The Swim

December 17, 2010

Monday morning, I was packing up our apartment in rainy, lovely Portland.

The sun rose over the Bay Bridge on Wednesday morning, streams of headlights pouring into and out of San Francisco visible from our balcony in Oakland.

And by Friday, I was greeting the day in Kailua Bay, perhaps my favorite swimming spot in the world.


The early hours in Kailua-Kona are occasionally quiet, grey, and unassuming. But as soon as the sun begins to peek out and over the summit of Hualalai, the birds awaken, the pedals of each flower lining Ali’i Drive seems to open up and glow brilliant shades of pink, red, orange and yellow. Pure white plumerias contrast the azure ocean glassy and clean. Palm trees sway with the morning breeze. This is the best time to find yourself, ankle deep in the soft sand at Dig Me Beach.


Kailua Pier is the start for the Ironman World Championships. Each October, some 1300 athletes toe this line, push out and away from this sandy landing and into the Pacific Ocean, beginning a day of pain, discovery, and exploration to the edge of the human spirit with the sounding of a conch shell. With that primal bellow, arms begin to spin, legs flail, and the ocean churns with the instant and urgent movement of so many bodies eager to move in this most intense of days. Photo flashes snap from beneath the water, capturing the tidal wave of athletes charging out into the sea, cheers from the crowd can be heard over the clapping of ones’ own strokes, bubbles enveloping face, ears, and neck. From the center of this mass, this swim is the epitome of chaos. Navigating this course, and the events that follow it, surviving to tell the victorious tale is certainly one of the reasons this swim is close to my heart.

But it is the time spent navigating these waters, long after the crowds have left the islands, that have swept me off my feet. Stroking through the waters with the pure, quiet, blue here is so special because it opens me up, brings a smile to my face, and brings me back to Earth in earnest. Unlike swims I recall in the South China Sea, I have no fear of the ocean – there are no currents that my brain tosses with. No eels might shoot out and bite my little toes, no rip tides to carry me to Antarctica, despite the fact that not so far off shore, the volcanic reef of this young island drops off into the immeasurable deep blue. Despite the fact that these are the most isolated islands in the world, thousands of miles from the closest body of land.

The vast nature of the ocean has a calming effect, reminding me that no matter how powerful I believe that my strokes are, no matter how many waves I feel my body, my movements make, I am nothing but a tiny speck in these waters. They will have their way with me. Carrying me out over troughs and waves, and back home again when my heart spins me around for home.

I’m not alone out here; many other swimmers navigate these waters daily. Some young, some older, many are fellow Iron-distance triathletes, and quite a few just love to swim in the open ocean. It’s common practice to raise your head from your stroke when passing a fellow swimmer. We greet each other, chat about the marvelous weather, primarily exchanging smiles through our steamy goggles. Then we turn, wishing our comrades well and turn out eyes back to the blue – sunlight dancing on the rocks beneath us as we cruise along the surface, fish playing. A resident spinner dolphin pod occasionally graces the morning, jumping, frolicking, and catching each of us silicone-capped admirers, jaw agape.

Back on shore, drying off in the sun – now high in the sky- I cannot help but feel balanced. Clean. As if I have ultimately connected somehow to something…larger.


You can find me here every chance I have when I visit Kona. This swim is usually the way that I open my time, and the way that I say goodbye to the island, though it never feels like a true farewell — something, bigger than me, keeps drawing me back to this place. Maybe it’s the swim.

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