It’s hard to not feel stupid at the beginning of the Cap2k Open Water Swim. I’m 59 years old, this water is really cold, it is early on a Sunday morning, and I am surrounded by people who are very good swimmers. They don’t look like very good swimmers. They have body fat. That is why they are laughing and talking, while I am shivering. Bobbing around out there at that imaginary start line between two giant buoys, surrounded by people very happy to be right where they are, right then. It is a beautiful thing, to be surrounded by these laughing people.
Well, here I go again. By the time you read this, it will all be over. It’s a long river, but I only swim 2 kilometers of it, from Redbud Isle to the Rowing Dock by the Mopac Bridge. I did it at first because blowing blood out my ass piqued my interest in prostate cancer (the race is a prostate cancer awareness and research fundraiser; see my post from 2012 https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/swimming-with-my-prostate/). I’ve swum it twice with my son Chris, back when he was able to use his legs. His record slow finish–the cutoff time is one hour, but despite his legs cramping up and then going numb, he gutted it out, crossing the finish surrounded by those amazing support kayakers in 1:07–was the proudest I’ve ever been of him. Finishing last, unable to stand, but unwilling to quit. Fatherhood did not turn out as expected. I’ve swum it with Dave Shook, who I served with on Embassy Duty in Barbados so long ago. You are a fortunate man, to count friends across space and time who are still there for you.
I’ve swum it with a woman who loved me and suffered me, and one day forgave me when I couldn’t even forgive myself. Smarter than me, clearer of purpose and thought, truly good, and she came all this way to freeze and choke in the river with me, just because it is a beautiful idea.
When I picked up my race packet this morning, Sandy Neilson, the race organizer, was visibly pleased to see me. She couldn’t stop smiling, and at first I thought she was just stalling because she couldn’t remember my name, but then I thought for a moment that she was either going to cry or hug me so I said “it’s George. George Schools.” “I know, George,” she smiled. “How many have you done?” Number six, this one, looking forward to seven.
It is a pretty cool swim. The start is always terrifying, bobbing around out there in the middle of the river, surrounded by so many people yet feeling so isolated, completely alone. You cannot know what is in their hearts, but they are there, in the water, with you. Just you in your little swimsuit, swimcap and goggles, all alone. The first 250 yards or so determine whether you make it or quit, as you try to master your breathing and get into a rhythm. You are either able to breath amongst all those flailing arms and legs, or you literally cannot.
The rest of the swim is, in my case, simply endurance. The pack thins out, you try and hold a straight line, and just hold it together until you make it to the finish dock. Most years my entire body will contract as soon as I exit the water,
pulling me forward into a ball barely able to walk or stand. Every year I will begin to shiver uncontrollably, violently, but gently warm by the sun and the surrounding finishers, all still so happy to be right there, right then. No one else ever seems to be suffering in the least. Last year, the adipose guys who had finished before me laughed when I came out blue, one saying with a smile “I bet you miss that body fat now!” There is a picnic after the race in nearby Eiler’s Park. It is pretty laid back, and honestly the food is sort of an afterthought, but I love each year to sit there in the grass, submerged in the feeling of friendship, almost family, surrounded by these strangers. That is where I first met Sandy, who had worked so hard, and mothered us all through, and made me feel so strongly why you want to thank people like her.
I had to skip the picnic this year because I needed to jump immediately in the car and drive up to Dallas to visit actual family, which is a great treat for me. But I hadn’t realized the deepest reason I love doing this race until my wife said “the picnic sucks anyway,” and I crumbled . I don’t like to crumble. “I don’t do it for the food,” I said. “I love these wonderful strangers.” You cannot always know what is in the heart.