Chapter 1: Minnow, fish…
When did I start swimming? My best answer: I can’t remember ever not being able to swim. There have been brief interludes. But I’ve never stopped for long.
One of my earliest aquatic memories was when I was five years old at the YMCA in Lansdale, Pa. My mother had enrolled me in lessons, which was important to her. She can’t swim and she wanted to be sure that my brother and I would learn to do so.
I remember the instructor lining us up on deck at the deep end. She announced that we would each swim underwater as far as we could. I dove in and swam the length of the pool. It felt so natural! I submerged and followed the black line to the shallow end. When I broke the surface, I could tell that people watching were impressed, though I’d really only done it for fun.
Minnow, fish, flying fish, shark, porpoise – that was the sequence of classes at the YMCA. You’d get a patch with each creature on it when you passed a level.
I could say it so easily that it rolled off my tongue: Minnow, fish, flying fish, shark, porpoise. It still does. Something like that burned into your brain shapes you. I do have a bedrock belief in orderly, steady progress toward a goal.
From there came what were called “mini-meets,” essentially competitions for really young kids. My memory is fuzzy here, but I know that I competed in those dating back to at least six years old.
At home, a magazine called “World” arrived each month in the mail. It was basically National Geographic for children and would regularly feature underwater photography and pictures of scuba divers. I remember staring at the images, transfixed.
One Christmas, I asked for a scuba mask. I unwrapped that present and confronted a pungent, rubbery smell I can re-imagine even today. It was the sweet aroma from the band and gasket that surrounded a lens made of real glass. I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau.
On summer evenings, my dad would drive us to the pool. I’d wear the mask and swim underwater along the lines of black tile that marked each lane. I’d look for pennies obscured by the dark color. It was play, but I was also beginning to understand my connection with the water.
When I was seven years old, I attended tryouts for our town’s summer swim team at Nor-Gwyn Pool. (The name a combination of my hometown North Wales and the surrounding township, Upper Gwynedd.)
But it was too soon. This was Pennsylvania. When I dipped my toe in the water that day in early June, I said, “No, it’s too cold.”
The following summer I was ready.
So was our coach, Jamie Hemmerle. Two years earlier, in 1976, he’d been to Olympic trials. That was the highest credential I could imagine. He had a fairly serious demeanor, but I remember he was kind and supportive. The team was large, well over 100 kids – a handful for sure.
A week before our first meet, we had time trials. I swam the 25-meter freestyle in 17 seconds. A day or so later, Jamie said he thought I could break the pool record.
He never told me what the record was. But I knew that this guy who’d been to Olympic trials thought I could break it. I’ve never forgotten the incredible power of someone believing in you.
At the first meet, I stepped up to the blocks for the 25-meter freestyle.
“Timers and judges, are you ready?” the starter said through a megaphone. “Swimmers, take your mark.”
He squeezed the trigger and fired a blank from the pistol at the end of his outstretched arm.
I leaped from the block with as much power as I could muster and knifed into the water.
Chapter 2: Good times, bad times
Remember that 25-meter freestyle when I was eight years old?
I broke the record with a time of 16.4 seconds!
It wasn’t a fluke, either. I repeated that speed over and over, from pool to pool. Set a bunch of records.
Not always, of course.
After every meet, no matter how well or poorly I swam, my parents would order pizza for dinner. Or we’d go to Friendly’s for ice cream. Looking back, that was so significant. It taught me that the process, the hard work and practices, trumped the outcome. I completely enjoyed swimming for several years.
But by the summer of my thirteenth year, something had changed. I decided I didn’t want to swim on the team.
I have always had a wide array of interests. I recall wanting to do about a dozen other things besides swim. Coincidentally, I hadn’t been as successful in the pool. Looking back, one reason was clear: I was a late bloomer physically. I was a skinny kid facing much stronger competition. But at the time, I simply noticed that my interest in the sport had waned.
Meanwhile, my brother Eric was also a swimmer – a quite good one, too – and he still was on the team. I went to every meet to watch him compete.
I missed it so badly, I ached.
It turns out that quitting swimming was one of my greatest decisions. It made me realize how much I loved it. Once, I even dove in after the meet ended as they reeled in the lane lines, just to recapture that feeling of spearing into the water.
But I still was not satisfied with where my swimming was. The stroke I loved so much, freestyle, had let me down.
When that lost summer ended, I decided to return in the fall.
Enter Bill Moser. Much like my summer league coach, Bill brought a history of swimming achievement: a state championship in the 1970s and a remarkable career at the University of Pittsburgh. Now he was coach of our local AAU swim team, which practiced indoors in fall, winter and spring.
I remember this scene like it was yesterday: Bill telling us kids a story as we sat in the bleachers at North Penn High School.
He shared with us how he had lost a race by a tenth of a second. A big race. He said that all he could think about afterward was every time he didn’t finish hard at the wall in practice. Every time he didn’t streamline on a push-off. When he didn’t give total effort in a set.
