Falling In

It’s the type of morning where beach walkers say “you’re crazy” when they walk by us in their down puffies and knit caps. Barely light, gray with only a hint of lighter gray to the east to indicate dawn. It’s easier to smile and nod, agreeing with their flash psychoanalysis, which is more accurate than they probably realize.

Everyone should be a little crazy about something. A little off. A little wild-eyed. A little too in love.

Some of us pull on wetsuits. One of us is going skins. Water temp has dropped unusually fast these last two weeks. No foreplay or shoulder season, just straight into winter temps, 52 now, heading down to stay around 46 by November, if we’re lucky.

No gloves or booties yet, I want to save something to put on for November, a small warmish treat that will make a mental difference for me when getting in.

Tide is low. Robinson beach is a gradual sandy descent down to the edge. I never hesitate, just walk straight in, taking a first assessment with my bare feet: colder, warmer, the same as yesterday. 

I stop when the water reaches my lower thighs, dip to rinse my goggles, first touch of the water with the tips of my fingers. A swirling touch, a type of familiar greeting, the same way I stroke my daughter’s hair absentmindedly when we’re standing in line somewhere, or she’s cooking ramen at the stove. A passing gesture of familiarity, a claiming of sorts, to say: “I see you, I’m here.”

Goggles on. Straps straightened, quick prayer to the gods of suction and silicone that it’s a good goggle-karma day. Some days they leak every 20 yards, a goddammit day, and my swim rhythm takes on a necessary break: rolling onto my back to tip and empty, then rolling back again to take a forward stroke and keep gliding.

The next day the same pair will seal for the entire swim. Moody bitch. New or old makes no difference. “Goggles are an art form,” my friend Kristin once told me. 

I stop at my waist, take a look around. It’s not quiet. It’s deeper than that. It’s silent. Still, but everything breathing, alive. Sacred. I turn a slow circle, taking in the blue heron fishing on shore; the white buoys in the bay abandoned like soccer balls on a playground after the bell; the slight breeze coming down through the fir trees on the hill, riffling the Sound’s surface; the summer cabins shuttered and asleep; our colorful pile of clothes, yellow dry bags and purple jackets, left on the driftwood to wait.

This is the moment, the “before”, the pause that comes in front of submerging and taking that first stroke. If I’m late, it’s not long. But if I have the gift of time, the presence of mind, a moment or two, I can feel my senses sharpen to the moment, buzzing. 

I’m about to enter a hostile environment, a thief, one that does not support breath but steals it, cold water that hunts my core, and makes the exposed space between my goggles and cap ache. My skin hums, knows what to expect, braces for the break-in through the zipper, upper collar around my neck, smallest gap in the neoprene at my wrists. 

Everything I am: anticipating.

If I hesitate long enough to question, to entertain the ever-present doubt (nonexistent on a flat sunny day, insistent on a day with gale-force winds), I always find a mantra:

-You know you’re not getting out until you get in. 

-There’s no turning around without wishing you would have.

-You never say no. 

These words reflect my truest self, the part of me that every once in awhile I let myself admire: the non-quitter, my do-it-anyway side, the gritty girl, the committed. 

Then, the letting go, the split-second loss of control as I fall in. Not a jump, not even a lean, just a relinquishing of the need to be upright, a giving in to gravity, denying the force that holds my feet to the spinning, speeding Earth. My lungs shrink in, my legs rise to the surface, and I reach out with both hands, pulling through a single breast stroke. I breathe out, eyes level with the water, and instantly belong to the stillness, once again accepted into a body bigger than myself: afloat, akin, never more alive.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Back to Blogging: but first, a salute

One of the last posts on this blog was a guest blog from my daughter Bailey, to me. It covered her experience being stuck at home with us during COVID, living through my cancer, missing her track season, and her consequential spiral down into depression. 

It’s hilarious! 

No actually, it is, which makes it an amazing piece of writing. I’m forever grateful. If you haven’t read it, scroll down to the entry before this, or click here.

It also covers how she came to open water swimming, and how it beat her up, and how she loved it and kept coming back. How finding the water and the folks in it helped her through, mentally and physically.

Cool mirror image by Robbie Cribbs of Bailey swimming across to Camano Island this summer.

Summer swims are nearly over, so I’ll have a bit more time for the blog. But I couldn’t exactly start back without a follow-up to her post. It’s more of a salute, really. 

That depressed funny determined kid came back this year and had a 2021 track season. Boy did she have a season.

I don’t know if it was the need to get back, or to bust ass and give it her all after missing a season, or just a promise she made to herself to drive it as hard as possible. 

She might just have been really, really pissed off at 2020, too. 

An early at-home meet at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.

Whatever it was, my girl repeatedly broke school and meet records, and made it to nationals in North Carolina back in May. Yah, frickin NA-TION-ALS. And not just in one race, in two: the 100 and 200 meters.

Girl!

What’s even better: they allowed spectators. We went to Greensboro and sat in the humid stands for three days, eating southern food (chicken biscuits!), sweating our asses off in the bleachers, and feeling like we were going to throw up before her races. I actually held a barf bag for one mom sitting next to me.

My dream for Bailey was that she’d make it to the podium in one of her races. Can you imagine? I couldn’t get my head around it. My daughter, on the national podium! Even if it was 8th place it wouldn’t matter. It’s frickin NA-TION-ALS, baby.

But she didn’t get 8th. Or 7th. She won. She WON! Both races! (Way to under-dream for your own kid, right?) Every race she ran—prelims, finals, even after waiting out a two-hour rain delay in the 200 final—she won.

