I am not sure what prompted me to participate in my first triathlon back in 2009. Many years ago, I remember seeing signs for the local Pequannock Triathlon and ever since then, it had always piqued my curiosity. My excuse was that I didn’t have convenient access to a pool to swim. When I started working at Seton Hall University in 2008, that excuse went away – especially since the gym and pool are literally across the street from where I work.
I had biked before and had jogged in the past, but let’s face it, I wasn’t setting any land-speed records in either. And the last time I swam was when I was in the Navy – and to be a 1st class “swimmer” all you had to do was drag someone across a pool in full combat gear. This was not exactly the same as swimming in the open water for 1 mile. So, I am not sure why I ever thought attempting a triathlon in my mid 40s was a good idea. But I did.
The biggest problem, among many, was that I never had a swim lesson in my life. I remember my coach, Elizabeth Wittmaack Kaplanis, standing on the pool deck with her head in her hands watching me on my first day make some flailing motion in the water, that some might call “swimming” – but was really more of an aquatic full-body-heave (think Elaine Benes in Seinfeld trying to dance). Thanks to Elizabeth and Chris Kaplanis and countless hours of drills and laps in the pool I was able to do my first 1-mile time-trial after about five months of training. Since then, the swim has become one of my favorite disciplines (actually, I am pretty bad at all three – so, it really is all relative!). For me, there is something so absolutely liberating about being in the open water and swimming. And it borders on a deeply religious and spiritual experience.
I did my first Half-Ironman triathlon last summer, at Lake Winnipesaukee in NH. The 1.2 mile swim started at dawn and I can remember being in the middle of the lake and with every other breath, I would catch a glimpse of the golden sliver of the sun peaking over the hills. I found that once in a rhythm, swimming in the open water is one of the most natural and exhilarating experiences there is. On some level, it is a little scary, I remember being so far out in the lake, that I could barely see the people on the shore. That can be a little disconcerting for some, but on the other hand, there was a certain peace about that whole experience as well that I can’t really put into words. I am not sure if it is because we all spend our first nine months embraced and surrounded by water or if there is some primeval instinct that draws us to the water. But I do know that when I walk down to the beach in my wetsuit and the chilly water touches my feet, it is an extraordinary encounter.
Some will say I am crazy, and they are probably correct in many respect, but for me, open water swimming is symbolic of our own dual nature. Humans are comprised of both body and soul and when I enter the water, it is a reminder that I am entering an environment that is on the one hand very foreign and yet also very familiar too. With every stroke I am reminded that I can propel myself and breathe for long periods of time in a realm that I wasn’t necessarily designed for – or was I? There is something about gliding along the surface of the water, where both air and water meet, that reminds me of the duality of body and soul (And yes, I do realize this sounds like the ramblings of a lunatic). Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that I have turned into Aquaman or have grown gills or that I am a really great swimmer. I am none of those. But thanks to two great swim coaches and a lot of encouragement and practice, my swimming has graduated from an aquatic full-body-heave to something that is sustainable over distances of more than one mile.
My hope is that if there is someone who has ever thought about doing a triathlon and is intimidated by the swim – don’t be. I give all the credit in the world to my wife Bev, who never learned how to swim, but started taking lessons in October. She will be doing her first triathlon with a 0.9 mile swim in May. I have always said that she is the “brains and beauty” behind the operation. Well, you can add “courage” to that list too.
One of my theology professors used to say that "faith liberates and fear paralyzes." I think that this profound axiom is not only true in our spiritual lives but in everything else we do too. This whole experience has taught me that all things are “possible.” Often, it is when we voluntarily add the prefix “im-“ to that word that we limit what is, indeed, always “possible.”