The Sharkfest Swim Debacle!
“Okay, it’s official: I’m drowning!” and I said it aloud.
Tony Austin, former Ironman triathlete, life long surfer, former rock climber and now an Alcatraz Sharkfest competitor was drowning in the middle of a bay, in the middle of a race, and in the middle of his life.
When you’re drowning you cough a lot and you cough hard. The irony is you don’t think about getting yourself out of the water, that’s the least of your problems, you think about getting the water out of you. So, you hack, you bark, you whoop, and then you violently convulse trying to turn your lungs inside out so as to keep them from collapsing into mush.
I did not feel like I was doing a good job but I must have been because even though I was light-headed I wasn’t dead yet.
A life guard friend of mine once told me that it only takes a couple of teaspoons of water to kill a man. Subsequently, when you feel half that or more rolling down your bronchial passages, you feel like your inches from death and that is not hyperbole.
The Ground zero of my presumed demise was the choppy waters of the San Francisco Bay. I was 300 yards into a race aptly named: The Alcatraz Sharfest swim, a 1.5 mile open water swim that started out at around 8:00 AM off the shores of Alcatraz and was to conclude in a man-made inlet known as Aquatic Park. To my right was the Golden Gate Bridge, the de facto “suicide icon” of California. To my left the sprawling delta with the Oakland Bay Bridge hovering above it.
The Oakland Bay bridge is a monster of a bridge. It’s painted battle ship grey with a double deck transit way that summarily would look more at home in Brooklyn then it does No Cal. I identify with that bridge more than I do the Golden Gate for the Oakland bridge represented strength, the Golden Gate represented vanity. (Ironically enough the Golden Gate is the stronger and better made of the two.)
When you are in the middle of panic attack, you’re so convinced you’re about to die that you just accept it and it is then that you think of everyone you know and how guilty you feel for getting yourself into the mess as fatal as the one I was in now. The guilt is engulfing. It is definitely not the last thought you want to carry into eternity and it was going to be the thought I was stuck with.
I had trained religiously for this event for eight whole months swimming in a 25-yard pool, 3-4-days a week till I could swim 100 laps straight and now I appeared to be a “dead” failure.
Though my perceived version of reality was that I was about to sink to the bottom of the bay, and though it felt very real, the kayak support staff as watching me and they felt I was doing fine.
I started doing backstroke during these “last thoughts” so I could cough and breathe and at least make an attempt for shore.
After 55-minutes worth of coughing I could taste blood. That bolted my pulse rate to about 165-beats-a minute and I felt a sweat coming on in the 55-degree water. My wetsuit felt like it was shrinking and I started to signal for help but a kayaker paddled up to me with a big smile and asked, “how ya doing?” “I aspirated water!,” I replied but he probably did not know what that meant. If I could talk, then I was okay in his book. “Well, you’re backstroke looks great, turn a little bit to the right and you’re only a 100-yards from the entry into Aquatic Park.”
I presumed that the tide and my anemic backstroke must have floated me across the bay and near the inlet of Aquatic Park. At that point I needed help but I was too vain to yell, "get me out of here," so I figured since he was paddling next to me I would be chaperoned the rest of way and I would “Man-up,” because that is what "men" do.
The next 300 yards were an agonizing attempt at a sloppy freestyle. When I made it to shore, out of over 800-swimmers I placed 5th from last and the time it took me to do so was an anemic 1:12:00 to finish the swim.
It became clear that "a good athlete knows when to quit and I was not a good athlete."
The audience applauded me and patted me on the back as I walked out of the water. I felt bloated, pathetic and I would be coughing on an-and-off for nearly 2-months after that.
I dragged myself a block or so to the swanky hotel that I was staying at: The Argonaut, a five-star hotel at the tip of Fisherman’s wharf made entirely out of brick. The hotel was once a cannery owned by the Del Monte corporation some ages ago but now converted as both a San Francisco historical artifact and a fancy hotel with a nautical motif. I gathered my bags, settled the bill and met my friend Scott for breakfast at a cheap café. It was there that I debrief and told him all about what happened and what I felt about my “failed” crossing.
After getting me in reasonable shape to make the flight back to “Lost Angeles,” he drove me to Oakland and dropped me off at the Southwest terminal for the fly home.
I stood in line at the terminal, depressed, deflated and angry. Two Sharkfest competitors stood in line next to me and asked me how I did. I refused to tell them, but they kept at it but I wouldn’t break my silence. Though they were a bit proud and full of too much pride they did say two simple words that changed my life…
Within six years I would lose 25-pounds, would return to the Alcatraz Sharkfest not once, but six-times and finish each time in the top 15% - 20% of the overall finishers and each time in the top ten of my age group.
Those two words? Masters Swimming! Then I was on my way to mastering swimming.
[The illustration above was my Facebook image for a time.]