My daughter is a national champion and an All-American. Twice over. 

Bailey does things. And when she does, she goes all out. She is the fastest woman in D3 colleges in the country for 2021.

And she’s humble as hell. Bailey has never been one for attention or praise. So many hometown folks came over and congratulated her, made a fuss, made a cake, threw her a party.

But my girl isn’t into that. The biggest trophies she carried home on the plane were the posters that labeled the podium where she got to stand for a few minutes. 

Coming back home with her favorite pieces of memorabilia.

The crystal trophies that said First Place? They were packed in her carry-on with her sweaty uniforms. They might still be there for all I know.

She was asked to do a podcast after her wins, a show called D3 Glory Days. Click below to listen. The first half is her male counterpart, JP Vaught, who also won both the mens 100 and 200 races. (Meh. Just skip that bit. Bailey comes on the second half of the show!)

At one point she’s asked what she did during COVID to train. She says, “I swam open water.” 

I’m so grateful that I was part of that. Yes it was shitty times in our lives, yes I went through two surgeries, yes it was COVID, yes we sheepishly watched Tiger King. But I’d do it all a million times over. Hell I’d even lose my other breast to do it again.

Granted, it was humbling to swim with her. I’d start swimming before her, then watch her pass me in about 5 strokes, then see her feet (her beautiful high-arched, tippy-toeing, speed-demon feet!) as they vanished into the green. 

The only time I see Bailey at a swim is before we get in. Even here, she’s still in front of me!

She didn’t know, but every time she passed me, I’d pull up and stop, watch her go pounding through the Rocky waves, getting the shit beat out of her. I’d watch her rise, keep on fighting, keep on swimming, then rise again. I’d just bob there and laugh. Sometimes cry. Usually both. 

Beautiful things have that affect on me.

My girl’s tiny blue cap powering through the shit storm.

 I asked her after she came home from nationals the million-dollar question: How did you do it? Twice?

She said: “Mom, there’s no secret. I just reach my top all-out speed, then maintain it longer than anyone else out there. Some runners have a faster top speed than me, but they can’t maintain it for very long. I can.”

I had no idea it was so logical. (!) My daughter throws it down, pushes the needle into the red, turns herself inside out, and holds it there until she’s over the line. 

Simple physics. And pure gut-dug grit. She is a literal bombshell that goes off when the gun fires. 

Out in front for the 100 finish at nationals.

I try to live my life day by day, sometimes hour to hour. Bailey lives her life in tenths of seconds. On the track, she is the penultimate example of being fully and completely present in life.

When she was a baby, people warned me about being a parent. They said, “Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.”

They had no idea.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

I Should Probably See My Therapist, But I Wrote This Instead: An Ode to My Mom

Guest Blog by Bailey Forsyth

I should probably start by introducing myself – my name is Bailey, and I’m Teresa’s introverted, first born daughter. I think I’ve made an appearance on here once or twice, thankfully all good things – my mom didn’t HAVE to be so nice, but she was. Thanks, mom :).

This is me! Post-swim, probably inquiring about who brought the beer this time.

Anyways, brief background on me: I am a senior at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, double majoring in International Affairs and Economics (please don’t ask what I want to do with that, I still don’t know, and I’m so sick of coming up with some bullshit answer every time – I’m just trying to survive out here). I’m also a sprinter and a captain on the track and field team (I know, I know, hold your applause); I love the grittiness of sprinting, and it’s something that I am immensely proud of.

Me and my awesome team right before Covid hit.

As we all know, 2020 was pretty shitty, for a number of reasons. If you’ve been following my mom’s lovely blog, you know my family has had a doozy of a year – why not throw cancer at my mom, too? Just get all of the shit out of the way in one terrible year. Anyways, the middle of March was when my 2020 track season officially got cancelled due to Covid. In a word, I was devastated. To have that pulled out from under me was a blow, and I took it pretty hard. I’ll admit that it was far from the end of the world, but track was (is) one of the biggest factors to my mental health. To lose that in the middle of a pandemic, while still trying to process the information that my mom had cancer, was Hard. Watching one of the most important people in your life go through something like that is Fucked Up, and I felt pretty helpless about the whole thing. 

Me and my kick ass mom at sunrise!

I ended up moving back home to the island, because school was online, and I wanted to be around for my family while my mom went through her cancer “journey” or whatever bullshit people call it. I never thought I would be living with my parents again for the long term, but all of a sudden I was back in my childhood bedroom. Which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I was a fresh 21! I should have been doing stupid college kid things with my friends on the weekends! I mean, don’t get me wrong, Jim and Teresa know how to party, but having a beer with dinner and then going to bed by 10 wasn’t *exactly* how I had pictured my evenings going. 

Just look at these party animals!

I probably sound ungrateful – that wasn’t the case! I’m lucky to have such a great family who loves me so much. It was just too much all at once for my brain to handle in a healthy way. In short, I got depressed, and hit a low that I hadn’t seen since high school. It was tough. My motivation was at an all-time low, and I couldn’t do anything but watch as my mom took on this monster that I couldn’t do anything about, and I had to face it every damn day. There’s no distracting yourself from the Bad Thing if you’re stuck in quarantine with it for weeks on end.

Despite everything, I think my mom caught on, because she started dragging me along to swim with her and her friends, even when she wasn’t allowed in the water herself. Now, I’ve swam with these guys occasionally during the summers, when it’s nice and warm out, but APRIL? No offense, but what college kid wants to get up for an 8am swim in 50 degree water?? It certainly wasn’t very high on my priority list at the time. But I did it, because it was something to do, and I finally found something I could do for her – I could be her place holder in the water until she could get back in. 

