We each have a personal story composed from years of experiences. We are onions, with layer upon layer of character building. Though there are times we must put our stories aside to make room for a new one, created by a collective, by a team. This past Saturday, Team ThumbsUp took on the Swim For Alligator Lighthouse, and the entire weekend was about being a part of something bigger than yourself. Our team consisted of five women. Four of us (Caryn, Lilly, Chiqui, and myself) pulled our disabled friend Kerry (or as I call her, our “differently abled” friend), who rode in a dinghy, which attached to our waist by a harness. We wanted to race and show there are no limits to what we can do. If you have the right attitude, you can do anything.
I won’t lie, as a team we faced some difficulties. At one point, I wondered if we could pull this off after all. The open water brings a logistical nightmare coupled with legitimate safety concerns. If we couldn’t agree on a strategy, not only would we fail as individuals, but we would fail our mission while risking our personal safety.
We spent hours discussing, planning and negotiating but by the time we arrived to our sponsor hotel The Hilton Key Largo Resort (review coming soon), none of it mattered. We were adhering to the plan, Lilly took over as Team Captain, and we were no longer five individuals. Our personal stories were put on hold, we showed up to fulfill our mission.
We found out the swim was eight nautical miles, not the “real” miles we were used to. That meant we tacked on another 1.2 “real” miles to our swim. Therefore, starting on the beach, we took turns swimming four nautical miles straight out to the Alligator Lighthouse, and then back to shore for a total of 9.2 “real” miles. It’s an almost straight line, albeit a long one, marked by buoys every quarter mile.
We had very strong swimmers and I was the weakest link. I did have the most experience swimming with Kerry, as we have done races together including an open water swim, but my biggest fear was to slow things down. Lilly had a goal of finishing the race in under six hours; I told her she should go back to preschool and learn how to add. We weren’t going to make it. But everyone was gunning for that time, and I didn’t want to be the cause of it not happening.
We each chose how many buoys to swim depending on how we were feeling; everyone went for three but I stuck to two. I wanted to make sure I could keep up a decent speed, and I knew I could for two buoys but wasn’t sure about three.
Chiqui started the race, and I was the second swimmer. My stomach was in knots, and when she was approaching the exchange buoy, Lilly told me to jump in and swim along side her to warm up. I sat on the side of the boat and said out loud “I don’t want to do this.” And then in typical fashion jumped in. I was so nervous I swam too far in front, until I realized it and swam back. The exchange was easy; the dinghy was attached to us by a rope with a buckle we could easily open and close in the water. I took it off Chiqui and placed it around my waist.
What was not easy were the ten knot winds and three feet waves. I was keeping a fast pace for me and every time I looked up to sight the buoy, there was a wave blocking my view so it was hard to keep the line. I saw some beautiful moon jellyfish but they were deep. Once in a while one would be floating higher and I would change course for a second to evade a sting. The second buoy, and the end of my first leg, could not come soon enough.
Because we had very little time to figure out optimum seating/cushioning for me in the dinghy, I knew that was going to be my biggest challenge. My left arm soon went numb, tingling and throbbing, and my heels rubbed painfully against the dinghy floor. But I have an immense capacity for patience, for tenaciously keeping to a goal. Drawing on this capacity, I dealt with my discomfort by listening to my team swim in front and alongside. I never knew who was swimming even though each of the four kicks to a different rhythm and thus produces a different sound…. – Kerry Gruson
It was then Lilly’s turn, and she swam like a mermaid. When she came up on the boat, she mentioned she was stung by jellyfish and sprayed vinegar on her bites. I had been warned about the jellyfish, but had been in denial they could really be there. By the time Caryn, the next swimmer, came on the boat, the number of jellyfish had increased dramatically. She mentioned a wall of jellyfish and being stung countless times. Yet strong as always, she also said she got used to it, swam through it, and if need be could continue swimming. Caryn wrote:
When the jellyfish started to get very thick and I was being repeatedly stung, my first thought was, “I bet Kerry would give anything to be in this water right now getting stung by jellyfish,” and I happily kept swimming. As the stings kept coming I kept thinking to myself how lucky I was to be a part of this race, to be on a team with four women whom I truly respect and how I knew I would remember this experience forever.
I took out the Vaseline and rubbed any exposed body part with it hoping it would add a layer of protection to my skin. In one of the funniest, craziest, stories for another day, my turn to swim came again quickly. As I was about to dive in, I saw a school of moon jellies right underneath me. There was no avoiding jumping right on them. I didn’t have time to lose, remembered Caryn saying you get used to the sting, and jumped.
Ewwww. Moon jellies are dense. They feel like an extra dense bread pudding when you touch them. They don’t have long tentacles so their stings aren’t as bad as, say, Man-O-Wars. But because there were so many boats and jellys, the motors cut through many of the sea creatures. You didn’t have to actually touch one to get stung, invisible little tentacles were all over the ocean and at any point you would feel the sting.
