sitting in C Team – being the crew
It is January 2015 now and I am catching up on the last stories of 2014 adventures. One of the best times this summer was having the chance to serve as a crew member for a great swimmer from the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco. John needed one more crew member to help him complete his Triple Crown swim in the June 28 Manhattan Island Marathon swim. He and I had been connected through another swimmer out of the Ontario area. One of the most wonderful things I have learned about open water swimmers is that they are a community. My buddy Janine calls them her “tribe”. I like that. They are warm, funny, passionate and generous. And they mean business. Open water (marathon) swimmers is more than an endurance sport. I am only now beginning to understand how it is “not just about the swimming” – as my buddy Madhu says. So when asked if I would head back into Manhattan to help navigate John around the island, I jumped at the chance.
John was fairly quiet about the swim, so I spent the majority of the summer reading as much as I could find about the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS). Now, having actually completed the swim as a member of our 6 person relay, it is hard to imagine a time when knew very little about this swim. But last spring I indeed knew very little. Perhaps the best decision I made was not sitting around waiting to be informed about what John needed from his crew, but taking the initiative and learning as much as I could on my own. There was a wealth of information on MIMS. The NYC Swim website, like those of all the majors marathon swims, contains details on the course, preparation, rules, procedures, feedings, etc. I printed off as much as I could. I contacted swimmers I knew who had completed the swim as well as many of the other major distance events. I spent months pouring over the course charts and maps of lower Manhattan. It was also a great help that Hugh and I began to spend so much time in and around the battery area of the city.
As June 28 approached, I finally heard from John and Tom – his buddy from the west coast and our lead crew. Tom , “Reptile” as he is known thanks to his wondrous ability with GPS tracking systems, was instrumental in getting the ball rolling. I learned that the guys would be in the same hotel and we would need to meet up the Friday evening before the swim. All I needed to do was get to New York with the feeds that John had shipped in from California and 9 gallons of water! That’s a lot of water to cart from the Marriot to Pier 26 but John wanted it and that was what I had signed on for. My entire vibe for the race was to do whatever John needed to successfully swim around Manhattan.
The weather would be ideal. It was going to be sunny and 70. Morty provided all the details on the wind and tides for the swim. John would be in a field of 21 swimmers. Morty had changed things up slightly for the 2014 swim season and divided the solo applicants into three groups according to speed. The fast kids had already gone the previous week. John was in this middle group of swimmers with the slower group still scheduled for their swim in July. It was an amazing group of talented world class swimmers. Indeed, of this group – John would be 1 of 3 people who would complete the coveted Triple Crown of swimming that summer within a 12 month period. A super sized Triple Crown. The 2 other swimmers in his group to do that were Anthony and Charlotte – both I would later meet after the swim.
the MIMS solo swimmers of June 28, 2014
As I write this now, looking back after having completed the MIMS as a relay and looking ahead to some of the formidable marathon swims I have planned for myself – I can only imagine what it what have felt like for the swimmers to stand on the dock in the early morning in June – poised to swim one of the great triple crown swims. Open water marathon swimmers are in a league of their own. Amazing endurance athletes that are simply the best. Those I have met are generous, spirited, passionate, funny and deeply connected to their own being and the world around them.
The morning was truly one that was set up to win for John. A statement he shared with us throughout the day. Our boat finally arrived, the C Team, piloted with patience, skill and good humor by Captain Bob. He was a veteran of the swim, having piloted for eight previous MIMS. We climbed aboard loaded with gear for the possible 10+ hour day on the water. The day would be filled with constant sun but little humidity. John, along with the other swimmers, would climb aboard a Zodiac to motor south to Pier A for the in-water start. The C Team took off southward around the Battery and heading to the wait location just in front of the Brooklyn Bridge. I was watching and learning everything.
I took in the sights of the paddlers waiting with us for the swim start. The morning could not have been more glorious.
paddlers waiting in the Hudson at the Battery for the MIMS start
The first part of the swim was utter, sublime chaos. We could hear the start over the marine radio and knew when John had entered the water. We could also hear when David, our kayaker, had located him and began to escort him along the course. From our comfy seat on the Hudson, all was going to plan. There was a tangle of swimmers and kayakers – which Bob correctly kept the C Team far from.
The tangle of swimmers, paddlers, and motors
We waited and finally heard David’s voice over the radio and saw the bright yellow of his kayak approaching. He had John. I could see John’s arm reaching skyward in long powerful strokes. For a time John was clearly in the lead position. Moving northward in the fast moving East River flood tide. The MIMS became a race. Racing in the waters, past iconic towering landscapes. We passed under the many bridges of New York , beginning with the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge.
