Fear the Turtle

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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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Women: Celebrate your bodies and revel in your strength

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

When I was a college student, I would often leave my apartment and go for a 12-mile run for fun, to unwind after a tough class or a long week. I would swim two hours nearly every evening, conjugating French verbs or writing a story in my head as ticked off laps like a metronome.

When I was younger, I would see middle-age women in loose T-shirts and running shoes, laboring under extra weight and shuffling along the sidewalk at a barely-more-than walking pace. In my youthful ignorance, I’d think ‘how did she let herself get like that?’

Now, I am that woman.

My first semester at Allegheny, a student mentioned my pregnancy. I wasn’t pregnant. It was a wonderful teaching moment in our journalism class. Get facts. Don’t make assumptions. And never ask a woman if she’s pregnant. As a professor, I handled the moment gracefully. As a human being, I was devastated.

Two years ago, I was preparing for my second embed with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in southern Kandahar Province. I’d returned to do a story on the women soldiers of the Female Engagement Team for The Christian Science Monitor. I walked on daily patrols with 19-year-old soldiers. It was a point of pride to hold my spacing and keep pace with the young men and women, even though I felt my age and extra weight on those long marches.

By late March 2012, I was in a hospital bed in Kuwait, struck by some “fever of unknown origin” and a wicked infection that set up camp in my lungs so fast it was like a flood of refugees fleeing a war zone. The disease threatened to take my life. It didn’t win though it left me weak. The doctors warned my recovery would be slow and I needed take it easy.

I asked about yoga, running and swimming. Swimming? The doctor looked at me. No, he said. Walking. Only walking.

Surviving Afghanistan and its aftermath, I have a newfound appreciation for my lungs, my life and my body—the very body I disparaged as a young woman.

In college, I was lean with a mere 9 percent body fat. I was on the crew team and we usually worked out when the guys on the football team lifted. My friends on the offensive line would spot me when I bench pressed more than my body weight. They pushed me to make a record 13 pull-ups.

I was an accomplished college athlete and a Pac-10 champion. And I never felt strong enough, fast enough, pretty enough or good enough.

It hurts me to think about it now.

I have become the woman I mocked in my youth. I want to believe I’m also a wiser and more compassionate woman. I’ve learned that things happen that change our bodies and challenge our health: bearing children, bearing witness to suffering and death, battling diseases, exhausting ourselves banging on some glass ceiling or mirror.

This past year, four women dear to me were diagnosed with breast cancer. They’ve taken different paths to healing: surgeries, chemotherapy or a combination of interventions. Each one is finding her way back to health, into her body and into her life.

I want to find my way back to health and fitness, back to my body.

I called one of my friends who is recovering well. Let’s swim the Save the Bay this summer, I proposed. (It’s a two-mile swim in open water.) She accepted and she’s already started training for the July 16 event.

I may not have much muscle at the moment. I do have muscle memory. The athlete I’ve always been is still there; she’s simply out of practice—and yes, a bit overweight.

I know I have plenty going for me on my road to recovery. I still have the mental toughness that kept me upright on those Afghan patrols. I have the will that kept me rowing when I wanted to bail. I come from a long line of athletes, including my mother. She played college basketball and volleyball long before Title IX changed the rules and opportunities for women.

I hope young women—and all women who read this column—will not judge, as I once did, any woman who is doggedly pursuing her personal path to wellness. Especially, if that woman is you.

I encourage you to celebrate your bodies. Be grateful for your health.

Revel in your strength.

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

 

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Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming

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This time last year I was preparing for my second embed with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in southern Kandahar Province. I’d spent a month embedded in December 2011-January 2012 and I’d returned to do a story on the women soldiers of the Female Engagement Team for The Christian Science Monitor.

By late March last year, I was in a hospital bed in Kuwait, struck by some “fever of unknown origin” and a wicked infection that set up camp in my lungs so fast it was like a flood of refugees fleeing a war zone.

I am grateful beyond words that the illness didn’t take me. It gave me new-found respect for the importance and beauty of my lungs and the power of my body to heal herself.

The docs cautioned me to take it easy. I didn’t honestly. Job interviews. A move cross-country. A new teaching job in the fall, teaching two new classes. I asked if I could do yoga, run, swim. My doctor looked at me: swimming? No! Walking.

