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The Crossing
On land, I can brag about my athletic prowess. In the water, I have to prove it.

By Meghan Gibbons
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why am I doing this? I wonder. More than four miles of water stretch out before me. Fortunately I can't see that far, or I might turn back. Instead, I curl my toes nervously into the sand and shuffle forward with the other swimmers.

At the starter's call, I splash into the Chesapeake Bay, first ankle-deep, then thigh-high, then waist-high, until I can dolphin-dive into the chop where hundreds of arms are swinging wildly, legs churning up little whitecaps. I try to avoid being kicked in the face or smacking anyone accidentally during the "Cuisinart start," but the other swimmers are packed around me like anxious seals, all eager to get away from the beach and spread out under the span of the Bay Bridge.

Crossing the bay requires a certain amount of determined plodding: one arm over the other, pull, kick, breathe, repeat. Again. And again. And again. Roughly 5,000 times. When you string those together to make 4.4 miles, the feat is pretty impressive for its sheer doggedness. I do the swim, in part, for the bragging rights; it gives me a kind of "super jock" status. Some actual super-jock friends -- people who compete in marathons and bike a hundred miles at a time -- won't even consider the swim, imagining that it takes some prowess they couldn't muster. Non-swimmers have endless questions: How far across is it? How deep is the water? Are you allowed to take a break? Are there a lot of fish?

They almost always forget to ask: How long did it take? That question would be the undoing of my uber-athlete facade. The truth is, I'm a slow, slightly delicate swimmer. I work anonymously behind a computer all day. I'm not a triathlete, like some of my teammates. I didn't compete in college. I'm not athletically gifted. But I am tenacious, and the Chesapeake Bay swim is an event that rewards swimmers of my ilk.

So this one day of glory is that much sweeter. I envision myself a champion: disciplined, powerful, strapping, winning the silent awe of my friends and colleagues. I regale them with stories of strong currents, dark water, slimy animals and other boogeymen of the bay. One year, the water was 60 degrees and sucked the air out of my lungs when I first dove in. Another year, I was pulled into an eddy around a bridge stanchion and swam in place for 20 minutes before I escaped. Those stories seem to increase my super-jock status, so I embellish them for the right audience.

Here on the water, however, the swim is a private test I've put to myself. At times, I feel strong and courageous, as though I'm facing down a giant. As I breathe, my view changes from the sky to the water: sky, water, sky, water. After a while, those elements begin to feel a part of the breath I take in.

But soon, I find myself swimming directly against the southward current, and I am not making any progress. My instinct is to struggle, but I will exhaust myself if I do. The current whispers that it could take me away without a thought -- just a few gentle tugs. I am but a speck in its path. I know that the bridge runs east to west, so I eye the spans above me and turn north, swimming at a reverse angle against the building current. My shoulders burn, and I gasp for breath every other stroke. If I slow down, I'll be pulled backward. Now my prideful boasts are gone -- I'm not sure I will make the next mile marker.

I reach a calmer stretch, and I can't see any other swimmers or rescue boats or any glimpse of land. I tread water for a moment just to look around. It's remarkably quiet. The water spreads out around me in all directions. I feel extraordinarily free and self-reliant. Then, a minute later, I grow nervous. Have the rescue boats forgotten me? Could I be the very last one still swimming? The current could easily carry me to the mouth of the bay. My family would report me missing ... I turn back to my stroke to quiet these thoughts. One arm over the other, kick, pull, breathe, repeat, and I feel the silent company of the water and the sky again.

Three and a half hours later, I reach the last stretch of the swim and I am spent: shoulders aching, legs wobbly, a bit nauseated. I know my family is waiting for me on shore. As I round the four-mile mark, I tread water and turn back for a last look: the bay from the other side, stretched out under the vaulted bridges and the wide, open sky, glittering with a kind of mystical quality I've never seen from land. Maybe it comes from knowing in my arms and legs that I brought myself across. And from knowing that the water could have chosen not to let me cross, but it did. And from feeling what it means to be alone and not alone at the same time. In this moment, it doesn't matter whether the real super jocks are impressed with my feat, or that I have a dramatic story to tell anyone. In this moment, I have a story to tell myself.

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