John swam superbly. With powerful even strokes. I continued to soak in all of the details – what was involved in a successful marathon swim. I already knew, watching John, that he would succeed. He swam with such confidence and joy. Nothing slowed him. Passing the Queensboro bridge, we approached his first feeding time. Still dealing with a tangle of swimmers all pushing for the lead position, we opted to have John feed from the kayak, with David tossing a bottle of CarbPro and water off the side via a short rope. The C Team continued to hang back and away from the rodeo of swimmers , paddlers and boats drifting too close to the fray. As we approached the UN, David shouted that John wanted to feed next from the boat. Again, I listened and learned. Each swimmer is unique. It is incredibly important to practice all aspects of open water swimming. Feeding from a boat is vastly different from feeding from a kayak. If a swimmer becomes used to having kayak support – they may not be able to successful manage a long swim without a kayak. And there are a lot of swims where you do not have the luxury of a paddler next to you. Our next order of business was rigging the feed bottles and ropes to begin feeding John from the boat. Reptile “Tom” would throw the lines. I would measure out the CarbPro, GU, coffee, Ibruprofen … whatever was ordered. By now we had fallen into a groove. John, when paused to feed, would quickly communicate to David what he wanted at the next feed. David would in turn tell us. “Coffee… chocolate … water…earplugs”. We would scurry and get them ready within our 30 minute window between feedings.
John flew up the East River and approached the gleaming UN building.
John swimming at the base of the towering UN building
We continued north. I was having a blast. On a boat traveling around Manhattan with three men I had never really met before. Even our NYC Swim boat observer was wonderful. A sweet relaxed Chinese gentleman who spoke with a very heavy accent and smiled through the better part of the trip. We were all in heaven. On the water , helping one man live his dream.
South End rowing man, Reptile “Tom” having the time of his life documenting John’s dream swim around Manhattan
We continued along for hours. I took notes along the way. Counting John’s strokes per minute, recording his feeds and noting the location and time along the swim. I watched as David kept him on course from the kayak. Learning and watching and getting the hang of the team work involved in the long distance swim.
great shot showing David motioning John to move left – one of the great benefits of a paddler – especially a very good paddler who knows the course and currents
John continued swimming with strength and balance. His stroke rate a steady 62-65 per minute. As we cleared the top of the Harlem River at Spuyten Dyvil and entered the Hudson, the wind suddenly picked up. The heat of the June day and finally accumulated on the river creating surges of wind which whipped up the Hudson waters. The calm of the Harlem gave way to the chop of the Hudson. We turned southward to travel back toward the Battery and the final 4.5 hours of the race. John had been swimming for 5 hours at this point.
I continued to record as much as I could about the swim. Both on paper and mentally. I still carry vivid images from the swim. Bright images of David piloting the kayak as the Hudson began to really pick up speed and the white caps grew. There were times we completely lost sight of John. At one point, the Hudson was moving too quickly and David had misjudged their distance to a group of pilings. John swam directly into the pilings – having to suddenly stop and weave his way from amid the woody, nail infested tangle. We all breathed a sigh of relief when he finally emerged and could continue. Watching and learning. By the last mile of the swim, the river speed and roughness of the water made it impossible for us to feed John his last fuel from the boat. David had already agreed to stay with him until the very end. Refusing to tuck into the north cove. This meant as John finished the swim, David would have to turn around and paddle north several hundred yards against the raging Hudson ebb tide. A massive undertaking that most paddlers cannot manage. David , a seasoned kayaker, knew he could do it and yelled out to us ” … I am staying with him in this chop.” He knew the last leg of the race has become grueling for the swimmer.
I took a few final photos of John swimming his dream swim to the finish, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, as we headed south to the end.
John in the Hudson chop , heading home to the finish at the Battery after 9.5 hours of solid swimming
John approached the final turn to the left, and tucked into Pier A at the Battery with David at his side.
John finishing his dream swim and his Triple Crown
It was an amazing, solid swim from start to finish. John swam out fast to the boat and we helped him aboard. He was beaming – a bright bold smile. His gaze was squarely on the beautiful Manhattan skyline before him. He had conquered the island and all the rivers around it. He kept repeating “set up to win”. He was thrilled. And we were all so very very proud and thrilled for him. Bob , the Captain who had piloted us for 9.5 hours finally got to meet the man in the water. They shook hands in a hearty congratulations. We arrived back at Pier 25 to unload and get ourselves back on land. The day had been a beautiful success. John had said to me as we motored back to the dock, that MIMS was the swim he had been dreaming of. He only had done the English Channel because everyone else was doing it. Same for Catalina. It was MIMS that was his dream swim. It had taken him 3 years to make the cut and file all the paperwork. He had done it. I congratulated him and thought about how happy he was. Overjoyed.
