Open-Water Getting Some Press

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Well, press from The Seattle Times, anyway. I submitted a short essay to the paper back in February, after they requested personal stories of women in the outdoors.

It’d been a LONG time since I’d submitted anything for publication, but I thought, “What the hell? Can’t hurt, and might feel good to try.”

It did feel good to hit that Submit button. And shazam! Not only did The Times choose my essay, they quoted me in the opening paragraph, and my essay was lead.

https://www.seattletimes.com/life/outdoors/women-are-the-glue-bringing-these-groups-together-readers-share-their-experiences-in-the-outdoors/

Sometimes you get lucky.

The same special section ran a fabulous double-page spread on Melissa Kegler, a fantastic cold-water swimmer, record holder, and all-around beast of a good person. I especially love the good work she’s doing on changing athletic body expectations. Bikini culture! Let’s go!

https://images.seattletimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/02192022_kegler_225848.jpg?d=2040×1397

Nice to see some open-water love in print.

–TJ Wiley

Maldives4: All About the Fish

(The following blog entry was made while on a SwimTrek trip in Maldives in November 2019.)

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


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

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