If you read my article “What Lies Beneath,” you’ll know I have an intense fear of open water. Lakes, rivers and oceans all pose the same threat: imaginary monsters lurking just out of sight in the murky sludge of the bottom.
I thought I had made it quite clear to my mom that I never, ever wanted to swim somewhere where I couldn’t see the bottom, but on Sunday, Sept. 10, I found myself in my dad’s un-airconditioned brown Subaru on my way to Redding, California, to compete in an open-water race.
At first I was excited. I’d been to the beach at Lake Tahoe over the summer, and I’d swum a few laps in the buoyed swim zone. That had been fun; after all, the water in Lake Tahoe is extremely clear and usually smooth at 7:30 a.m.
Of course, there were a few spots I was too scared to pass over, including a spot where hundreds of dead tree branches lay submerged at the bottom, turning the light blue water black. The first time I saw the water’s hue change color, I sprinted through the lake, screaming about krakens and Loch Ness monsters and giant goldfish who ate people swimming through dark water.
Other than that terrifying experience, I discovered swimming in Lake Tahoe wasn’t so bad. Sure, it was cold, but at least I could see the bottom of the lake, and there weren’t any slimy aquatic plants. For some unknown reason, I assumed that all lakes were as nice as Lake Tahoe.
That’s probably why I said yes to my mom signing me up for the open-water race in Redding. Or maybe it was pride; the open-water coach in Incline Village had told me I was doing well, and I wanted to show him just how great I could do. Or maybe I wasn’t really listening to what my mom was saying and automatically said yes. Any way I look at it, I still ended up in that unbearably hot car, dreading the journey to my impending doom.
I slept on the way to Redding, but even my dreams were of swimming in an ocean-like lake, waves buffering me back and forth like a leaf in the wind. Sometimes I’d simply not be able to breathe, and I’d sink; other times seaweed tentacles would grab my ankles and drag me down, and other times I’d get lost and I’d swim and swim and go nowhere.
Over dinner at the Black Bear Diner I discussed my fears with my dad, but he brushed them off as nonsense and told me that I would be fine. However, I could tell that he was nervous too. This was his first swim race ever. I tried to push those fears out of my head and focus instead on the competition and on reassuring my dad that he wouldn’t die.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I was up until 1 a.m. tossing and turning with different scenarios going through my head. We’d go to the wrong beach, or a massive storm would form overnight, or I’d start swimming with the wrong group and embarrass myself.
This event would be my second open-water swim and the first mile I’d ever do, so I didn’t want to mess up. I had promised my DART coach, the open-water coach, and my mom, who was back in Sacramento, that I’d win, and now I worried I wouldn’t be able to uphold my promise.
The day finally arrived. My dad and I hurriedly ate breakfast and went to Brandy Creek Beach, inside the Whiskeytown Lake National Park. The sky was clear, and the water was green-blue like in Lake Tahoe. It seemed like everything would be fine.
Then I went in to warm up, and after a few seconds I felt something brush against my leg, and then I sprinted head first into a clump of plants. I threw my head up out of the water, trying to stay as close to out of the water as humanly possible. Just when I thought this race would be fine, there were plants.
So I sprinted back to shore and didn’t get into the water again until two hours later, when the race actually began. I’d been sizing up the other swimmers, and I’d found no one quite my age whom I could pace with. And since this was my first mile ever, I decided if there was no one to pace against, I’d just sprint the whole mile and see what worked and what didn’t.
Ironically the easiest part of the race was swimming over the seaweed, because I had a motivation to go fast to get out and not let it touch me. I credit those plants for my first-place time both in my age group and overall for all women.
In hindsight, the race was amazing. I loved doing open water, and for a few moments, considered making open water swimming my new sport. Those moments sank down to the bottom of the lake, however, and were probably eaten by monster goldfish.
Although I’d like to say I overcame my fear of open water, I know deep down that if my mom ever asks me to do another race, I’ll have to say no. I’d rather stick to my pool sharks instead!