Funny things happen some times when you leave the fear and trepidation behind. I had simply said yes to helping someone else achieve their dream.
We arrived at the dock we had left nine hours earlier. We quickly unloaded all the gear from the C Team. Captain Bob commented he might make the dinner later that night. John, Tom, myself and all our stuff sat full of accomplishment and joy on the warm Manhattan dockside. The sun was still high enough in the sky to warm our skins. While Tom repacked all of the electronics, John busied himself with the large beaten suitcase he demanded go along for the ride around the island. The size and color of an old steamer trunk, it had held everything this triple crown swimmer needed on his journey from west to east coast and around the island. Onto the dock fell the contents: underwear, socks, swim caps, sunglasses, sunscreen, energy bars, t shirts, goggles. I had no idea what John was looking for and thought for a moment that John did not either. John seemed more intent on the action than the result. As he inventoried, he would stop and hand me something.
John: “… have this.”
Me: “John. That’s a serious thermos. You sure do don’t want this?”
John: “… nope. Don’t need it now. Have this too.”
Me: “John that’s a box of GU [energy packs]. That’s like thirty bucks worth of GU.”
John: “…don’t need that now either. Take this too.”
Me: “John, that a completely new container of Carbo Pro. That’s another forty bucks.”
and on it went. John was already unloading everything he no longer needed. He had gotten what he came for. He had completed his dream swim. All the rest was baggage. I still have today, the Carb Pro, GU Recovery Smoothie, the box of GU packs and that beloved thermos he gave me. Every time I see them, I think of John and his swim. I am drinking the smoothie now after my workouts and thanking John. For the joy and happiness of it all.
Here I am on the Monday after John’s swim wearing the South End Rowing Club cap he gave me – I love and cherish it
By the time we were ready to leave the dock, John had all he needed in that huge oversized suitcase. Some underwear, socks and about a dozen South End Rowing Club swim caps to pass out to lucky New Yorkers along his way. We walked up the ramp leading to the pier. My pace slowed considerably by the hand truck stacked with cases of water that I had agreed to bring along in my role as Sherpa for the day. We got to the top of the ramp and Tom announced he needed a drink and free bagel, which the good folks of NYC swim were providing. I waited as John and Tom wandered off in search of food.
I stood on the dock. Looking up at Freedom Tower gleaming in the afternoon sun. The water of the Hudson and the gorgeous lower Manhattan skyline. I felt wonderful. I felt full. Just then I saw a man emerge in front of me from the top of the ramp. Wearing a speedo, swim cap and holding a pair of goggles. He looked worn. Tired. My eyes registered him as swimmer. Man in a swimsuit equals a swimmer. But my mind did a double take. As I stared at him, in my mind I thought “…did he just do the swim?” He was all alone. There was no one with him. There was no fanfare. No applause. No escort. The joy that I saw on John’s face was not on his. He approached me.
Man: “Excuse me. Could I trouble you for a drink of water?”
Me: “Did you just do the swim?”
Man: “Yes. Yes, I did.”
I immediately put my arm around him and thanked the lord that I had remembered to stash $10 in my pocket in case I needed it. Forget that I was standing next to a hand truck piled high with perhaps 9 gallons of luke warm water. This man needed. This man DESERVED a bottle of ice cold water. I walked with him to the concession stand. We were greeted by 2 teenage girls tending the counter.
Teenage Girl #1: “can I help you?”
Me: “This man just swam around your island and he would like your best bottle of water.”
Teenage Girl #2: “you swam in the river?”
Man: “Yes I did.”
Both of the girls smiled from ear to ear and handed over the water with the look of awe and surprise I wanted for him. We walked back toward the dock and back into the sunshine. I guided him over toward one of the buildings and asked him to atleast sit on the dock and rest. He shared that his crew and been separated from him during the swim because their boat had mechanical problems. While it had not gone according to plans, he had still continued onward and completed the swim. He was worn out so I thought better than to wear him down with questions. He needed water and rest. I offered him my spare towel, which he politely turned down. “Just the water is fine.” He just wanted water. I kept wanting to give him food, clothing…but he was happy with one bottle of cool water. The entire exchange lasted perhaps 3 minutes. In the midst of offering him food, I noticed Tom and John beginning to leave the dock and walking toward back toward the battery. I quickly apologized to the man and told him my group was leaving. I grabbed one of the gallons of warm water and the last of a bag of pretzels and quickly gave it to him along with my best congratulations. He quickly handed me back my towel along with a huge smile and thank you. By then another swimmer had come up to him and they were chatting. I turned and began running after Tom and John – amazed at the gentle, humble nature of these distance swimmers.
