Competitive swimming taught me that anything is possible

If you’d told me when I was a 9-year old swim team dropout that one day I would do a 6-mile open water swim from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge, I would’ve hit you with a pool noodle and called you a liar.

I am not a gifted swimmer. Or even a talented floater. As a young child, my swim stroke – a near vertical doggie paddle that left only the lower half of my face un-submerged – was frequently mistaken for drowning. Passers-by would see me swimming and leap into the pool to my rescue.

I loved swimming, though. Pools, the Long Island Sound, Jones Beach, the Jersey Shore – I got into the water whenever I could. So joining a swim team when I was 9 seemed like a logical thing to do. The team was at my parents’ country club. It so happened that the team was highly competitive. It so happened that I was not. It soon became clear that practice was not going to be enough to overcome my inherent shortcomings. “She has a nice stroke,” the coaches would bemoan to my mother, “but she sinks in the water.”

Every race I swam, I came in last. So last that by the time I touched the wall, the other kids were already on deck and getting a snack. I did not make friends with my teammates – how could I, I barely ever saw them.  The whole experience made me think about swimming not in terms of fun, or exploration, or even exercise, but in terms of my own limitations. I quit the team and I quit swimming. I’d still go into the ocean or the pool and splash around, but I was done taking it seriously. That was for good swimmers, not for me.

I didn’t start swimming again in earnest until I was 28. I was living in Chicago at the time, and jogging, my main form of exercise, was starting to take its toll on my knees. I needed to find a lower impact sport for the long haul. So I bought a suit, found a public pool, and went for my first lap swim in twenty years. I barely managed to eke out 20 lengths (or 500 yards). In the locker room afterwards, my arms hurt so much that I couldn’t raise them high enough to pull my shirt over my head. In other words, swimming just far enough to burn off a handful of Cheetos had incapacitated me to the point where I couldn’t dress myself.

It was an inauspicious start. But the smell of the chlorine made me happy. I loved looking at the bottom of the pool through my goggles. I loved the quiet under the water. I felt like a kid again – a kid who was free to go at her own pace. I was hooked.

I joined the local Y and started swimming two to three times a week. Soon I could swim 1,000 yards with no subsequent paralysis. After a few months, I learned that a Masters swim team – a coached team for adults – practiced at my Y on Friday night. I made it a point to avoid them. I had just started to love swimming again and I wasn’t about to let another swim team ruin it for me.  I was fine as I was – a slow but dedicated solitary lap swimmer.

That changed when I moved to from Chicago to Los Angeles in my mid-thirties. I wanted to start swimming in the ocean, and I couldn’t do that alone, because, sharks. Luckily, someone who’d swum on my high school team was living in LA, and I convinced her to become my ocean buddy. We started in a protected cove and worked our way up to the beach with the bigger waves. We had post-swim donuts, to celebrate/negate the calories we’d burned and reveled in the details of the morning’s swim. (“Did you see that dolphin?” “That was a dolphin, right?” “Something. Touched. My. Foot.”)

Swimming in the open water, and having a friend to do it with, sparked my imagination. I still didn’t want to swim for time, but what about the two of us doing an ocean race with for fun? And so we started – a 1,000 meter race here, a mile race there. Eventually, I convinced my ocean buddy that we could do the Escape from Alcatraz swim – a 1.5 miler in the San Francisco Bay – in the sense that she could swim it and I could watch. She swam competitively in high school, I reasoned, she could pull that off. That was not possible for me.

Our swimming partnership continued beautifully until January of 2009, when my friend and her husband suddenly became foster parents to a nine-day old boy. Which was an amazing act of love, faith and generosity, but let’s focus on what’s important here – it cost me my ocean buddy. I was now addicted to the ocean, but I didn’t know anyone else in Los Angeles who swam. What was I supposed to do?!

There was only one solution. I had to join a swim team.

And so it was that in March of 2009, I went to my first team practice in a swimming pool in 30 years. And I discovered something life-changing. There were other slow people on the team. People who wanted to swim for exercise, not competition. People who wanted to swim for fun. People like me.

What’s more, I found one, then two, then a whole little group of fellow open water enthusiasts. We alternated training in the pool with our team and going for ocean swims on our own. Over the last six years, this group has reinvented my sense of what I am capable of as a swimmer. Within four months of our meeting, one of my new ocean buddies asked me and four other friends to train for a relay across the Catalina Channel. The Catalina Channel spans a 21-mile stretch of Pacific Ocean where Great White and Mako and Hammerhead sharks live in harmony with thousands upon thousands of jellyfish. The relay swim starts at midnight. We all politely declined. (I believe my exact words were, “You’re bonkers!”) And then the next summer we swam across the Catalina Channel.

Our 6-person relay team, “Just Keep Swimming,” has since swum across Lake Tahoe and circumnavigated Manhattan Island. We’re planning for an English Channel attempt in 2017. We’ve also inspired each other to do solo open water swims of increasing distance and difficulty. I’ve now done the Escape from Alcatraz swim three times, and this past July, I swam the 6-miles between the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge. I had one of my teammates with me. And yes, most of the 20 other swimmers finished before us. Including the nine-year old. But we both made it. And I have never felt more like an athlete.

Lately, our Catalina Channel instigator has been making noise about “Just Keep Swimming” attempting a relay swim from to the Golden Gate Bridge the Farallon Islands. The Farallon Islands are famous for being home to some of the biggest Great White sharks in the world. This summer, a solo swimmer attempting this 27-mile crossing had to be pulled within 3-miles of completion because a large Great White was circling him. I mean. Come. On.

But I now know better than to say never. Because with this group, anything’s possible.Kate Martin is an actress and writer living in Los Angeles. You might see her in a rerun of Grey’s Anatomy or Criminal Minds or popping up in a commercial. She spent thirteen years in Chicago, IL performing in theatre. She is a graduate of Yale University and has studied screenwriting at the UCLA extension program. In her free time, she swims.