So I got up at 7.

And swam. 

And froze my ass off. 

And immediately wanted to go again. 


Me freezing my ass off while I wait for my mom to take her sweet time.

I mean this in the most literal sense: it just might have saved my life. I was quickly losing all sense of myself, which is something that terrifies me. The water was cathartic.

All of a sudden, I was surrounded by beauty, and people who just loved life. It was infectious, and I couldn’t possibly be depressed when I was immersed in salt water and surrounded by friends. I realized I was probably in the best place possible – where else could I run for 20 minutes and end up on a beach where I looked out and there were dozens of porpoises playing at the drop off? Nowhere, I tell you. The cold water seemed to shock me out of whatever funk I had fallen into, and I emerged feeling resilient. It was meditative and cathartic; the water was a safe place to work out problems in my head, while simultaneously exhausting my body. 

There were countless times I found myself smiling like an idiot into the water (the flounders that saw me probably thought I was a psychopath). My favorite days were when the water was a little too rough, and you got out feeling like you just went 10 rounds with Rocky. A close second was when we were playing in the bioluminescence at 10pm on a Tuesday night after drinking shitty Kirkland-brand margaritas. I mean, come ON! 

Rocky waves!

I ended up spending the summer surrounded by friends, and had some of the best times in recent memory – I think I laughed harder and longer when I was with them than I have in years. Granted, they weren’t the friends I had expected to be hanging out with this summer, but rather were new friends I made that I lovingly refer to as my “old people friends” (I should clarify that none of them are actually old, but I think the age gap between myself and the next oldest of the group is roughly 35 years).

My old people friends!

They welcomed me with open arms, and I loved spending any kind of time with them. The water not only saved me mentally, but it led me to some of the coolest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet, and the cool part was I think they liked me back! 

I can now say that one of my best friends is a 50-something year old Canadian – I would be remiss if I left her out of this. 

I was home for Thanksgiving a few weeks ago, and was overwhelmed, kinda sad, and completely stressed out of my brain. The water was a balmy 47 degrees, and I hadn’t swam in about a month. But it didn’t matter. My mom and my friends were there, grinning like the lunatics they are, way too excited about getting in the Sound at this time of year. The water welcomed me back home like I hadn’t missed a beat, and, taking after my mother, I cried into my goggles.

– Bailey James

(Note from TJ: Some days you’re given a gift you can never repay. So much gratitude. Love you, Babygirl.)

Feeling It All

Driving to one of many many (so many!) swims this summer, a song came on my Spotify that stopped me mid-thought. Isn’t it great when that happens? You hear a certain lyric out of the blue and it’s like getting hit between the eyes. 

The song was People Get Old by Lori McKenna. Not the most clever title, invoking an initial “no duh!” response from me when I first heard it. But then this verse:

Time is a thief / Pain is a gift / The past is the past / It is what it is.

The last line is cliche, so we can skip that. But time is a thief? Absolutely. Pain is a gift? Truth. Eight words that sum up my summer.

I realize I’ve been remiss on the blog posts. Thanks to the folks that asked and prodded me to get back at it. I love you all.

But I make no apologies for the last three months. I swam my ass off, farther and stronger and better than ever before. Just like I promised myself I would while recovering from my mastectomy in April. 

It feels good to keep a promise to yourself.

And when I had to choose to write or swim? You know what I did.

I’m out of the water again, six weeks this time, following my DIEP flap breast rebuild surgery. (Wow did that suck. But  I’m back to wading!) Plastic surgery is crazy magic. Who knew all that Brie and beer built up on my gut over the years would come in handy? 

So relieved this final step on my stupid cancer “journey” (eye roll) is complete. I feel like a cat out of the bath. 

Pain is a gift.

This afternoon I’m turning the tables, albeit briefly, and stealing from time instead of the other way around. The sun’s out, the new puppy is asleep, and I’m wearing real pants as I write this. (Trust me, after that surgery, it’s a big deal.)

Feeling so much gratitude for it all.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Catching Up

How is it that I’m at home more than ever before, yet I’m so far behind on everything? Just yesterday I finally repaired four wetsuits that I was supposed to do two months ago. And time seems to be absolutely flying by. 

Yesterday the wetsuits, today the blog! At this rate I might even get to the dining room light fixture that’s been just a socket with wires sticking out of the ceiling for more than a year now.

But let’s not get hasty.

We’ve been swimming a ton, it being high season and all. Lots of new places, new summer-swimmer faces, and with Island County in phase 3, we’ve been able to bring back our weekly Saturday Seawall swims. 

The first one was a cold, windy, rainy morning, and we had 23 in the water. I love swimmers. 

My two daughters have been joining me, and it is my utmost joy and delight to see them glide past me at the start, effortless, adrenaline-filled, and powerful. I don’t see them again until I get out, where they’re patiently waiting on shore: dry, smiling, and on their second cups of tea.   

Catching up. Can I get an amen?

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

It’s a Sickness

“You’re my hero!”

That’s what a kind man walking the beach shouted at me a few days ago as I was toweling off after a swim in Mutiny Bay. Ironically, I was the first one out, not because I was fastest, but because I’d gone the shortest distance and was the slowest of our group. 

Not exactly a heroic swim. But whatever, I’ll take hero worship whenever I can get it.

I waved, smiled and said thanks. People will frequently engage me in conversation after a swim, if I’m alone. If we get out of the water in a pack (school? pod?), a few brave souls will approach us, but most just smile and move briskly past, in case our lunacy is contagious.

