Friday, 30 August 2013

Shhhh....quiet swimming

On August 24th, NYC Swim hosted the Manhattan Island “Quiet” Swim – a discounted re-match offered to those who had lost out in the chaotic, cold, rain-soaked and sewerage-filled events of  June 8th.  The 'quietness' of the swim lay in the planned absence of the usual fuss and fanfare that accompanies MIMS, with no pre-race meeting, medals, award ceremonies etc, but still constituting an official MIMS swim in line with all the usual rules and regulations. There were 9 swimmers in the final line-up, but I know that there were many others who wanted to be there and could certainly have completed the swim with room to spare but couldn’t because of time and financial constraints. For others, still angry at the events in June and holding NYC Swim responsible, participation in the “quiet” swim was completely out of the question. The “Quiet” swim, then, was experienced and perceived in very different ways across the cohort of swimmers who got pulled out of the powerfully ebbing East River on June 8th. 

I don't see any value in rehashing the events of MIMS 2013 here, and at the end of the day, while I don’t deny the right of others to be angry  - the day impacted upon individuals in very different ways - I personally don’t feel that way. I have some enduring regrets: I wish that NYC Swim had felt able to offer a more comprehensive account of what happened and to enroll the swimmers more directly as allies in learning lessons from that day; and more obviously, I wish that I and my many old and new swimming friends could have completed all together what we set out to do. But nevertheless, when NYC Swim offered the “quiet swim” in the days following June 8th, I jumped at it - a personal decision that I was lucky enough to have the time and resources to make, and which was driven, in part, by the knowledge that personal and work circumstances meant that going back for a June event in the next few years was going to be impossible. 

And so it was that I pitched up to Pier 25 on Saturday 24th August for the "quiet" rematch, hoping to finish what I (and so many others) had so nearly, but not quite, finished in June. And what a different day it turned out to be – not only in terms of the hoped-for outcome, but also in atmosphere and conditions.

As everyone who was there in June can’t possibly forget, New York experienced rain of biblical proportions the day before MIMS, creating all kinds of havoc with both the tides and the water quality. But for the "quiet" swim, the weather gods smiled on us. 

There was almost no rain during the preceding week, meaning that the sewerage remained well and truly in the sewers; and on the day of the swim, we were treated to blue skies and blistering sunshine. The city and the water surrounding it looked absolutely stunning. 

It wasn’t all plain sailing, and we had some wind against tide chop both going up the East River and then down the Hudson, and this latter aggravated a shoulder injury that caused me to grit my teeth a bit towards the end of the swim. The chop also caused a bit of fun and games when it came to passing feeds from the boat to kayaker, Jeff, but it is a testimony to the skill of both pilot and kayaker, and some determined reaching by my support crew, that only a single gel ended up overboard and my feeds arrived uninterrupted. 

But in the grand scale of a long swim, these were nothing, especially when you also factor in racing currents that propelled us round the island.

The whole mood of the event was completely different from June 8th. The atmosphere on the dockside as we registered and loaded up the boats was relaxed and calm, and everything ran like clockwork, with none of the chaotic anxiety caused by the boat shortage in June. But more than that, the atmosphere among the swimmers was very different – much more collective and supportive than the June event. This was a product of smaller numbers, bonding through our shared 'boat-assisted' experience from June and undoubtedly, the splendid conditions. But I also suspect that it was a result of the ‘quietness’ of the event itself. The annual June MIMS event is governed by an ethic of competition; it is unabashedly a race, and in many ways, the heart of the event lies with the exciting and accomplished action at the front end of the swim. Consequently, it attracts some highly competitive swimmers, and with it, whispered talk of psyche-out strategies and optimal routes, and the intense pre-race glassy-eyed staring and ‘getting in the zone’ that inevitably accompanies competition at that level. I admire those swimmers, but theirs is a different sport to mine, and the two don’t always co-exist easily. In June, I enjoyed the swim in spite of the hyper-competitive vibe, but last week, I got much greater pleasure from a non-competitive atmosphere where everyone shared the singular goal of all the swimmers finishing to the best of their capabilities. I don’t mean this as a criticism of MIMS or those swimmers at the sharp end of the race – it is explicitly and unambiguously a race, and the spectacle of the event certainly stems from this aspect of the swim. Nor is that to say that I don’t care about my swim times: I do. But competition at that intensity is really not me. Instead, as it turns out, "quiet" swimming is much more my style – less hoohah, less competitive intensity and a more collective ethos.

The other amazing aspect of the "quiet" swim was just how many people who had volunteered in June turned out again to support us. I was particularly lucky to have Jeff on my team again as my kayaker. 

It’s a lot to ask someone to do once, never mind twice, but he’d really felt the disappointment in June too and wanted to see the job finished. He was a complete pro throughout, and after we whistled past the corrugated wall and rusted pipes just before Gracie Mansion that were the site of my undoing in June, we were both completely ecstatic. (I muttered some angry epithets as we passed through that section on behalf of everyone who got pulled out in June, remembering the intense frustration and disappointment of those moments of desperate and futile struggle against the ebbing tide.) Also on board from last time was Julie Farrell, once again providing a lively Twitter commentary (post to follow) and support and encouragement throughout a long day on the water. My partner, Peter, was there this time, too, which made the event even more special, and we were very lucky to have Phil as our boat pilot. He piloted for the female winner, Ceinwen Roberts, in June, and came prepared with a GPS track of the successful line he’d taken on that day. If my more plodding performance was a disappointment to him, he never showed it, seeking out the best currents, dodging potential hazards (including avoiding a large pool of yellow paint in the Harlem!) and according to Peter and Julie, generally being an enormous amount of fun. The final character in the ‘quiet swim’ cast was Sil, our observer – another returning volunteer from June 8th who couldn’t have been more supportive and thorough. 

Phil, Julie and Sil
Peter tries his hand at piloting....
there are some things it's better not to know while swimming!
It is humbling to be on the receiving end of such generous volunteerism, and their desire to get all the swimmers round on this second-chance swim undoubtedly contributed to the positive atmosphere of the day.

As we approached the finish, I hadn’t realised that Caitlin Rosen and Phyllis Ho were both only seconds behind me, and as we travelled along the final wall, apparently Caitlin and I changed positions a couple of times. Since I never treated the swim as a race, I’d never looked behind me and I had absolutely no idea that they were there, although I think that my crew enjoyed a bit of last minute excitement taking friendly bets on who would come where. 

We finished with less than a minute between us and were able to celebrate together with hugs and high fives, before cheering in James Penrose who came in shortly afterwards. The news was already out that everyone was expected to finish, and we were all high as kites as we bobbled around, exhausted, in the sunshine before paddling slowly back to our support boats. A really nice moment at the end of a good day on the water.

And so it was this summer that I both did and didn’t swim round Manhattan, and then I most definitely did (finish time: 8.41.01). We were extraordinarily lucky with the weather second time around, but after what happened in June, I was happy to take that bit of good fortune and lap up the great views and warm water. For me, this was one of the best days of swimming I’ve ever had, and I’m grateful to NYC Swim for organizing this second chance. It’s been quite a mixed year of swimming for me, but this "quiet" swim was a great way to end the season, as well as to mark the beginning of a break from long swimming for me for the next couple of years while I focus on my new job, my book and getting settled in our new life in Leeds.

But of course, anyone who was following Twitter that day will know that in fact, our swim was anything but quiet…. 

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