I stand at the water’s edge, too afraid to pass through the crashing waves. It’s my first week of junior lifeguards and I am 12 years old, and I have no idea how to navigate the ocean, a skill the other kids manage so expertly. My instructor tells me he will swim along with me and slowly we enter the water and round the buoy together .
Legacy plays an important role in many sports, and marathon swimming is no exception; we are obsessed with tradition. We even go so far as to pay homage to our history by modeling the gold standard of our uniform on the clothes that Matthew Webb wore to first swim across the English Channel in 1875. By swimming in only a bathing suit and cap (just as Webb did), we acknowledge the line of swimmers that came before us, while being initiated into that same selective club.Marathon swimming is also buoyed by a variety of other quirky traditions. When I first set out to swim the English Channel, I was following in the wake of several successful Seven Sister swimmers. The tradition of marathon swimming excellence at Seven Sister schools reaches back beyond our first English Channel swim in 1984. In 1929, Smithie Eleanor Studley Hurd made history by becoming the first woman to swim the Hellespont, between Europe and Asia. With this legacy comes the double-edged sword of increased pressure to succeed and the ability to stand on the shoulders of the women who swam before. This tradition of success is preserved in a blanket, embroidered with the name of each Seven Sister English Channel swimmer. I looked forward to the day that I would be able to stitch my name and pass the blanket on to the next successful channel swimmer. I’m so excited that I now get to pass on the blanket to a swimmer from Wellesley, Melanie Kaplan ’12, who just crossed the English Channel this past week.
Another tradition that is perhaps unique to my circle of marathon swimmers is to gift a book to a successful or aspiring swimmer, partly as a way of initiating them to the club. While at Smith, I was willed Lynne Cox’s Swimming to Antartica, and I passed it on to another Smith distance swimmer, adding my name to the list of previous owners inside. In congratulations for my recently completed Triple Crown, my training partner Rebecca gave me Dangerous When Wet by Shelley Taylor Smith, with notes from both the author and Rebecca inside. One day, I will pass it on to another swimmer!
I also have had the pleasure of adding one of my own books to this tradition, by gifting Dover Solo by Marcia Cleveland to another friend, Rachel Griffin, who just completed her first marathon swim by crossing the Catalina Channel. Gifting a meaningful book lets swimmers help each other get excited and inspired to attempt ever greater challenges. Not only do we pass on books that have been owned and read by previous swimmers, the books themselves contain stories of challenge and triumph within their pages.
When I first entered the sport of marathon swimming, I was most often on the receiving end of these legacies, benefitting greatly from the wisdom and encouragement of my mentors. Though I still have so much to learn about myself and the sport, I am excited to also step into the role of mentor and to help others reach for their goals.
The four 9 year olds eagerly rush into the water, showing no fear at the waves that equal them in height. I follow behind, reminding them to dive deep to get under the break. I am helping my friend Rebecca chaperone her son and three of his junior lifeguard friends around the buoy. They are much more confident in the water than I was at their age. One boy lags behind and I swim next to him. Together, we round the buoy and head for shore.