My mom never learned how to swim.
When she was a kid, she had a traumatic experience in the pool, which scared her off from learning. As an adult, she took lessons but has never felt comfortable in the water. To this day, when she goes to a pool or lake, she stays in the shallow end and always wears a life jacket.
Fortunately, my mom did not allow her fear of the water to keep her children from learning how to swim (sadly, this is not always the case). By the time my brother and I were six years old, we had taken swim lessons; by the time we were seven, we were competing on the local swim team. My brother went on to be a Marine combat instructor of water survival, helping other Marines pass their water survival test. I went on to (eventually) become an open water swimmer, competing in triathlons, crossing Alcatraz off my bucket list, and challenging myself with long-distance swims. My 6-year-old nephew Ethan just learned how to swim. Chances are, he might one day join a swim team himself (he’s certainly got the long legs and big feet for it).
I first learned about Colin’s Hope two years ago. It is impossible to not be touched by Colin’s story. In 2008, he tragically drowned at the age of 4 while swimming in a lifeguarded pool, surrounded by adults. His parents Jeff and Jana channeled their grief into something positive, starting a foundation in Colin’s name with the mission of preventing childhood drowning.
I participated in my first Got2Swim event in Lake Austin last year. I was going through a particularly rough time in my life, and the training, the commitment, and the camaraderie with my fellow swimmers served as lifelines. Swimming with the Colin’s Hope team is special. It is made up of people who not only love to swim, but who also enjoy the Zen of the open water and the challenge of long distance. Weekly group swims form solid bonds among team members: We share water guardians; we share meals; and, most importantly, we share the belief that we are a part of something incredibly special. Every time we return to Lake Austin and spread our water safety message, we are helping to save lives.
It was this belief that I was most cognizant of Thursday morning as I arrived for the Colin’s Hope Got2Swim 10K/10 miles at Lake Austin. Of course, as an athlete, I was running through the usual checklists in my head (“Goggles? Check. Swim cap? Check. Nutrition? Check.”). However, while I was setting up my gear, a volunteer handed me a white flag with a name written on it. “You are swimming for Jack today,” she said, and she left to pass out more flags to the other swimmers.
As my water guardian and I taped the flag to our kayak, my heart got caught in my throat. I had been fundraising, distributing water safety packets, and acting as a water safety ambassador for Colin’s Hope all summer. But for some reason, seeing Jack's name brought home the reality of how important our work is.
As I once again busied myself with my gear, another volunteer approached me. “Oh!” she said. “You’re swimming for Jack. That’s my son.” My mouth dropped open while I stood there, completely dumbfounded.
She continued, “He’s right over there,” and pointed to an 8- or 9-year-old boy who was running around and, well, pretty much acting like any other 8- or 9-year-old boy.
Like Colin, Jack had a near-drowning experience at the age of 4. Unlike Colin, Jack’s story had a happy ending. I was so moved by the discovery that Jack was alive and well that I had to give him a hug.
And that’s how my 6.2-mile journey down Lake Austin to the Pennybacker Bridge began.
A total of 21 swimmers participated in this year's 10K event; six swimmers took on the 10-mile challenge. Austin firefighter, former pro-triathlete, and founder of the Engine 2 Diet Rip Esselstyn was one of them. The 10-mile swimmers had embarked further upstream two hours earlier, and Rip was just approaching the 10K start as we were preparing to launch. After loudly cheering him on, we counted down and began our own watery trek, our orange safety buoys bobbing along behind us.
As most long distance swimmers can attest, our sport can be a lonely one. Each of us was accompanied by a water guardian in a kayak or SUP, who was responsible for our safety, as well as our nutrition and hydration. In both of my Colin’s Hope swims, I have been blessed with wonderful water guardians. Last year, it was none other than AFM Editor-in-Chief, Leah Nyfeler. This year, it was Grant—a friend of a friend who just happened to love kayaking and waking up at the crack of dawn.
As the hours ticked by, it was comforting, each time I breathed to my left, to get a glimpse of Grant moving steadily along beside me. We jokingly made up alert signals (“Two taps on the kayak means ‘Time to stop for nutrition.’ Five taps on the kayak means ‘There’s a snake heading straight for you (just kidding).’ Seventeen taps on the kayak means ‘I had a good dream last night’”) and picked out our dream lake houses ("That one is nice, but mine will need a helicopter pad on the roof"). He also graciously Facebooked and tweeted updates for me while on fuel breaks.
Having fun is also an important part of Colin’s Hope swims.
As I passed and was passed by other swimmers, we cheered each other on. Adding to the camaraderie was the game of leapfrog I played with one swimmer in particular, for the entire 6.2 miles. Police escorts and staff from The Expedition School circulated up and down Lake Austin, making sure everyone was safe and doing well.
Around Mile 4, my shoulder began to hurt, so I pulled out my front-mounted snorkel, which helped me focus on my technique and gave my shoulders a break from that extra rotation required to breathe. My nutrition and hydration plan worked like a charm: I felt great, and was even able to pick up speed towards the end. The only thing holding me back was the pain I continued to feel in my shoulders as we got closer to the finish.
After passing Mile 5, I began anticipating the sight of the Pennybacker Bridge. I knew that, once it was in sight, I would be home free.
“Do you see it yet? What about now?” I asked Grant, over and over. Delirium and fatigue started to overtake me as I began to wonder whether I had possibly taken a wrong turn somewhere or if the Finish Line had been moved to a different location.
Finally—FINALLY—the bridge came into view. Grant and I stopped for a photo to commemorate the moment, and then I began swimming faster, pushing through the pain and heading toward the finish. I was greeted by a huge group of swimmers, as well as Colin’s dad Jeff, who gave me a big hug and helped pull my kayak out of the water.
When the last swimmer was safely on shore, we gathered in a circle and Jeff recounted a touching story about his last evening with Colin. He and Jana had spent the night comforting him after a nightmare, not realizing that this would be the last bit of quality time they would get to spend together.
“Look around you, at each other,” Jeff said. “This is what life is about.”
We all looked at each other and smiled, most of us with tears in our eyes, realizing that, once again, we had all just taken part in something incredibly special. We ended the 2013 Got2Swim event by loudly cheering Colin’s infamous words: “Today was the best day ever!”
Drowning is preventable. Taking the proper precautions around water can save lives. Each year, as we athlete ambassadors continue to spread this message, we get closer and closer to realizing a world in which children—or anyone, for that matter—do not drown.