It’s hard to describe what it feels like. It is not a sharp and furious pain like a bee sting; it feels like a hard slap, or as if a handful of acupuncture needles were applied simultaneously without much care. You definitely feel the sting, but then it fades. What was eery though, was just the sheer number of these jellies! At times there so many I had to literally move them out of my way as I swam right through them. I got used to it, was swimming comfortably, and didn’t realize I reached the second buoy until I almost bumped into a smiling Lilly ready to take over. I came up to the boat with Caryn’s same attitude. I can do it for longer if we need it.
Poor Lilly was not as lucky. All of a sudden we hear her say something and take her goggles off. She kept wiping her face and looked like she was going to cry. Caryn jumped in but Lilly put her goggles on and tried to continue swimming. She eventually stopped, Caryn took over and Lilly got on the boat.
I didn’t quite understand the severity of what happened to Lilly. I was thinking instead get ready to jump back in soon. It turned out that a moon jelly face planted Lilly, it got stuck to her face. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe, had to take the jelly off her face, and then deal with the stinging. On the boat her face and neck broke out into hives as we tried spraying vinegar and all the other concoctions we brought on board. Lilly is not a whimp, but when I saw her swollen face, I wasn’t sure she would be able to head back into the water.
“The jelly fish stuck to my face, I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
For her part, Kerry was a trooper. We could see the dinghy be bounced around by the waves, but we never heard a complaint. We had a system of giving her hydration and fuel, and would check in often. She gave us the ThumbsUp everytime except for once, when she put her index finger up. That was not in the communication roster so we didn’t know what to expect. Kerry wrote:
“I have an idea!” I shouted as loudly as I possibly could. “Let’s use the second swimmer to help guide the boat by attaching her line to the dinghy’s stern as a human rudder.” The team thought I meant to add another puller, which is against the rules. We persevered with the original plan!
We couldn’t have a second swimmer help in the front or back, only one person could be attached to the boat. But we all thought it was very characteristic of Kerry that instead of any complaint, the one time in six hours that we heard a peep from her was the pointy finger “having an idea!”
In fact Chiqui, who only met Kerry this weekend, wrote:
What impressed me the most from this experience was Kerry. She was in the same position for hours, and never complained. She didn’t complain if it was too hot or too cold, if she was seasick, or if she wanted something else to drink. She just tolerated the day, and hung in there for the duration of the race. She demonstrated that all you need is concentration and willingness to be able to reach any goal.
I jumped in after Caryn, and said I could do three buoys. It was my best swim; the jelly infestation had decreased as we made our way back to shore. You were still stung, but it wasn’t the crazy walls of moon jellies we had been going through earlier. I felt strong, and swam steady. I felt empowered, thinking I may not be fast, but my team can count on me in case Lilly can’t get back in the water.
From that moment on, the race flew by. In a true show of courage both Chiqui and Lilly got back in and sped away; Caryn took the last leg that would lead us back to the beach where we started. We had 20 minutes to swim a little under a mile and still make it under Lilly’s six hours.
With ten minutes to go, someone yelled to Caryn she had to speed it up to meet the cutoff. You might as well have told her there was a lion about to eat her child on the beach because that woman went on hyper speed. For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to swim a bit before getting to shore, so I jumped in with a little over half a mile to go. I am not sure why I did that because I was having a hard time catching up to Caryn. Lilly and Chiqui joined us and from then on I was swimming as fast as I have swam in my life trying to keep up but falling short. They waited a couple of seconds for me to catch up, and the four of us got hold of the boat, and carried Kerry through to the finish line to a cheering crowd.
The watch said six hours, eight minutes; and though we were all celebrating I knew somewhere Lilly was a little disappointed to miss the goal by eight minutes. Until it occurred to someone: six hours were for eight miles, we swam 9.2 miles! At an average of 40 minutes per mile, pulling a 100 pound woman on a dinghy, with surf and jellyfish. We actually did a phenomenal job!
Everyone on that boat left their individualities aside and thought of what was best for the team. We fulfilled our mission to show there are no limits, because the whole is much stronger than any of its individual parts.
I already believe the only limits that exist are those I set. I hope that you, watching us from the outside, can believe that too. But from the inside, as part of the team, my lesson was different: you must be willing to both lean on others, and step up to the plate, in order to overcome those self imposed limits. There is no end to what we can do together, so dream big, go bold, and make it happen.
We would like to say thank you to our generous sponsors without whom this adventure would not be possible: Hilton Key Largo, Athleta, Balance Diet Institute, TriVillage.com, See Me In The Dark, Ultrabikex, Active Disabled Americans and Train2Give.
The Silky Sharks, another relay racing that day, took this video and went through a whole lot of trouble to get it to us. Thank you.