I caught up with John. Tom was leagues ahead of us. John’s 28.5 miles around the island were showing. He was slower. He needed food. As we walked along we began to talk. In little pieces. I kept telling him how amazing he had been in the water. I asked if he could hear the people that were clapping as he swam along the seawall of Manhattan toward the finish. I told him how they shouted at us in the boat, “how long has he been swimming? what is his name?” John said, “I love that stuff. I love to hear that stuff about the people.”
We walked and chatted. I asked him what he thought about swimming for nine hours. He repeated Buddhist prayers. He prayed a lot. He looked at the city. He loved swimming around the city. He loved the buildings and the bridges.
Me: “What are you going to do tonight John?”
John: “I was thinking of going to the Buddhist temple in New York. It is farther up town I think. Or maybe the 911 museum. Do you think that is a good idea?”
Me: “I went to the 911 museum John. It is a great museum. But it is powerful. It is hard. You are on such a high. I think you should stay on that high and enjoy it John. I think the Buddhist temple is a great idea.”
John agreed and I suddenly felt so honored that he had asked for my opinion. This crew had done OK. We stopped and John treated me to a soda while he finally got to enjoy a huge chocolate smoothie. We stopped at the parking garage on the way to the dinner and unloaded the gear. We arrived at the dinner and met up with Bob, our boat captain and David, our amazing paddler. It was a wonderful meal. We all laughed and relived the day and the events. Janine jumped over and joined our group. She had been observer for one of the swimmers as well. She smiled her wonderful happy tribe smile and said, “You have to meet Charlie.” I stood and was introduced to Charlotte, a.k.a. “Charlie”. She had also completed the swim. All of 16 and beautiful. Her face filled with the same joy I had seen on John’s. We all chatted and joked and loved the end of this perfect day in Manhattan. New found friends, no longer strangers.
We took the photo which I will cherish. Tom and Bob chiming in , “hey, we need to put our arms like the old sea captains used to”, and all the guys joined in.
(left to right): David (kayak), me , John, Tom (crew) and Bob K. (boat pilot)
It was time for me to say goodbye to the guys. I hugged them all and thanked them for the opportunity to be part of John’s triple crown win. I headed back to the hotel and slept the most amazing, contented, joyous sleep in the city. At that moment I was the luckiest girl in the world.
I woke the next morning feeling great. Gathering all the last of my gear, I snapped a few photos of a very contented me leaving the hotel
and riverside at the battery – thanking the wonderful Hudson once more.
I learned so much that day. So much about what it takes to swim and to support each other. I learned what it takes to be successful and what true success is. But what I really learned is about people. Because I was there that day, just as I had been a year prior at the Statue of Liberty and had put out my hand and met someone new, as I had with Roger – some of the most amazing people entered my life. I met Tom “Reptile”, whose is one of the most genuine and joyously fun-loving swimmers on the planet. I met John, who cared not about the channel that everyone else does and instead had dreams of Manhattan and swimming beneath her bridges. I also happened to meet by chance two more amazing people. I met Charlie – Charlotte – who within three months would become the youngest person (age 16) to complete the triple crown in one year. Charlotte would later share the most wonderful blog post about her trip around Manhattan that very day. How she had beaten being pulled at Hell Gate in MIMS 2013, only to come back and conquer MIMS in 2014 and then go on to swim the Catalina Channel in 20 hours in July and then the English Channel in September in another grueling 20 hour swim. And the man I met on the dock. I met Anthony. After I had completed the Statue of Liberty swim in August 2013, I had shared with Gay that I perhaps might try and swim the English Channel. Gay had emailed me the link to an article about a man from Berwyn. A local man who had trained at the Upper Main Line YMCA. It included a mesmerizing photo of this man kneeling on the French shore. Looking for a pebble to carry back. I kept that article and his name. I wrote in my to-do list to contact him. Thinking I might meet him one day.
I met that man that day on the dock. He had asked me for a bottle of water. Anthony McCarley had just completed MIMS and would also go on to complete the Catalina Channel swim in August and also become one of less than 100 people to complete the triple crown within a year. I was able to connect with Anthony, thanks to Sophie – my new found friend who would complete our own MIMS relay in September. It was Sophie who would send me an email later that week – connecting Anthony and myself. Hugh and I did meet with Anthony again in December. We went to the Phoenixville YMCA to hear him speak to young swimmers about dreams. The first thing he did was give me a big hug of thanks and a bottle of water! Life is amazing.
Anthony’s photo is famous. I think because it captures so much. So much about life and who we are and who we all hope to be. The best of us. It was made into a great calendar of open water swimming and Anthony is our January man. It’s a keeper.
So that is what happened to me because I got to be the crew.
Next up – I’ll try to put a few closing comments on 2014 and also share swimming Suruga Bay in Japan and climbing Mt. Fuji – until then, be very good to one another. Cheers!
thank you Anthony