In the telling of it, he almost moved himself to tears. He didn’t want us to feel the regret that he had felt in that loss.
He paused and shifted gears. He began to explain the mechanics of freestyle. He started with the catch.
I listened intently as he described that initial part of the stroke, when you establish a hold on the water. This, I knew, was what I needed – to reconnect.
Chapter 3: Racing season
Everyone’s heard of practice.
But if you’re not a swimmer, you may not know about the practice within a practice.
Practice is what coach writes on the board. Then there is the drama that unfolds inside practice.
It’s a constant push and pull between teammates. They test each other. They frustrate each other. And they get faster.
In 1985, my freshman year of high school, I was not fast. In fact, I was one of the slowest members of the team. Here’s a secret: If you want to be named the Most Improved Swimmer as a senior, it helps to start out at the bottom of the heap!
We had an excellent coach, Rick Carroll, who would go on to be inducted into the Pennsylvania athletics hall of fame. Thanks to Coach Carroll’s leadership – and to my teammates in practice – I started to get faster, year after year.
At North Penn High School, there were four rows of lockers for the swim team. Each year, we moved up a row, according to your class. You started at the freshman row at the back, then the sophomore row, and so on, until the final row for seniors. That spot had a nice perk – it was closest to the showers.
As a freshman, I imagined how fast I could be by the time I got to the junior row. How fast would I be as a senior? That’s how I envision the incremental progress an athlete makes over time. Year by year, row by row – like patches for each level at the YMCA.
My biggest disappointment came as a sophomore. In our conference meet, I finally qualified for districts in the 200 IM – but was disqualified. The stroke and turn judge said my feet separated in butterfly.
I was crushed.
I regrouped from that disappointment and trained harder.
The most exhilarating moment of my high school career happened my senior year, at districts. I went 49.5 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle and finally qualified for the state championships – by hundredths of a second.
College was like starting over. We didn’t have rows of lockers at the University of Delaware. But in many ways, I felt like I was back to working my way up again.
Thankfully we had an excellent coach my freshman year: Chris Ip. He was enthusiastic, encouraging and creative. We were a Division 1 program, but had no scholarships. That meant that the only reason any of us swam was for the love of it.
It’s hard to explain the commitment and physical requirements of a college swimmer. Practices are longer and more competitive. Add to that the classroom demands, not to mention the distractions of college life.
I hit best times in all of my events every year. I’ll never forget making the finals in our conference championships my senior year in the 400 IM, the sport’s toughest event.
But I also remember how, prior to my junior and senior years, I thought, “Do I really want to go through this again?” ‘This’ being, the brutal grind of training. Three teammates from my class would drop out along the way.
What kept me going was the camaraderie, the locker room, the house we shared.
Swimming is a solitary pursuit, but it builds lifelong bonds.
After my final race in my final meet in my final year at Delaware, I said to myself, “I’m done,” and hung up my goggles, I thought, for good.
Chapter 4: ‘I still dream of pools’
The second time I walked away from swimming was different than the first.
I initially stepped back from the pool when I was 13. I felt pulled to try new things. I couldn’t have known this at such an early developmental stage, but I was searching for my identity and testing boundaries. That break was a brief departure.
The next time, I was sure the journey was over. When I hung up my goggles after college, I was proud of what I’d accomplished but it was time to pursue more important things. A career. An adult life.
I landed a job as a reporter at a small newspaper in eastern North Carolina. It was in Selma, near Interstate 95 east of Raleigh. From 1992 to 1998, I worked at four newspapers: in Selma, then to Smithfield, Fayetteville and Savannah, Ga. I must have had eight different addresses in that time.
One weekend in Smithfield, a friend with an extra kayak asked me to join him. I did – and I was hooked. Being back in the water felt like coming home. Before long, I was heading to Topsail Island and other North Carolina beaches every weekend to surf kayak. Or I’d head to the mountains for more traditional whitewater kayaking.
Kayaking is not swimming, but there are similarities. Paddle blades are your hands, and they must efficiently grab the water. The keel is your body line. Your hips and core connect the whole endeavor.
At sea there were times I became so engaged with what I was doing that I simply lost myself.
I wrote a column about it in August 1995, in The Smithfield Herald:
“The ocean is glassy. We paddle out through the breakers and assess the green tubes that swell mysteriously and disappear in a noisy froth. Leaving the others behind, I turn and skim north to find larger waves. But really, I want to find The Zone. It starts with the hypnotic rhythm of the surf and ends when you realize it’s there.
I paddle for hours. Quick strokes to gain speed as the wave picks up the boat. Lean back, keep your nose up. And ride. Silent and swift until she crashes. Then head out again. The doer is lost in the deed.”
I summed up a section about my past swimming history this way: “I still dream of pools.”
