Take a second and imagine being trapped under water. You are unable to breathe and you’ve completely lost your sense of direction. That’s what it can feel like when you’re struggling with a mental illness. The waves of emotional highs and lows are unpredictable, and there’s no way to navigate your way around them. While it might seem counterintuitive, I’ve found that open water swimming allows me to escape the feeling of drowning that sometimes occurs during a depressive episode. Over the past year, I’ve learned how to read the water and power my way through the rolling waves, which has enabled me to find freedom, peace, and solace in the wild water.
On August 11, 2019, after an almost three year hiatus from racing, I traveled up to Sitka, Alaska, to compete in the Change Your Latitude 10k Open Water Swim. Although I had completed three 10k swims in a pool before, swimming for multiple hours in the Pacific Ocean without a wetsuit was a completely different experience.
While traveling to Sitka, I stopped in Seattle where I joined the amazing Wednesday night crew from the Western Washington Swim Club at Alki Beach for an hour long sunset swim in the Puget Sound. The next day, I arrived in Sitka, Alaska, where I spent the three days leading up to the race exploring the downtown area, talking with local business owners, hiking through local parks, and going on fantastic adventure swims in the Sitka Sound.
To my surprise, I slept relatively well the night before the race. After waking up to my alarm at 5:30am on the day of the race, I repacked all of my gear for the event and spent some time stretching to help organize my thoughts and emotions. When I swim in open water, I follow the standard rules of the Marathon Swimmers Federation and never swim with the assistance of a wetsuit. Consequently, the only gear that I really needed for the race were swimsuits, caps, earplugs, and goggles. Eventually, after repeatedly checking to make sure that I had everything with me, I collected my thoughts and walked down to beach near the Sitka Science Center where the race was scheduled to start at 8am.
Honestly, I don’t really remember much from the hour leading up to the race. It kind of felt like my brain was on autopilot. That said, I can distinctly remember the chaos from the final fifteen minutes before the race. Initially, I wasn’t going to have someone in a kayak next to me for the swim because the 10k course was made up of three small laps of a 3.3k loop, and I had planned to leave my food and water on a platform that was attached to the side of the boat. However, it was really overcast on the morning of the race, and I realized that the fog would probably cause some visibility issues once we were in the water. These hazardous conditions made me concerned that my decision to not have a kayaker would no longer be safe. In the end, I decided to let a safety official make the call and while I was discussing the situation with the race official in charge of the support boats, May, who I had met on a boat during the adventure swims, overheard our conversation and volunteered to kayak beside me during the swim.
Normally, I don’t use any body glide or petroleum jelly when I swim in open water but Melissa from the Western Washington Swim Club let me borrow some right before the race so that I could put it under the straps of my swimsuit to prevent the stitches in the fabric from irritating my skin while I was swimming. Unfortunately, I failed to properly wash the petroleum jelly off of my hands afterwards, and I accidentally transferred it to my goggles and earplugs as I was gearing up to enter the water. At that point, it was too late to locate the spare earplugs and goggles that I had in my bag, so I ditched the earplugs and did my best to clear the goggles as I waded into the water and swam towards the other nine swimmers at the starting line for the 10k.
Two minutes later, the sound of the horn blasted through the air, which signaled the start of the race. The first few minutes of an open water race are really chaotic since everyone has to find their way to their kayaker while simultaneously jostling around for a good position on the race course. While training for this race, I had become very comfortable swimming alone in open water, and I became slightly frustrated and unfocused when two male swimmers in wetsuits boxed me in immediately after the race began. Also, I became worried when I realized that my visibility was severely limited as a result of the light rain that had started to fall and the thin film of petroleum jelly that still remained on my goggles.
Fear and frustration are par for the course during events like this, but I knew that panic would probably put an end to my swim. Fortunately, May stayed incredibly calm and was able to adjust her position in the kayak so that I didn’t stray from the course. Eventually, I had to stop for a moment to drink some water and eat a huma gel, which gave me the time I needed to clear my goggles and refocus my mind.
When I came around the boat at the end of the first lap, the rain had stopped, and I had finally found a steady flow to my stroke. The last two laps flew by, and as I wove through the maze of swimmers and kayakers, I began to feel a really strong sense of camaraderie with everyone in the water. Also, I somehow found the energy to increase my speed and was able to consistently beat my previous lap splits every time. Before I knew it, I took my final stroke and hit the floating banner that marked the finish line.
The energy back on the beach was absolutely incredible. After I clumsily made my way out of the water and up the rocky beach, I changed into some dry clothes and joined the joyful group that was cheering on the swimmers that were still in the Sitka Sound. Once every swimmer had exited the water, I helped the crew pack up some of the gear on the beach, and then we made our way up to the Sitka Fine Arts Camp for the post-race celebration.
I’ve always said that it’s the community surrounding certain sports that continues to bring me back, and as I looked around the room during the celebration, I felt very lucky to be surrounded by such a wonderful group of people. Although we had all arrived in Sitka as strangers, our mutual love of open water swimming made us friends quite quickly. Saying goodbye wasn’t easy and I am already looking forward to going back again next year. A few years ago, I never thought I would ever have the opportunity to do something like this, and I am incredibly grateful for all of the amazing people who have helped support, teach, and challenge me throughout this wild journey. Open water swimming has had a really positive impact on my mental health, and I am thrilled to be able to bring the mission of the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation to Northern California and beyond.