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The Mass Media

My 10-Mile Swim

It was 6 a.m. and I was already awake. I had asked my brother-in-law Randy to wake me up at 6:30 but I didn’t sleep well that night. I was anxious. The day was August 30th, the date I had set to swim eight miles across Lake Champlain. I had begun ocean swimming over a decade ago in Brazil, but today’s crossing would be my greatest swimming accomplishment

Randy was already in the kitchen making breakfast. My wife was up too. We were all moving a little fast to leave the house on time. We had to meet the boat rental woman at the dock in Burlington, Vermont. We also were checking to see if I had everything that I would need. When you do long distance swimming in open water, you need a lot of stuff: two bathing caps, two pairs of goggles, several pairs of ear plugs, a wet suit if in cold water, Vaseline, a stop watch, energy bars, replacement drinks, fruit, water, warm clothes, navigation equipment. I had checked everything. I was all set.

We headed out to Burlington around 6:40 from Randy’s house in nearby Colchester. He was a little concerned with traffic. But on that Thursday we had no traffic. The weather forecast also predicted a beautiful sunny day. It looked like things were on my side. We arrived at the dock around 7 a.m.and nobody was there. We were on time. Minutes later the boat rental woman showed up, coming several hours early expressly to make the early rental to me. Also she had the perfect kind of boat which was 17 feet long with a 25 hp motor-the right size to enable the support person to give the feedings a swimmer needs for races over two hours long.

After I paid for the boat, the women looked at me and said, “So are you gonna really swim across?” I said “Yes, I will.” She made an expression as if she couldn’t understand why some people put themselves through such big physical challenges then she said, “I don’t like to get wet and the water around here is too cold.” I replied, “I will be all right. I have a wet suit.” Randy and I started heading to the New York side of Lake Champlain. My wife with my baby son waved to me from the dock.

Lake Champlain is a big glacial lake that separates Northern Vermont from New York State. My plan was to start my swim at Willisboro Point in New York and head straight to Burlington in Vermont. My goal was to swim in a straight line from one side to the other. However I would find out soon that that would be a hard task. While traveling in the boat to the start point, I noticed that I was a little nervous. It was a sunny day but windy. As soon as we left the protected waters of Burlington Bay, the waves started picking up. I had chosen Lake Champlain for several logistical reasons and definitely I was surprised at the waves. I laughed to cheer up myself and said, “Wow…this is going to be fun.” Randy laughed too and said, “This a big deal Roberval…a big deal.”

At the starting point, while still in the boat, I did my final warm up, put my wetsuit and put my goggles. I took a moment to concentrate and said to myself, “This is my personal race. I know I can do this. Just get in the water and have a good time.” I jumped into the water and set my watch. It was 9:00 a.m. sharp. The water felt good. Its temperature was 69 degrees. I got back in the boat and put on my bathing cap. I said to Randy, “I don’t want to take a chance of getting cold.” I got back in the water and looked at him and said, “Ready?” He answered, “Yup, ready.” I replied, “Let’s go.” My big swim had begun-the goal that had been in my mind for over a year.

I knew once I was in the water, there was only one way out for me: to put my feet in safe land. The sun was warm and while I was in shallow waters, I could see plants on bottom of the lake. My plan was to swim for a straight half hour, stop, feed, rest for two minutes and start swimming again. I knew I could swim a mile in 30 minutes. The distance shore to shore was eight miles so I was planning to finish the whole thing in four hours and 20 minutes.

At the end of the first mile, Randy yelled to me, “Roberval-30 minutes now.” I said, “Okay, I don’t want to stop. I feel great.” At this point, the waves that I had seen from the boat seemed much bigger and much tougher to swim through. The waves were almost three feet high. At the second mile mark I tried to do my first feeding. The boat was jumping all over the place. It was difficult to bring the boat close enough so I could reach the replacement drink and power gel Randy was trying to hand me. I didn’t want to touch the boat, as official open water swimming regulations do not allow contact with the boat or support person. Even though I was doing a solo swimming, I wanted to follow these regulations.

Later we figured out that the best approach was to throw what I needed into the water and I would swim to it. Another change that I had to make was my swimming stroke. When you swim in a pool or flat water you can maintain an even stroke. However, dealing with waves is a totally different story. You cannot catch your breath in your normal way. You may swallow water. You have to watch the waves and throw yourself up when a big wave comes so it can carry you. The rolling waves may make you feel dizzy. In other words, it makes the swim much more difficult.

Even with all the difficulty, I was making progress. Randy was yelling out my mile marks and it meant I was moving forward. However, the conditions were taking their toll on me. I was tired much earlier than I had expected. However, when Randy called out my six mile mark, instead of feeling happy, I felt confused. I expected to be able to see the Vermont shore already after six miles, but I was still in the middle of the lake. I looked ahead and asked Randy, “Which way?” He pointed and said, “Over there.” I thought, “Oh no…this is much more than 2 miles.”

When I had started the crossing, the waves were coming from my right, so we had decided that I should swim slightly to the right, into the waves, in order to compensate and end up directly across the lake. We had miscalculated, though, and I had swum too much to the right, so now I had to swim two sides of a triangle to reach the beach in Burlington where my family was waiting. This was bad news. I had trained for an eight mile swim and now I had to swim an extra several miles through bad conditions to finish. During the last week of training, the most I had swam was five miles. I knew I was ready to do an eight-mile but more than that…I wasn’t sure. Psychologically, it was a big defeat.

I put my face back in the water and started swimming. Again. I knew that if could keep my mind clear and focused, the whole thing would just be a matter of time. However, my mind said one thing but my arms responded another. I was tired. To make matters worse the wind that was blowing on my right side before, now was changing direction and was coming straight in my face. At this point, I was in the middle of the lake, where the currents were strongest. I was exhausted and my arms were burning. My legs were weak. I was angry at myself. How could I be so tired? At some point, I was so mad that I stopped and yelled at the sky to give me discipline.

I thought about quitting, but I couldn’t. The year before, I had attempted a similar endurance swim in Boston Harbor and had to quit because of the cold water and rough conditions. Now I was wearing a wetsuit and couldn’t use the cold as an excuse. It was just a matter of endurance now, which is what open water swimming is all about. While I was swimming, I was thinking of the comfort of seeing and hugging my wife and baby. I had said to myself that I would finish no matter what. So I kept swimming.

I concentrated on my stroke to be sure I was pulling water towards my body. So the feet became yards and the yards became miles. I was moving forward. Randy kept yelling my mile marks. I was starting to get close to shore. I could faintly see the beach. I made it through the rough part of the lake and reached the calm waters of Burlington Bay.

The waves that had wanted to swallow me before were now gone and the water was like a beautiful pond on a sunny day. I was getting closer and closer. I could see trees on the shore and plants on the bottom on the lake. After over five hours, I knew I had done it. I didn’t want to stop to feed anymore. I just wanted to keep moving. I asked Randy, “Where are they?” He said, “Over there,” but I couldn’t quite see them on the shore. I kept moving, now with renewed determination. I raised my head and looked ahead and now I could see my wife waving to me. This was the greatest sight.

After five hours and twenty minutes, I reached the shore and stepped onto safe land. The GPS Randy was carrying registered 12 miles, but we later assessed that some of this mileage was from the boat circling me. My route had been 10 miles. I looked back and couldn’t believe what I had done. I hugged my wife and my baby. I had done it! I had planned, trained, and accomplished my first big open water swim.