With the illness, the steroids that probably saved my life and the inactivity that followed, the pounds on my body went up and my confidence went down.

I banned my family from taking photos of me and I asked friends not to post images of me on Facebook. It was too painful. I did not recognize myself.

A student first semester asked if I were pregnant. It was a great teaching moment in my journalism class; however, it was heartbreaking for me, doubly cruel in its implications. And I thought I looked great that day.

I followed the doc’s orders. I did my best to rest and take care of myself. I didn’t want to relapse.

Over the break, the doctor gave me a green light to swim. My lungs were clear, my heart strong.

I decided I’d join the Master Swimmers group at Allegheny College. The pool is walking distance from my home.

People often tell me I’m brave. They might mention my considerable public speaking. Or my years spent in combat zones, most recently walking on patrol with an infantry platoon in the Horn of Panjawai’i.

True, I do take risks. I do things that scare other people…and scare me sometimes.

I’ll tell you though, it took real courage last Sunday to put on my Speedo swimsuit–too many pounds overweight than I’d care to mention–and walk onto the pool deck.

Kirk, the coach, is a young, kind man. I told him I’d swim in the outside lane–the slow lane. I had no idea what I’d be able to do.

300-yard warmup. No problem.

As I swam, I realized I hadn’t swum since I left my beloved swimming group at Oregon State in 2010. I spent a winter in Alaska and another winter in Afghanistan. Three years.

The workout continued. I kept swimming. The woman sharing the lane with me said: “You’re a strong mama.” I smiled.

My body is a miracle and she continually surprises me.

At the end of the workout, the coach said I’d swum 2,600 yards. That’s probably enough for your first time back in the water, he said.

2,600 yards!

Sure, I didn’t have the core or the arm strength for more than 15 yards of butterfly at a stretch. And I didn’t do many flip turns because I didn’t know if I’d have the stamina.

I didn’t get winded. I did feel strong. I called my friend in Rhode Island and she said: “Two hundred more yards and you could do the Save the Bay Swim. Now there’s a goal. July 2013.

I went back this week and I swam 3,000 yards.

It’s a start.

This year I made a commitment to myself. To regain my health and strength. To uncover/liberate the athlete who was once a Pac-10 rowing champion, who ran marathons.

Mostly, I have to admit, I’m happy to be here. I’m happy my lungs are healthy.

And I think Dorie the blue tang in “Finding Nemo” has it right.

Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.

Like riding a bike

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A couple weekends ago, I decided to go for bike ride. A number of people had recommended the nearby Ernst Trail. It was a warm, crisp late summer afternoon, so I pulled my cherished Peugeot out of the garage.

I realized it had been years since I’d ridden my bike (time away in Alaska and Afghanistan.) I bought the Peugeot when I was a student in Poitiers, France—when the exchange rate was 10 francs to the dollar (long before the euro). I rode the bike up the steep hills to the university from my tiny flat in centre ville.

That bike is older than most of the soldiers I walked with on patrol in Afghanistan; older than my niece and nephew; older than my current students, and my former students, for that matter. As I threw my leg over the saddle and began to pedal, I couldn’t help remembering the young, fit woman I’d once been.

When I was a student at Oregon State University, I would walk out my front door on the weekends and go for a 12-mile run without a moment’s pause or warm-up. I rode my bike everywhere, including along the long stretch of Highway 99 between Corvallis and Eugene and among the hills that hug Corvallis.

I rowed on the crew team and won a Pac-10 Championship in the Women’s Lightweight-8. We happily took the shirts from the Stanford women’s backs.

I swam two hours every night in the wake of a guy with the most beautiful, strongest stroke I’d ever seen. My sole objective was to get him to notice me. It took two years though he did eventually notice my stroke—and me.

In the caliper tests for body fat, the trainers couldn’t pinch any fat on my biceps, legs or stomach. I tested at nine percent. When I’d see pudgy women shuffling along in sweatpants I’d wonder how they let themselves get that way.

Now I’m one of those pudgy women.

I know how I got this way. I pursued photojournalism with the same passion, quiet persistence and competitiveness with which I pursued that Pac-10 gold and that hot swimmer in whose wake I swam. Years of stress and sleep deprivation, extended periods of insufficient food and wicked vicious diseases put me out of balance.