Which it most definitely is. 

The gentleman asked the usual round of queries: how cold was it, how far did I go. But then he asked, “How many millimeters is your suit?” This guy was a contender, serious-curious. He had some background, whether as a surfer, a diver, or maybe even a swimmer that used to do open water. 

“Are you a swimmer yourself?” I asked him. 

“Oh I used to be. Always wanted to try getting out there.”

I gave our facebook name, mentioned our open water swim clinics coming up, and encouraged him to give it a try. He said thanks, and after wishing me a good day, moved along down the beach.

After I give people info on how to connect with us, I usually never see them again.

But now and then a new person will join us that has the same disease we have. It’s usually apparent the first time they swim with us. While we welcome everyone, it’s the rare few that keep coming back. Something clicks for these folks. 

More than clicks, it’s almost like witnessing a homecoming of sorts.

These aren’t the ones who swim to prove they’re tough, or who come to train for something, or who need attention by doing something unique. We always get those folks around this time of year, and they usually stop swimming after a few weeks.

The ones who stick with us, who end up swimming year-round with us, the lifers? They just come to be. 

To be in it, to be part of a body bigger than themselves, to be slightly lost in something wild they can’t control.  

It feels amazing to find your people. No heroics necessary.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Coming Back

There’s nothing like being able to return to something you love. Last Thursday marked four weeks since my surgery, and I was given the go-ahead to get back in the water. 

Best. Swim. Ever. Sunshine! Flat clear water! Close friends! An osprey! Swift current on the return! Cold Pacificos after! And I was officially cancer-free. 

Free! In this time of COVID lockdown, how lucky was I to actually feel that emotion?

After a full month of not swimming and restricted activity, I was nervous about how my stroke would be affected. But muscle memory is an amazing thing. 

So is desire and drive.

I felt a little expected stiffness in my shoulder and pecs, and I won’t have full-arm extension for awhile. But it’s getting better every day, and every swim I’m able to go a little farther before the sparky nerves start up in my right palm. 

The body always tells you when to turn, if you listen. 

The best part is being back in the water with my salty cold friends, the socially distanced chatter before we get in, the endorphin-driven giggles when we get out. How I missed it!

I’m grateful for everything right now: steadfast friends and family, my strong body and spirit, moonsnails, sleep, iris blooms, medical workers, oversized potato chips I can’t quite fit in my mouth. 

And the darkness. I’m grateful for it, too. Dark times always come with offers of growth and hard-won change for the crossing.  But once my toes reach down and touch sand on the other side, there’s joy, holding out a sun-warmed towel and cold Pacifico. 

I know I’m one of the lucky ones. It’s good to be back.

<Special thanks to Matt and Marni for the incredible pics!>

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Wading Through It

This is my new swim normal: the walk wade. Wade walk? Typing the name reminds me of a tap dance teacher I had growing up. We called him Mr. Wade. He was incredibly thin, incredibly effeminate, and incredibly cool. He never liked me. I found tap dancing too loud for my 10-year-old taste.

I ran into him a few years ago selling cars at a Lexus dealership. His name tag just said Wade on it, no mister, no glitter. He was impeccably dressed, and could’ve shuffled off to Buffalo in his smart Italian shoes if only I’d asked. 

So much wrong happening here with the anklets and choker. But please note rebellious absence of tap shoes.

It’s now the third week in April, the world is still in COVID19 lock down, and I am nearly two weeks post-surgery for my cancer. 

Glad to have it behind me. The toughest bit was walking into the hospital to face surgery completely alone. Pandemic restrictions allowed no one in except patients.

My amazing husband watched me go from the car. Halfway across the hospital skybridge I turned around and gave him a brave wave. Then I grabbed my right breast, in a final salute before its ultimate sacrifice, and I did a little stomp-ball-change dance for him down the walkway.

How do you survive the mental challenges of cancer? Doing crazy shit like dancing and waving your righty at a parked car in the middle of a hospital skybridge. It also keeps people guessing if your tears are borne of fear or laughter. 

I’ve found a mix of the two is perfect.

Swimming is not in the cards for me for another three weeks, hence the wade walk/walk wade along the shore while my swim buddies are out in the waves. A friend asked me if it was hard to show up for the swims but not get in. Would it be easier to not go at all?

I thought about that for a bit.  After awhile, I realized there were three components that made my swims soul-fulfilling: the swimming itself, the people, and the beach. By just showing up, I could get two of the three. And two is better than none, especially when you’re on a healing tirade. 

Plus, wading is hard work! I was hoping to step it up to a jog after I’m cleared to raise my heart rate. But with the risk factors of sinking sand and heavily barnacled rocks, I could easily end up badly concussing myself, or worse. And how would that look? 

“She survived cancer, but died from head injuries caused by an overly strenuous wade.” 

Humiliating. Tragic.

But also hilarious. Like life. Like waving your boob and imitating a really bad stripper on a hospital skybridge. Like wearing the loudest costume on stage and trying to tap dance quietly. 

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Cancer? No Thank You.

These are my swim gloves. I love them, but I’m pretty sure that with all that pink-on-pink color, I caught breast cancer from them. Pretty sure. 

Or it might be that I have too much protect-yourself, wear-a-mask, wash-your-hands, wear-gloves, keep-your-distance, never-cough, hoard-toilet-paper American-COVID19 mentality in my head that makes catching breast cancer from pink swim gloves seem reasonable to me. Even rational.

Here’s what I am sure about: if you’re going to catch cancer, don’t do it in the middle of a pandemic.

