Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

Copyright 2014

As the summer sun rose behind me, I stood ankle deep in the brisk water of Narragansett Bay at Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island. I watched the swimmers in the first wave of the Save the Bay swim strike out for the opposite shore, two miles away at Potter Cove in Jamestown.

My friend Elizabeth stood next to me. Last year, when we committed to swim the race together, we were both recovering from health setbacks. Months ago, there had been plenty of time to train. Time passed. We didn’t train.

We were certain we wouldn’t have been standing there if we hadn’t made the commitment to each other.

My kayak safety escort was a freshman at University of Maryland and a friend of my friends. He sported a T-shirt for his Maryland Terrapins.

“Fear the Turtle,” he said, citing the university’s slogan.

Fear the turtle. I laughed. Perfect.

I had three goals for the swim: finish the race; don’t be last; don’t get pulled from the water. Narragansett Bay is a shipping channel and the officials close it for only two hours. If you can’t make it in two hours, they’ll pull you.

Elizabeth was in the fourth wave. We high-fived, shivering slightly in now thigh-deep water. As we awaited the cannon-shot start, I felt a familiar flutter in my gut, a cocktail of fear and fierceness. My wave, the fifth, was the last group of 100 swimmers to head across the bay.

It was an ideal morning for my first open-water swim. The water was flat; the sky overcast. My fear-the-turtle kayaker, Sam, found me after a few hundred yards and paddled to my left.

I bumped into a kayak on the right. Oops. A bit later, I swam up to one of the safety boats in some kind of aquatic version of “Are you my mother?” I had debutante navigation skills. I asked Sam to paddle on my right. Problem solved.

I had no sense of distance. I did have the Newport Bridge to my left, so I judged my progress by the spans. Sam remained a calm, reassuring presence, paddling off my starboard.

Elizabeth had told me to remember to enjoy the swim. She said swimming across the bay offers a rare perspective. Several times I raised my head and swam breaststroke, admiring the sky, the bridge, the view. And yes, I would steady my breath before resuming my freestyle.

I passed swimmers along the way. Red caps were the first wave. Highlighter yellow, the fourth. Neon green, my wave. As we veered away from the bridge and toward the finish, we could see a congestion of caps of swimmers from earlier waves.

“What do you want to do,” Sam asked. “Do you want to pass them?”

Bless your heart, Sam. I had a secret, internal smile. Heck, yeah, I want to pass them. Once a competitor, always a competitor, it seems.

With the finish line in sight, I dug in and moved ahead, passing swimmers as Sam veered right and kayaked to shore. Cheering volunteers and red balloons greeted me when I crossed. A woman handed me a Popsicle stick with a number on it.

Elated, I accepted the participation medal and the big souvenir towel that volunteers offered me when my feet touched the shore. I posed with Elizabeth, her kayaker husband, Eliot, and fear-the-turtle Sam for celebration portraits. We lingered on shore, watching other participants finish.

More than an hour after I finished, one swimmer, surrounded by a small flotilla of boats, was making for the shore. I waded back into the water to cheer for the lone, last swimmer.

Congratulations. Is this your first race?

Yes, he said. My legs feel wobbly.

I offered my fist for a victory bump. It’s my first race, too. I’m Cheryl. David, he said.

He told me the Save the Bay swim was on his bucket list.

In January, he didn’t know how to swim.

His friend, who kayaked beside him, is a triathlete. He trained David to swim breaststroke for three hours. He swam breaststroke two miles across the bay in 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Next year, David had a new goal. “Freestyle,” he shouted.

Mountaineer W. H. Murray has a quote about commitment in his 1951 book “The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.”

“But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money—booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:  Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Commitment. It’s the difference between setting a goal and achieving it. When David committed to the event, he couldn’t swim. When I started, I didn’t believe I could swim two miles in open water. I still told everyone I would.

Set a goal. Say it out loud and often. Follow through.

And fear the turtle.

link: http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/article_97969516-3ecf-11e4-9967-c7d8c1cbe597.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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