Fear. Sea. Surf. (Part I).

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I didn’t learn to swim until I was 12 years old. My mom never learned to swim, and I could even go as far as to say she was traumatized from her water experiences. It was so bad that my mom even wore a life jacket in a pool that was 4 feet deep; she was 5’ 4”. Since my mom was so afraid, she never let me near the water because she knew she wouldn’t be able to save me or help me if something happened. So the easiest thing for her was avoidance which unwillingly trickled down to me.

So finally when I was 12 years old, I was able to take swimming lessons at the YMCA for a few months. I made it as far as becoming a “guppy” according to the YMCA standards. According to my standards, I was skilled enough to not drown. Since I had such a late start learning to swim, the water felt as familiar to me as walking on the moon would. Mixed with that, my parents didn’t take me to the pool, the lake, or the ocean to swim. The only time I was ever close to the water was when I was fishing with my dad.

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I have always been obsessed with bears, sharks, and moose. Ever since I was a little kid, I loved reading about the ocean and sharks. I think a lot of people have similar stories, but I remember seeing the movie Jaws when I was 9 years old, and I was making Easter eggs with my dad. For one, I was way too young to see the movie, and two I don’t think turning a majestic animal into a horror movie was the best idea. That movie changed the view of sharks for decades. The ripple effect of fear and distaste for sharks is still felt today. I was one of the many people who feared sharks, but I also knew sharks weren’t “killing” machines.

As I said, I was obsessed with sharks. When I was a child and my mom and I went to the Brookfield Zoo, I would always get something from the gift shop. I remember when I bought this set of ocean animal information cards. Each card had a picture of an ocean animal with detailed facts about the animal on it. I loved looking over and rereading the cards. It had everything from Great White Sharks to Hammerhead Sharks to Moray Eels to Polka Dot Groupers.

My parents also bought the full set of Encyclopedia Britannica which I read all the time. My favorite subject was the ocean and sharks; it was a whole other world. I would stare at pictures of the Anglerfish and the Viperfish and just be in awe that these creatures existed in the deep depths of the ocean. I also read every shark entry I could find. Even though I was informed about sharks, I still feared them. However, I feared them because they were so large and graceful and moved through the water with ease. They had perfected their craft of hunting marine mammals and fish, then mix in their blade like teeth that cut with surgeon precision; I respected them immensely. Sharks were all the things I wish I was. They just existed with ease, grace, beauty and this absolute comfortableness in the water. I feared their power; I feared the respect they commanded.

Then there is the ocean itself. I recognized the specialness of the ocean from the first time she spoke to me, and I laid eyes on her when I was 16 years old. The power and the vastness of the ocean is breathtaking. It is hard to not be hypnotized by the waves as they start to develop then casually, yet forcefully, roll towards the beach. The sound of a wave breaking makes me take a deep breath and inhale the salty air.

I really do have this entangled mix of fear, awe and respect for the ocean. Just as the waves well up, my emotions always do too when I am in the presence of the ocean. However, I always enjoyed the ocean from the safety of the beach. When I would venture in, I would linger around the water that was waist-deep. Friends would try to lure me out further, but I always stayed where I was comfortable. Now pair my swimming experience with my fear, but fear based solely on respect of the ocean and its inhabitants, and this made for a strained relationship

Throughout the years I tried to push my comfortability level though because I don’t like to have my life dictated by fear. So in 2004, I went on a cruise to Mexico with my mom, and I did go snorkeling in the ocean, even if I stuck close to shore and other humans (more potential choices for the sharks).

In 2008, I went to the south island of New Zealand for 2 weeks. Once again, I went snorkeling, but this time with seals. I may have clung to a lifebuoy for 90 minutes straight that floated on the ocean surface and frantically jerked my head in all different directions, praying that the 90 minutes of snorkeling would hurry up and end, but I did get in the ocean, with the sharks favorite meal, in about 30 feet of water.

In 2012, I decided to challenge myself in a new way. I had been a runner for 4 years at that point, and I cycled once a week for cross-training. I thought, “Why not do a triathlon?” I was very selective on which triathlon I was going to do. I picked a sprint triathlon that was 8 months away. The sprint triathlon was the shortest triathlon distance I could do. I also made sure the swim portion was in a pool because I wasn’t quite ready to venture into a longer lake swim (at this point I lived in Middle Tennessee so the only options for the swimming portion were a pool or a lake). The swimming portion was 200 yards, the cycling portion was 14 miles, and the running portion was a 5K (3.11 miles). The format worked to my strengths as well. I was a weaker swimmer, so it was nice to get that out of the way first. I knew I was a strong runner, and I had no problem running exhausted and tired, so having the triathlon end with the 5K run was a confidence booster for me.

Training and participating in this triathlon was a huge feat for me. I didn’t even enjoy swimming in pools in the summer time. I would always quickly dip in then just cozy up in the chaise lounge and read a book. Now I was spending two days a week building up my swimming strength in a local indoor pool.

When race day came, I was super nervous about the swimming portion. At this point, I still wasn’t overly confident in the water. I ended up lining up towards the end of the swim line because my time didn’t officially start until I jumped in the water. When I hit the water, I started off as I had practiced so many times. I freestyle swam with my face in the water, and every other stroke I tilted my head to take a breath. However, this only lasted for one length of the pool. My semi-formal swimming form quickly melded into something that resembled a lame otter. My head stayed poked above the water line, my feet flutter kicked, and my arms most closely resembled the breaststroke: a very loose interpretation of the breaststroke. I remember my dad walking the lengths of the pool yelling encouragement as I attempted to swim. (Later he told me I looked so awkward and slow and he felt bad for me, but he was proud of me for even doing it).

Honestly, I was proud of myself. There were only two other people who had a slower swim time than me, but I did it. Every time I swam in the pool I was uncomfortable, but I continued to push myself. I successfully completed a triathlon that I never imagined I would have even attempted.

In 2016, I went to Hawaii, more specifically Maui, which is where Tiger Sharks love to hang out because it has a protected ocean shelf. I have to say it is pretty hard to go to Maui and not get in the ocean though because it was like a warm, inviting hug. I did find myself in the water up to my shoulders as I playfully ducked in and out of the waves. Swimming in the ocean and turning back towards the shore to see the mountain peaks wearing the clouds like a halo was a treat. Once again, I even went snorkeling. This time I spent more time engaging with the fish and turtles instead of panicking about the possibility of a shark encounter. Now, I wasn’t totally reformed because I did still have a few moments of fear, but I was able to smile and take in the underwater scenes.

In 2011, I made a promise to myself that if I ever moved to Oregon, I would learn to surf on the Oregon Coast. At that time, Oregon felt so far from my grasp that it felt like an easy, empty promise to make, and considering it took over 5 years for my move to Oregon to happen that promise drifted from my mind like a rogue cloud.

That is until July 8th of this year.

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