I realize in my last entry, I kind of snuck my diagnosis in, tucked it behind some healthy sentences, in true cancer form. It likes to be sneaky like that. 

This is a blog about open-water swimming, and it will stay so. But I had to make a quick side-trip here to tell a little bit about “my cancer journey.” That’s what the voice I kept hearing called it while I was on hold 42 minutes waiting for my surgical oncologist. 

Barf. 

If cancer is a journey, then get me the f*ck off this hell train. 

I’ve mentioned in earlier entries my belief that those of us called into open water have some kind of relationship with darkness. Nothing like testing the bejeezus out of my own theory.

As my cancer hell-train chugs along, I’ve been amazed at the parallels between the challenges of cancer, and OW swimming. (Makes you want to jump right into the sport, doesn’t it?) 

Not just living above a deep darkness (with, around, among, under, choose your best preposition there), but the perseverance and resiliency required to get through it, especially with the COVID19 complications. 

Being an OW swimmer, I already know how to tap into those reserves, and apply them. It’s very handy. 

Take our annual crossing swims from Whidbey to Camano. When we finally get close to Camano, there is usually a stiff current to struggle through before we reach the beach. Right when I think I’m going to see bottom, suddenly the shore isn’t getting any closer, and I feel myself losing ground. Or so it seems. 

I’m always tired by then, my shoulders are sore, and I’m ready to get out, warm up, and eat my weight in Brie. But I don’t stop. I tell myself, “I can go a little bit farther.” I keep putting one arm in front of the other; keep counting my strokes by 50s—48, 49, 50, 1, 2—; keep singing whatever Lady Gaga chorus I have in my head. 

Eventually, I see a blob of white shell through the deep green, then another, then rocks and seagrass, and I’m there. Best feeling in the world. 

The things we work the hardest for are the things that mean the most.

Sunset behind Whidbey from Camano side.

This push of self came in handy a few weeks ago when I had to drive to Olympia for a second-look ultrasound and biopsy. Bellevue had an opening two weeks away; Olympia had an opening the next day. Hello 4-hour drive!

Everyone in the radiology department was very nice, especially the nurse with one lazy eye that looked like Marty Feldman. (I wondered if I’d misinterpreted “second look” biopsy.) But then I was walking around, tits out and hanging in the breeze, so I had no room to judge.

The radiologist looked like he’d seen better days, and insisted on “gowning up” for the procedure. Let’s be clear: a biopsy sample is about the size of 1/16th of a meal worm, and there’s very little blood. 

Even Marty the nurse asked him doubtfully, “You want to gown up?” I could tell we both thought this step extremely unnecessary, at first. 

But while he was injecting my armpit with lidocaine for the lymph node biopsy, I felt a sudden spray on my lower arm. I’m guessing he’d overshot and gone through the skin to the other side, the needle spraying lidocaine on my forearm. 

With his face right next to mine, I simply whispered, “I don’t think it works that way.”

Then I kept counting: 48, 49, 50, 1, 2…. 

Eventually I made it out and back to my car, where I laughed myself silly. And cried a little bit.

Then I laughed again as I sat in the Trader Joe’s parking lot trying to fit a bag of frozen mashed cauliflower balls into my sports bra for the ride home. I could write a book about which frozen foods work best in your bra after a biopsy. FYI: hashbrown patties make a good second choice. 

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Out of Control

A few weeks back a core group of swim friends rode our bikes onto the Port Townsend ferry. With swim gear in overstuffed backpacks and saddlebags, we set out for a short exploratory swim along the southern protected bay at Fort Worden. 

Before we left, one of our more gregarious (but smart) friends sent me a text, saying “We should swim around Point Wilson.” He’s very fastidious, and supplied a course map, approximate distance, tides, all the goodies to plead his case.

I read the text and said out loud, “Oh hell no. That ain’t happening.”

Point Wilson, located within Fort Worden State Park, is the farthest tip of the Quimper Peninsula (and yes, I had to look that up). Its lighthouse juts out into the shipping lanes of Admiralty Inlet, and like any point, the water hauls ass through there.

This trip was my idea. I’ve sat many times at various waterfront taprooms in PT, pint in hand, thinking, “We should swim here.” 

There’s many places like that for me, places where I’ve seen bodies of water and thought, “Yes, we could swim this. We need to come back here.” But usually I leave it at that, a good idea I never act on. And I could fill this page with all the reasons and outs I give myself.

Which is why I thought biking to PT and swimming the shallow bay at Fort Worden, in February, toward Point Wilson and back, was a huge accomplishment. 

All my gear warming in soul-sustaining sunshine before the swim.

The bike ride was short, and soon we were on the beach ready to go. We started against a tough current, seeing that same damn clam shell on the bottom over and over. As we worked toward the point, the tight grip of the current began to slowly release us, until we were being pulled in the opposite direction, ever-faster toward the point.

Let me be clear: common sense was happening. We were shallow enough to stand up, we were staying together, and we were communicating. I stood up, ready to turn back while I could. My swim buddy was walking to shore, the water running past her legs like a river. 

The friend who had sent me the morning text stood as well. I realized he’d probably plotted this entire thing from the get-go, the sneaky bastard. We watched the two strongest swimmers of the group continue around the point. 

They didn’t get pulled out into the shipping lanes, they didn’t appear to struggle. They flew. They smiled. They did some butterfly. They were gorgeous.

The conservative side of me still wanted to turn around. I wasn’t as fast as they were. I don’t have a good kick. I didn’t know where we’d end up, or how we’d get back to our stuff. I was supposed to be leading this trip, so I had to be in control, be the responsible one. My usual why-I-can’t mantra.