Most recently, the disease that hijacked me in Afghanistan gave me a fever that scorched me. The disease compromised my lungs and left me weak. The medications the doctors used to combat it—and save my life—took a toll on my body.

Two things I know: (1) I’m 30 percent heavier than I was when I rode my bike in college; and, (2) I’m still an athlete, even if she’s buried under more than nine percent body fat now.

As I’ve learned many times in my life—in work, in relationships, in health—the only way back is through. I got back on my bike and started riding.

Out of Practice

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These past five months in Fairbanks, I started noticing that my clothes were getting tighter. This is a problem because I brought a limited amount of clothing to this gig at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I brought three skirts, a few blouses, a pair of blue jeans, a pair of black jeans and some workout clothes. Right now, the only clothes that feel comfortable are the workout clothes…primarily because they give rather than cinch. And mercifully, because working out will be a big part of my weight loss and return to skirts that slip on my hips rather than hug them.

I heard all the usual rationalizations and explanations about how the body naturally adds weight in the winter, especially up here where the winter days become dark, cold and long. I know. I know. I want to have some compassion for my clever body. And I want to fit my clothes.

When the new semester started, I vowed to recover some of my fitness rituals. In Oregon, I walked at least five to seven miles every day. I practiced yoga at least three times a week. I swam with a rigorous group of righteous swimmers twice a week. I shook, shimmied and smiled in a Bollywood dance class twice a week. And I played golf whenever I could with my ladies group at Marysville Golf Course, weather permitting.

At first, I walked the eight miles round trip from my cabin to the campus. On the weekends, I went hiking. Then it got colder. I stopped walking and I found myself unable to muster a yoga practice alone at home.

I was actually craving the rituals of fitness, the feeling of flexibility and the calmness that yoga brings me. I was missing the joy of slicing through the water long and strong for an hour of focused swimming. I missed the meditative contemplation and appreciation of nature that my river walks offered me.

So, I signed up for conditioning swimming three times each week at the Patty Center on campus. My body went into shock when I put on my swimsuit. There, there, I told her, it’s going to get better. You’ll remember your strength. You’ll remember the rhythm. You’ll shed these hitchhiking pounds. I’ll write more in another post about my experiences in swim class. It’s good to be back in the water. And I immediately noticed I’d lost some of my beloved strength and endurance, although I still had my breath.

Back in the water. Swimming. Check.

A colleague…and a dear, sweet woman….Nancy Tarnai, reminded me that the UAF has a yoga club and the members meet every Saturday from 9:30 to 11 a.m. For a $5 fee, I get to experience a different instructor and form of yoga. I’ve been the last two Saturdays. Of course, I instantly noticed that I have a whole lot more tummy in the way when I move into certain postures. Yoga is great for body awareness…and I am all too aware of how mine has changed. Again, I do my best to summon compassion. There, there, sweet body. You were once so strong and flexible and vibrant. You will find your way back. Hush now. Breathe. Be gentle. Be kind.

Back on the mat. Yoga. Check.

Nancy also recommended yoga classes at Infinite Yoga in Fairbanks at the Artisan’s Courtyard, “a community space for the arts and well-being.” She attends a class, “Yin/Yang” with Kara, on Wednesday nights. The yoga studio is staffed by 10 different instructors who offer a variety of classes: yoga core, yogalates, Vinyasa Level 2, healing yoga, hatha, yoga flow. I purchased a new student pass tonight for $55, which allows me to attend as many classes as I want for the next two weeks. What better way to discover all the classes and teachers and jumpstart my practice.

I adored the class tonight with Kara. She is long and lean with a soothing, calm voice. She draws our attention to our breathing and puts us through the paces…at a gentle yet insistent pace.

Again my vicious self-critic noticed how much flexibility I’d lost, how much extra weight I was carrying. I was right next to the mirro and I was not happy with my silhouette.

And yet, I was happy. Happy to have discovered a great yoga class. Happy to have a wonderful new friend, Nancy.

And happy to return to my practice.

As I headed home and to the office to write this post (I’d been nagging myself about how far behind I’d fallen on my blog posts–again, out of practice), I thought about the expression “out of practice.” It fits. Literally, yoga is a practice and I’ve been out of practice.

I then realized that everything can be viewed a practice: photography, writing, relationships. All practices. Sometimes I get out of practice.

No sense in beating myself up. Criticizing myself doesn’t help.

I simply need to start practicing again.