And in Savannah, that dream became reality. Our newspaper had negotiated a special rate to use the Jewish Community Center, which had a pool. One day I decided to swim a few laps. Another swimmer suggested that I should join their morning masters group.
I showed up at 6 a.m. and learned that the masters team was small: three adults, plus two high school kids who used the session for their morning practice at Georgia Coastal Aquatic Team.
The coach for us all was Bill Forrester. He was pleasant and down-to-earth – and really knew his stuff. He began most practices with about 10 minutes of technique work. I particularly remember a series of sculling drills aimed at improving your feel for the water
It was only later that I learned Bill had won a bronze medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1976 Olympics. Once again, just when I needed it, the right coach had appeared.
I’d soon confront another meaningful coincidence, though I didn’t know it at the time.
I was at Tybee Island, Savannah’s beach, when someone told me how two soldiers stationed in the area had swum from the tip of Tybee across the shipping channel and over to Hilton Head, S.C. You could see the vague outline of Hilton Head about three or four miles in the distance.
I remember thinking, wow, that’s crazy. I could never swim that far.
But the seed was planted.
Chapter 5: Historic Swim
One September morning I traversed a dock that jutted into the brackish Cooper River. I adjusted my goggles and took a giant leap.
Ten years prior I heard about two soldiers who completed a Tybee Island-to-Hilton Head crossing. I had kept swimming since then but nothing too intense. I dabbled with a few masters meets and a couple short open water events.
Now I had embarked on a challenge I once thought impossible: a 12-mile marathon swim.
Part of my motivation had nothing to do with swimming. Earlier in the year I had gotten passed over for a promotion at work. I was disappointed – to an extent that surprised me. I grew determined that I would do whatever I could to prevent external factors from ever again playing such an outsized role in how I gauged success.
I needed to do something great on my own.
The goal was to finish the Swim Around Charleston. It’s technically a race, but the longest open water swim I’d done in training was four miles. I wondered if I’d make it all the way up the Ashley River, past the The Citadel and to the I-526 bridge.
Four-and-half-hours later, I arrived at the finish! I even felt good enough at the end to attack the last couple miles. I won a medal for winning my age group.
That event sparked my passion for open water swimming, from bushwhacking to uncharted wilderness waterways to competing in sanctioned events.
A few years later, I started thinking about coaching. I hadn’t done that since I led a summer swim team back in Smithfield, N.C. in my 20s.
I talked about it with Heleen Hogan at the Harris YMCA in Charlotte. She thought it was an excellent idea. She introduced me to head coach Amy Clark who let me on as a volunteer coach for the Special Olympics swim team that practiced there Sunday afternoons.
That was such a rewarding experience. And challenging. I remember struggling to try to help a non-verbal 12-year-old attempt to swim one length without stopping. Week after week, we worked on it, with me in the water beside him. When he made it to the other side, he was ecstatic.
My open water events, meanwhile, grew increasingly ambitious.
One afternoon over a few beers, my friend Mike Guzek threw out an idea: What if we swam the entire length of nearby Lake Wylie? A 28-mile journey.
I said I was in. He was, too.
We trained for months and months, insane distances in the pool, for hours and hours at a time. In the river as well, for test runs along the route. We lined up a cadre of buddies who would paddle alongside us, handing off kayaks to each other relay-style at designated boat landings.
Shortly after 6 a.m. on Sept. 29, 2018, a mist covered the dark waters beneath a soaring dam that marked the beginning of the lake.
We shoved off and began to swim at sunrise. Twelve hours later, as the sun sank below the treeline, I arrived at the boat landing near the dam that marked the finish. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Mike made it, too.
We did some research and concluded we were the first to ever swim that crossing. It got some attention, too, from the Charlotte NPR affiliate. We talked to a Lions Club about our accomplishment. That was the extent of our fame.
The most common question, besides logistics, was: Why? Why had we done it?
Fair question. I’d asked it myself and failed to arrive at a satisfactory answer.
Months later, I read something that came close to explaining it. The reason you embark on such a demanding adventure is because you can. You do it because you can.
I later came across the quote that “a ship in harbor is safe – but that’s not what ships are built for.”
That also captured some of what I felt, but not all of it.
There is one sentiment I keep returning to.
Dancer Martha Graham famously said, “A dancer dies twice — once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.”
That one resonates the most. The few times I have shared it, people initially recoil. I get it. It’s a quote about death, and no one likes to think about that.
But to me, it is not about death at all. It’s about life.
I reclaimed swimming when I didn’t get the job I wanted. I gave it away when I began to coach. I vanished into it when I swam the length of a river.
Yesterday, I drove down to the river. It’s mid-April. There was a frost warning the night before.
I walked to the boat landing.
I tightened the strap of my goggles and eased beneath the surface. First with my right arm and then my left, I pressed against the water just as Coach Moser taught me when I was 13.
The water was bracingly cold. It was a reminder of Nor-Gwyn that first summer when I felt the chill of the pool and turned away.
I won’t make that mistake again.