But two weeks earlier, I’d found out I had breast cancer. I was mad, because I’d done everything right to prevent it, and it got me anyway. I felt helpless. My life felt out of my control. 

Calm bay at Fort Worden, looking toward Pt Townsend, the conservative route.

I was that little kid riding on the pretend cars at an amusement park. I thought I was really driving, but turns out my car was on its own track the entire time, no matter how carefully I steered. I felt incredibly let down and seriously pissed. 

Screw conservative, I thought.

So I smiled at my two swim buddies, who were waiting for me to make the call. I did some sort of what-I-hoped-was-cool but was probably dorky circle in the air with my hand. Then, I did a little dive in and simply let go.

And oh hell yes I flew around that point. The water was moving so fast I eventually gave up swimming and just floated, watching the sand formations below me change with the current, a container ship cruising past so big. 

There was bull kelp and seaweed and iridescent somethings in neon purple below us. Small children cheered us from shore. I picked my head up, laughing. I’d felt out-of-control fear for the past two weeks. This was out-of-control joy. 

Then we were completely around the point. We got out and walked across the campground to our bikes, everyone grinning and shivering and shouting, “Did you see this? Did you catch that?” 

All the endorphins, not to mention wetsuits, caps, and goggles, made idiots and spectacles of us. It’s my favorite part of every swim.

We rode back into town, warmed up and laughed ourselves silly in a clothing-optional community hot tub at a local spa. Note: do not sit in the corner of the spa closest to the clothing-optional community shower, because a large hairy man will inevitably drop the soap. 

Lovely way to warm up, but beware the proximity of the shower…!

Before catching the ferry back, we grabbed greasy cheesy burgers at one of my favorite small bars. I sat with a pint in my hand, my right breast still growing cancer cells, my stomach still sore from all the laughing. Everything was happening, and it was alright.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Small Comforts

So it’s February. Water temps have been recorded at our Seawall swims down to 39F. That’s F as in Fahrenheit, though that F could easily can stand for something else. Especially if you add the exclamation point. 39? F!

I’ve mentioned before that our regular winter swim group has grown this year. We’ve gained some very kind yet voracious people, who are just as passionate and crazy as the rest of us.

We’ve also come up with some extremely clever and rather extraordinary ideas for warming up (sort of) after our swims. Unfortunately they’ve done nothing to help our “you guys are nuts!”reputation, as we look more ridiculous now than ever. But I thought I’d review them, just in case someone could gain a little warmth, if not just a laugh, from them.

Portable hot tub, aka plastic bucket filled with warm water. This is an idea from the only person in the group that has swam skins all winter. We each take turns standing in it and muttering in ecstasy. Also a great way to get the sand off before putting on your fuzzy slippers.

Warning: once your feet are in, you will really want to try and fit your entire self into the bucket. Your arms. Your butt. Anything. Do NOT try this. It leads to all kinds of “uh-oh” awkward moments.

Portable hot-tub boots. These are basically any rain boot that you fill with hot water, then walk around in post-swim. Perfect if you want more time in the bucket, but don’t want to look like an ass hogging it all to yourself. Water does tend to slosh out as you walk, but you probably won’t feel it.

Hot tea and biscuits. I bring a large carafe of hot black tea with sugar and milk. I also bring British biscuits, preferably McVitties, because they’re bigger and easier to grab with cold club-like hands. Tea and biscuits after a swim is a custom I enjoyed in the Maldives, and I’ve decided to continue it here.

I really want to bring bacon one of these days as well, but have yet to figure out a way to keep it warm enough on the beach while we’re in the water.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

A Swim in McKinney, Texas

If you see a body of water, and someone’s fishing there, AND there’s a park on shore with playground equipment and a dock, it’s safe to assume people do swim there. Just probably not in January. The buzzards watching me seemed a bit too interested. I’m alive. Enough said.

Carrying On

It’s now mid-January. A few stalwart members of my OW swim friends are still swimming in the Sound, me included. Temps on the east side of the island are around 45F now.

We try to get a mile in, but this time of year a lot can vary that: strong currents, rough water, or driftwood and debris dragged out to sea during a storm. These can be tricky to spot (not to mention dangerous) when the waves get big.

Driftwood makes better art than a swim companion in windy conditions.

Last week we experienced all the crappy conditions together: currents, rough and murky water, logs and grass and all kinds of crap on the surface. Thought I saw a condom float by me at one point. I told myself it was white seaweed and carried on.

Because that’s what OW swimmers do: we carry on. Whether it’s sunny, flat, and clear water; or zero visibility, white caps, and snowing.

Calm sunny winter days are my favorite swims of the year. The beach is empty, the water still, and I can simply soak up the serenity of it all. And that warm shower after?  Pure bliss.

Winter sun low in the sky at Bowman Bay.

But sometimes a day like last week, when not a single condition is cooperating, is just the challenge both my mind and body need.

To most people, this sounds slightly masochistic and absolutely nutters. 

But the best part is I’m not alone in my crazy. There’s always two or three or even five others that must get the same charge as me, because they keep showing up to swim, ready to get in and carry on through waves, logs, condoms, and the f#%-all conditions. 

These are friends that shiver next to me at the picnic table after we get out. The ones trying like hell to take off their gear and pull up their sweat pants with the same frozen unworkable fingers as me. 

Staying in the warm car as long as possible before a swim at Robinson Beach.

We try to help each other out, we really do. But usually we end up laughing so hard at each other that we’re left completely useless in our mirth and hysterics.

