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I collect my swim cap and secure a time chip around one ankle. A race organizer draws number 19 on my shoulder with a marker. Dance music pumps from loudspeakers at Port Forum Beach, Barcelona, and the conditions look okay, except for the breakers crashing against the shore. Of the 320 registered swimmers, 53 are women.
Swimmers are warming up behind the surf, loosening arms and legs like responsible athletes. I sit on a towel and buy water from a peddler selling pop and chips out of a plastic bag. I have not adequately prepared for this 2.5-kilometre race due to health interference – but here I am, in Spain, at the right time – so I’m doing this, because I told myself I would.
The pre-race briefing is completely in Spanish. I understand nothing except the countdown. A countdown sounds the same in any language, and then you run into the ocean and try to stay close to at least one other swimmer. Diez. Nueve. Ocho. Siete. Seis. Cinco. Cuatro. Tres. Dos. Uno! We all dash to the ocean and dive. The fastest swimmers take off in a drove. I swim steadily with competitors to either side. The pack thins out and I know there are swimmers ahead of and behind me.
I approach the first buoy, overjoyed to notice that a swimmer has taken up residence to my left. We stroke in unison around a giant orange bobble. Underwater, I can see her swimsuit has a comic-book pattern. We take turns sighting and keeping each other on track toward the next buoy. She has smaller arms than I do. Actually, she appears small in general, and for the first half of the race I have two predominant thoughts: “You can swim 2,500 metres,” I tell myself; and “Please, don’t be 12.” I don’t want to pace this course alongside a child, as endearing a thought as this may be. Were children even allowed to register? I’m not sure. “You can swim 2,500 metres.” Stroke, stroke, breathe. “Please don’t be 12. You can swim 2,500 metres. Please don’t be 12.”
Why have I promised myself to swim this race despite my lack of training? Despite the fact I don’t feel well and my last open-water race was 13 years ago? Because I am losing touch with the truths this sport taught me in my early 20s about life and perseverance – about calm, quiet determination.
When you swim long distances, you are reminded that the best way to respond to unexpected currents, rip tides, rogue waves (and bad news) is to relax in the turbulence as much as possible. Breathe. Stay calm. Do not make decisions based on fear. You must try not to project, overthink, panic or punch relentlessly against a current. This wastes precious energy. Above all, you learn to recognize (and reject) the insidious voice that says: “Stop. You’re not good enough;” “What are you doing? You'll never get through this;” and “Who do you think you are, anyway? Loser!”
Somewhere along the way, I’ve forgotten parts of this. I’ve developed a burgeoning sense of trepidation. Instead of tucking my dreadlocks into the back of a cheap wetsuit and declaring, “What’s the worst that can happen?” as I did when I was 19, now I ask that question with my brow furrowed, one eyebrow lifted: “No, really,” I lean into a scenario, “What is the worst that can happen?”
We round the third orange buoy at 1,300 metres and raise our heads simultaneously, unable to see the next marker. We bob in the swells, and Comic-print says something in rapid Spanish. “No comprendo,” I say. “Sorry?” Together we sink into a trough and catch sight of another buoy. “Over there,” I wave. She points, “Alla, alla!”
We swim toward the 1,500-metre buoy. She is not 12, she is definitely an adult. After 1,500 metres, we don’t realize that we’ve started to zigzag. The swells push us around. We stop and look for the next buoy, see nothing but ocean, and put our faces back down to keep swimming, so close together that our arms occasionally graze. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Sight. Back down. Swim.
A yellow blur slides across our horizon. We bob like seals. Lifeguards on a paddleboard. A fit of Spanish breaks out between my pacer and the guards. The guards motion for us to bear left. Comic-print turns to me, points, nods, “Okay?” “Okay!” I say.
The final buoy comes into view. We pick up the pace. How had I forgotten the adrenalin of the finish, when the bottomless dark brightens to a sandy glow, lighter and lighter until you can grab the sand in your fists and crawl onto your feet?
Comic-print runs up the beach and finishes four seconds ahead of me. On the other side of the finish line, where officials retrieve our chips, we release our goggles and grin at one another. “Thanks,” I say, delivering a weak punch to her shoulder. “Good job,” she says. There are still 20-odd women behind us, and I sit on the beach to watch.
I close my eyes and replay the seafloor coming into focus after the chaos of deep rolling water. There is always a finish line, one way or another. It’s a matter of trusting this when we are exhausted, frustrated and impatient; when we don’t know where we are and clarity is obscured by troughs and debris. Ocean racing taught me how to rally, gather confidence and keep going, putting one arm in front of the other.
Samantha Warwick lives in Calgary.