Over the years I’ve met several open-water swimmers who say they don’t know how I can stand looking at the boring bottom of the pool for four hours every day.
“It’s just a black line!” they say. “Wouldn’t you prefer to look at the ever-changing bottom of a lake or ocean?”
The answer for me will probably always be no. Part of it might be that I think I have thalassophobia, fear of being in large bodies of water, of the vast emptiness of the sea, and of what lurks beneath. I thought the mythical Tahoe Tessie (like the Loch Ness Monster) ate kids who ventured past the designated swim zones in Lake Tahoe!
When I was little, my parents and I went out to the middle of Lake Tahoe for a boat party. Bobbing on the surface, I just sat in the water with my life jacket on, looking at how short my legs were dangling over the abyss.
A few years after that, a family friend invited me to finish his swim across Lake Tahoe with him. My mom and I kayaked about 800 yards out from the beach to meet him, where I got into the water and began swimming. Having no previous experience in open water swimming, I simply swam blindly, not lifting my head forward to see where people were going. When I did stop, I realized how far I had drifted from my friend with no line on the bottom to guide me, just the twisting shafts of sunlight cutting through the dark water.
Thankfully, Tahoe has no kelp or seaweed or aquatic plants that can brush swimmers. Donner Lake, in Truckee, is a different story. My former team, Truckee Tahoe Swim Team (TTST), held an open water swimming event in 2011. I joined, much to my later regret. Debbie, my former coach, had us practice a few times in the lake to get used to finding our way in the water. One of the places we had to swim over was a kelp forest. I was 8 and had recently read “Harry Potter and the Triwizard Tournament” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” and images of giant squid, mermaids, and animated corpses filled my head.
I still haven’t quite gotten over my fear of Donner Lake, even now. When I practiced with TTST for a few weeks last summer, part of our dryland training was to run from the pool facility to Donner Lake and then finish up with a practice set there. The water was frigid, and the shallow water dropped off about four feet in. As I entered the water, I noticed the murky, submerged logs, the rocks, and other pieces of junk that had sunk to the bottom. While other kids dove down to find shovels and buckets and boots, I couldn’t help but let my imagination run loose with stories of how those items got there. Maybe the logs hid the body of some unfortunate camper, whose killer had taken the boots and thrown them into the lake along with the shovel he used to kill the camper! In retrospect, it seems ridiculous, but to me, it was no joke.
For a while, it wasn’t just lakes that I was scared of, however. I used to think sharks and evil octopi lived in the deep end of the pool. I couldn’t see them because they were invisible, but they were still there, swimming through the filters in search of their next meal. Then I thought for a while that if I got into an outdoor pool that the bugs would swarm me and push me under, or the souls of the dead bugs would haunt me during practice.
This summer, I’ve lost all fear of the pool. Of course, there are no filter sharks and octopi – it’s ridiculous to even think of it. But after four hours of practice, that black line does start to look like a long black tentacle!
—By Rebecca Waterson