I realize this most likely has something to do with post-swim endorphins. Ooh I love those endorphins!

But that’s swim-friendships for you, and I’m so grateful for every one of them. They make the mid-winter carrying-on bit a lot more fun.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Maldives6: From Now On

Contemplating my last blog entry from the Maldives, I wanted to conjure up THE MOMENT from the trip, the quintessential experience, the big ah-ha. So hard. I’d seen so much and learned even more about myself.

But as I tried to come up with this moment, I found myself absently humming the chorus to From Now On, a tune from the movie musical The Greatest Showman. 

The movie wasn’t that big in the States, but let me be clear, it was HUGE in Britain. At least that’s what two of our friends on the boat told us, the two that knew the words to EVERY song on the soundtrack, and who would break into From Now On at the top of their lungs occasionally during our swims.

(Warning: it’s about to get real here, so cue the uncomfortable fidgeting.)

Swimming back to the dhoni after my mind-meld swim with the manta, I’d felt the tears rolling as I climbed up the swim ladder. I hadn’t realized until that moment I’d been crying. 

I walked to the bow of the boat, seeking a quiet place to be somewhat alone (alone as you can be on a small boat with 14 people). Everyone else was excited and talking, so I felt a little foolish and dramatic with the tears. 

I have made vulnerability my enemy for so long, yet when I let it in, it is the one true experience that always changes me for the better. Manta as metaphor: go deep and find peace.

Up in the bow, my Hugh-Jackman-loving friend had sought out the same quiet space. We’d discovered earlier in the trip that we’d both been through mutual grief and tragic loss: she with an unexpected and sudden death of a loved one; me with the senseless death of my brother-in-law in a random act of gun violence. 

There is no life experience stronger or faster in bringing people together than shared tragedy. 

She saw my tears and laughed; I saw hers and laughed. Then we cried some more, and laughed some more. No words passed. They weren’t necessary. I was so grateful for her.

I rarely talk about the shooting with friends, let alone complete strangers. Not only because it’s terrible, but because it changes the way people see you, and the way they treat you. 

I have found it is a burden that needs to be shared with discretion. Not everyone is strong enough to carry it.

But sometimes the fact that strangers are temporary makes sharing less risky. And in the wide open ocean, half a world away from my everyday life, there was room for the question, room for the risk, room to share the burden.

I never guessed someone else would be carrying the same burden on that trip. The circumstances of death were different, but our stories left the same heavy weight of grief on our shoulders. 

But it also left us with deeper reasons to laugh, to see the magnificent world, to feel the ocean around us, to dance and sing as loud as possible, and to watch for dolphin fins on the horizon.

There is such power in feeling understood.

The following night, after our last dinner and group pictures, Marni and I left for the airport. I was coming home tan (at least on one side; gotta get better at backstroke), I was stronger, and I was changed. 

I’d found space in this 52 year old body to grow, space to cry, space to imagine myself farther into the world, space to make a new friend for life, space to be brave.

Will I go back? I’d love to try, but I know it wouldn’t be the same. Every second that ticks creates a past that can never be relived, no matter how much we wish we could do it, or see them, again.

I am ready to make more deep blue salty memories. Maybe Belize next year?

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Maldives5: Manta as Metaphor

I’ve been dragging my feet with these last few entries. It’s been nearly a month since I was in the Maldives. I don’t want to lose my reasons for revisiting those warm blue memories.

The above pic was one of my favorite moments of the trip. It was our next-to-last day, and our swim guide said, “Before breakfast, we’re swimming with dolphins and mantas.”

Have you seen the Kristen Wiig character Super Excited Sue from SNL? That was me.

The next morning, we all showed up with snorkeling gear and piled in the dhoni in search of dolphin.

Our local guide on the bow would shout and point directions to the captain in the back, steering the boat toward whichever pod was closest. Then he would suddenly shout, “Dolphins! Get in now!” And we’d all throw ourselves off the boat and swim like mad toward the fins.

Not everyone would make it off the boat before our guide would then call out, “Wait! They’re too far away. We’ll go find another group.” And off the dhoni would go, leaving the group of swimmers that had just leapt out, bobbing around by themselves in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

I loved this so much! Not just the trust piece of both parties, but the sheer craziness of leaving those swimmers. That would never happen in America, land of the overly cautious and lawsuit-laden.

We were in and out of the boat multiple times in our quest, so I was part of the first group off and left behind, as well as the group that stayed on and got closer.

So close. The pods of bottle-nosed dolphin that swam under us were elegant, squeaky-chatty, and enviably free. They would roll their bodies slightly every once in awhile to check us out, with a look that said, “You call that swimming?” Then promptly leave us in their wake.

I also discovered that spiritually speaking, I’m more of a manta than a dolphin. Right when I thought I’d missed seeing a manta forever, one glided directly underneath me. I swam my ass off to keep up with it as it gently flew below me, barely moving its six-foot wing span.

The irony didn’t escape me. I was flailing on the surface trying to keep up, as the giant below me cruised effortlessly in deeper water, allowing me to follow. Manta as metaphor.

I have so much to learn.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Maldives4: All About the Fish

Rose early for tea on the deck this morning. At least I thought 6:30 was early. I keep forgetting this is a boat full of swimmers, so they all were up at 6AM, some doing yoga. Yay for them.

We anchored off a sand shoal, just a thin strip of white sugar in the middle of the ocean. Rahgandu Kandu. Nothing but terns and shells and coral. Yes, it looked just like the picture postcard in your head right now. 

The dhoni took us out about 3.5K from the shoal, and we swam back along the edge of two reefs and The Big Blue. Even saw an anemone with Nemo inside. 

