Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | August 12, 2010

13 Ways of Looking at a Swim Race

This past weekend was eventful for me. Of my own volition, with no one holding a gun to my head, I showed up at – and competed in – an open water swim race: the WaterDaze 1-mile point-to-point swim. It was a remarkable feat considering I have a cat-like aversion to water (see previous post). Although I can’t say I enjoyed the swim itself, I will concede that I enjoyed the pre- and post-swim parts of the event. Much of that enjoyment came from the fact that my daughter did the race with me. Well, that and the free food.

The WaterDaze event is held in Polson, Montana, in lovely Flathead Lake. Although many, if not all, races declare that their swims are in “crystal clear water,” rarely is that true. Usually the water is murky, filled with goose poop, and smells funky. Flathead Lake, however, is truly crystal clear. It is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi and is generally recognized as one of the cleanest lakes in the world.1 At its southern end sits Polson, a small town of about 4000, nestled between the lake and the nearby mountains.

Polson is surrounded by farmland, but the town itself is populated with small bungalows stacked up a hill overlooking the lake, side by side, as if they are huddled together for warmth. And they might very well need to, for while summer is glorious in Polson, winter is long. There are many recreational activities in town, but one thing there is not: an indoor pool. The nearest indoor pool is a solid 45-minute drive away. A group called Mission Valley Aquatics, however, is working to change that. They are raising money to build an indoor pool in Polson, and WaterDaze is their annual fundraiser. So, not only was this swim race a new challenge for me, it was also for a good cause. Because even though I hate swimming, I want others to have access to a pool so they can learn to hate swimming for themselves.

So why did I sign up for a swim race if I don’t like swimming? I think the only explanation is a new phenomenon which I have decided to call Athletic-Event-Related-PsychosisTM, the inexplicable desire to sign up for athletic events that I don’t actually want to do.  Even though I don’t enjoy swimming and I had absolutely no desire to participate in a swim race, I signed up for it anyway, a tell-tale symptom of Athletic-Event-Related-PsychosisTM. My daughter, however, genuinely likes swimming – lately, she has been joining me for some of my swim workouts – so she decided to do the race, too. It was her first open water swim race, and while I had done triathlons before, this was my first swim-only event. A new milestone for both of us. I was immensely proud of her for stepping out of her comfort zone and trying something new. Most of all, however, I was just happy to have someone with me.

I have gotten used to doing these types of events solo. But this time, I had someone to sit with on the shuttle bus. Someone to chat with at the start. Someone to stay with on the course. Until, that is, we got separated and she took off. I tried catching up with her, panicked that she might need me and I wouldn’t be there to help her. As we reached the halfway point and I started to get a cramp, I laughed at myself for being worried about her. She is a great swimmer. The person in our family who was a cause for concern was yours truly.

However, I managed to plug along and I kept her in my sight until the end. I saw her get out of the water and pass under the finish arch. And she was there, along with the rest of my family, waving at me when I came in a minute later. Seeing her big smile at the finish was certainly the best part of the race.

A close second, however, came several minutes later. We milled about watching the next few swimmers come in, then we grabbed a bite to eat at the food tent. A few moments later, the announcer came on the loudspeaker to inform us that the last swimmer was coming in: a 70-ish woman who has been a life-long swimmer. In fact, the announcer informed us, she had been a lifeguard at that very beach back in her day. We all gathered around to cheer her as she came in. She reached the shallows, stood up (wearing her bathing suit with a little skirt, no less) and raised her arms in victory. Everyone applauded. I cried. Then I went to get more potato salad.

Although I did not particularly like the swim itself, it will always stand out as a memorable event because my daughter was at my side. Well, not actually at my side, more like 25 meters ahead of me, but close enough. As it turns out, there were dozens of young swimmers there, and they all beat me. Every single one. But guess what, kids? You may be fast swimmers but summer is progressing even faster than your front crawl. Soon you will be sitting in classrooms, longing for the days when you could hop in the lake and swim a mile. So, in honor of all those kids who beat me, but who have to go back to school in a couple of weeks, I have decided to do a poetic (somewhat) race review (of sorts).

Millions of reluctant and bored schoolchildren across the country will be studying Wallace Stevens this year and will be forced to read “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Then those poor students will be required to write their own lame poem called “13 Ways of Looking at a ____”. So, in that vein, here is “13 Ways of Looking at a Swim Race.” Apologies to Wallace Stevens for butchering the format, and to Mr. Cook, my 9th grade English teacher, who would be horrified and would probably give me a C for this sophomoric effort. But perhaps literary race reports will become the new standard? I may be starting a trend here….

13 Ways of Looking at a Swim Race


Among twenty snow clad mountains, the only moving things were 80 neoprene-clad penguins waddling into the water


I was of two minds: the one that said “It’s just a mile swim” and the one that said “Have you gone mad? Run away!”


The starting horn blew. Yellow and green swim caps whirled in the water. The kayaks circled like oddly protective sharks.


80 swimmers are one. 80 swimmers and a dozen kayakers and at least a few motorboats are one.


A young girl on shore, cheering from her wheelchair, a poignant reminder of Fate’s capricious hand.


Waves fill the horizon, large and intimidating. The finish line far away. Far and away. Far and away the stupidest idea I have ever had. This swim race.

Oh, Angel of Death, why is your hand on my back? Or is that just water seeping into my wetsuit?


I know what it means to be a little outside my comfort zone. I know the swim race is involved in what I know.


When my daughter swam out of sight, it marked the lonely edge of where being a mom ended and being just another swimmer began.


80 swimmers. A one mile course. 200 square miles of water. And one idiot swimming just inches behind, grabbing my foot.


The kayakers are paddling, the participants must be swimming. Still. Are we there yet?


I do not know which to prefer: the excitement of getting to the finish line or the immense relief just after.


It was morning all afternoon, as if the day would never end. Finally, I stepped onto dry land. And it was over.

Flathead Lake

Flathead Lake


  1. […] Life Outside the Comfort Zone I enjoyed reading this lady’s blog, I hope to meet her around town some day. 13 Ways of Looking at a Swim Race […]

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