and family who support you and believe in you. Most importantly, the real magic is not necessarily conquering that fear, the treasure is asking for help and witnessing those who show up. It is an incredible feeling, and well worth the risk of rejection, failure and even loss.