The fish here are all about variety: big, small, colors, stripes, dots. Schools of black and yellow Moorish Idol fish swam by us in droves. 

I knew they were Moorish Idols because it was the one fish name I could recall from the vast list of species in a dive book we had on the boat. 

To entertain myself during our swims, I would give the fish I saw new names: Miami Drag Queen Fish, Box o’ Crayons Fish, College Football Team Saturday Jersey Fish, Upper West Side Fish, Aretha Franklin Fish (a fellow swimmer agreed with me on that one), Candy on Gramma’s Coffee Table that No One Ever Eats Fish, Police Do-Not-Cross Tape Fish.

Whoever thought of Moorish Idol wins the fish-naming contest. Hands down.

Our local swim guide would always draw a map of the route at the pre-swim briefing.

Second swim of the day was 1.5K, around the small island of Anbaraa and its lagoon. According to our local guide, the island was leased privately every year for a large music festival. But last year the party got out of hand, the music was too loud, and a few partying people drowned.

So the government revoked the lease, and now it’s available for anyone to enjoy, called a picnic island. 

Creepy story, gorgeous swim.

Finishing off our swim around Anbaraa, with our dhoni moored at the dock.

Dinner was a beach bbq back on Anbaraa, and the crew went all out for us. Candles in the sand led to the “table,” which was a life-sized whale shark sculpted out of sand. There was a small trench all around the shark to put our feet, and banana leaves served for seats.

It was impressive, as was the whole tuna on the bbq the crew had caught the night before. The food on the trip has been crazy good. More on that later.

Snorkel viewpoint of Anbaraa.

Afterward, we walked the empty beach, where thousands of hermit crabs moved around like ants on a sidewalk. So many! All different sizes and styles of houses carried on their backs.

Tomorrow we swim one long 5K in the morning. Nobody better be up doing yoga before 6:00.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth


Mash-Ups

Robinson beach in last weekend’s snowfall.

One of my favorite stations to listen to on my way to a swim is a Canadian rock station called The Q. Like a lot of things, Canadians do radio right, whether it’s neutral news reporting, funny commercials, or listener games. 

100.3 The Q does a game called Polka Monster, where someone calls in and tries to name the popular rock song being played live by the DJ, on an accordion, in 3/4 time. 

No joke. (It’s really hard!)

Ed Bain on The Q morning show.

Sometimes the Catholic radio station in Edmonds will cut into The Q’s airwaves while I’m listening. A lot of static can be heard when this hostile takeover happens, but every once in awhile, I get a clear mash-up of rock and religion. Ozzy Osborne’s Crazy Train popping in and out of their program called Father Knows Best. A Tragically Hip song mixed with advice from the Bible about depression.

I cannot make this stuff up. I’m not that funny. But it’s worth suffering through the static for these woven moments of unintentional comedic gold.

Laughter is a sacrament. So is water. The two together often get me through these cold cold frickin cold days of swimming. (Did I mention it’s cold?)

Whidbey got snow last weekend, and it stuck around long enough for me to post a swim at Robinson beach. A good six inches fell, and naturally everyone wanted to swim. It was something different from the gray rainy days we’ve been pulling ourselves through the last four months.

Running out of the water after the swim (I call it my “get the hell to the towel” move), I looked down long enough to see my bare feet in snow. I couldn’t feel them, so it didn’t feel strange.

But it looked strange, a weird mash-up. Bare feet mean summer sunshine, “toes in the sand”, everything associated with beaches and feet. Now here was snow, rather out of place with my icy, incredibly red, feet. 

Swimming and snowfall is also a weird mash-up. But there’s a buzz about it, a few extra endorphins maybe, a thrill knowing not too many others would want to do this. 

But then, not too many people listen through static for a chance to hear a priest’s benediction blessing through Rush’s Prime Mover.

Anything can happen. Go in peace.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Wow It’s 48 Again

Courtesy of Matt Simms. Thanks Matt!

First swim back today after six weeks! I’ve been counting down the days since my surgery, waiting for today. It was flat, it was sunny, but man was it 48 deg!

And let’s be clear: the water felt like 48. I did not.

During one of those long 42 days out of the water, I wrote down all of the new swims my buddies and I did this summer, back when it was warmer. And mostly sunny. And not November.

Thanks for a great summer, guys. The pic below was taken back when Island County was in Phase 3, and outdoor groups of 50 or less could gather. After this, we swam in groups of 10 or less. (Yep, that’s my disclaimer, folks.)

If you read this list and remember one we did that I forgot, please let me know.

New Summer Swims 2020

  • Chuckanut Bay
  • Lake Cle Elum
  • Columbia River
  • Clackamas River
  • Willamette River
  • Whidbey-to-Mukilteo Ferry Crossing (almost to Edmonds!)
  • Whidbey-to-Camano Crossing (both days!)
  • Clinton ferry park
  • Double Bluff to Robinson Beach
  • Phosphorescence Night Swims Useless Bay
  • Bush Point
  • Bush Point to Shore Meadow
  • Lagoon Point to Bush Point
  • Glendale to Sandy Hook
  • Bells Beach to Baby Island
  • Beverly Beach to Baby Island 
  • Greenbank Farm Wonn Road public access
  • Ebeys Landing
  • Driftwood Park to Keystone Spit
  • Golden Gardens
  • Mukilteo Ferry to Boeing dock

Not too bad for a global pandemic summer laced with surgery anxiety. Here’s to new experiences in crappy times. Somehow they just shine a little brighter.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth