St. Croix Coral Reef Five-Mile Swim

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Written by Susan Kasimer of McLean, VA and Sport Fair

The time on my cell phone switched to 5 a.m., and as the alarm began to go off I practically hit the ceiling. I’m up, I thought. The Big Day is finally here. After so much physical training, mental preparation, and anticipation, my five-mile swim was staring me in the face. To make it even better, my dad wanted to do the two-mile race with fins again, my sister Lauren had agreed to do the two-mile race, and Lance, Lauren’s husband, was coming along for fun and support. As usual, I had my two open-water swim race goals—to be the best-dressed athlete, and to finish the race.

I was quite nervous, but felt prepared as I got into my beautiful custom Splish suit (with “Curly Sue” on the back), designed by Bryan, one of our artistically talented employees at the store. It was pink, yellow, and had flowers all over it—just the way I like it! After two peanut butter sandwiches, two mugs of tea, and mulling over what I thought I had forgotten, I headed out the door to meet the taxis, which we were to take from the resort to the ferry dock.

Once I got there and took my place in line to get my body marked with my race number, some of the other athletes started to notice my suit and how my nails and sandals just happened to match it. It was then that I met Alex, who won this race nine times. On the ferry ride to Buck Island, the race start, I couldn’t help noticing how choppy the water seemed compared to two years before. I tried to dismiss it as wake from other boats or a sudden gust of wind, but I got a sinking feeling that I was in for much more than I had bargained for. The water at the Chesapeake Bay Swim back in June had been choppy as well, and I made it through that one, so I tried to relax and thought about what I might get to see on the bottom. The boat dropped us off about 25 yards shy of the island, where we jumped off into the water and swam up to the beach. The water was probably a balmy 84 degrees and a crystal clear turquoise. We took our spots, lined up against the beach, and before I knew it, the race had begun. I stayed close to the back to let the crowd disperse in front of me, and disperse they certainly did.

At this point, however, I noticed how rough the water felt and how I didn’t feel as if I was making much forward progression. The “V” made by two mountains in the distance (our first landmark) seemed awfully far away, with only a handful of yellow buoys to guide our way. As the sea bottom grew further away from me, I began to notice the swells, which were about three feet—enough to make sighting the yellow buoys a difficult task. I began to veer off course, and fortunately realized this quickly and got back on track. Once I passed the first yellow buoy I was hard pressed to find the second one. There was no one around me but one other man, and he was having trouble spotting it too, but he pointed the buoy out and we were on our way. After the second yellow buoy I found myself alone and not seeing the orange buoy and boat that signaled the first water stop. I figured I had just missed it and started toward our next landmark, a green-roofed house.

Five minutes passed, and suddenly I noticed a boat pull up next to me. A guy with a megaphone shouted to me that I was way off course and needed to head towards a point far to my left—a large orange buoy on a boat! I thanked them and cut to my left, having to swim against the current to get there, which was quite challenging. I was also starting to feel kind of sick from the swells and I figured that some water and Power Gel at the boat would make me feel better. It was a long haul to get back on course and I was growing frustrated with my situation. Once I reached the boat I chugged some water and one of my two packs of Power Gel (stashed in my suit). I really didn’t feel much better after that, but I pressed on, hoping that as the water and gel set in I would come out of the nausea.

As I continued towards the house and a yellow buoy I felt myself get off track several times. I was now swimming with the current but the swells were still present, making me feel like I wasn’t going anywhere. What kept me knowing I was moving forward was that I could see the grassy areas passing by on the bottom. I was still feeling quite sick and contemplated taking my cap off and quitting the race. But I pressed on, knowing that I had done a lot of training and eventually the race was going to end. It was then that I felt a higher power was looking out for me. All along the channel crossing (up to the boat with the orange buoy) I had only seen one stingray and nothing else that was too interesting.

Suddenly I came upon a whole area of brain corals, seaweed, and fish, which made me momentarily forget about feeling sick and tired—a reward for staying in the race! As I struggled some more and thought about quitting, I came upon another area similar to the one I just passed, and this time, saw a spotted stingray and colorful fish! I reminded myself that these sightings were what made the race special, and I pressed on, still through the nausea and sore arms. I came up to the second water boat and drank almost the entire water bottle they gave me, along with my second (and last) Power Gel, hoping that I would not feel worse because of it. And so I continued, this time watching out for the final sighting point—a sailboat with two masts, which was our point to turn to the left and head towards the finish. I felt terrible by this point, as my stomach kept churning and now I was getting physically tired, not from the swim but from the constant battle against swells.

Eventually the masts grew closer as I completed the fourth mile and thought about all the friends and family I had rooting for me, even though they weren’t there physically with me, and that kept me going. I came upon the last boat, and I was pleasantly surprised that they had water, and joined two others who were at the same point in the race that I was. As I entered the final 500 meters to swim straight into the beach, I found that the swells had gone down considerably and felt I was finally swimming without fighting the water. The nausea had not gone away but I told myself I was in the final stretch and kept onwards. I came to see the orange buoys and palm fronds that graced the finish area, and I put my head down and tried to enjoy the moment, as the last 25 meters only contained still waters. My hands scraped the sand and I stood up, wobbling, and attempted to run through the finish line, making sure to smile and look happy for my finish pictures. I had done it! And there were my dad, Lauren, and Lance (her husband) recording my finish on Lauren’s phone.

My elation over completing the race quickly diminished into dismay when I found out that Lauren had not been able to finish her race due to getting sick at the last boat and subsequently got pulled out. I was devastated as I wanted more than anything (my above goals not withstanding) for my sister to enjoy the swim and the experience, as she had worked her butt off to get back in shape for the swim. She deserved to cross the finish, with lines of people cheering for her, and the situation that happened was not how I wanted it to end for her at all.

As I recovered from the nausea with Powerade and Coke (the drinks of champions), I saw Alex and asked him if he won, and the answer was yes! I congratulated him on his 10th victory in the race, and as we talked, I met his family. We took a few pictures of the two of us to send to Splish, and then I took him over to meet my family. Upon hearing that Lauren was unable to finish the race, he sat down with her and told a story of a race he was in a number of years ago, where the same situation had happened to him, and how sometimes it’s just not your day or race. I was shocked to hear his story—that someone of his swimming caliber had a less than perfect race—but at the same time we were so grateful of his words. It appeared to make her a bit more accepting of the situation but I was still so bummed for her.

My dad had won the Men’s Two Mile fin division, so the four of us went into town to get him his winner’s hook bracelet (you can only get one of this specific design by placing in the race) and to see me off on the seaplane to St. Thomas, the second part of my vacation! As my dad and I walked into the jewelry store (Lauren and Lance arrived in a second taxi), who was there but Alex! My dad expressed to Alex how thankful he was for Alex to share his story with Lauren. I continued talking with him as my dad was fitted for his bracelet. When I asked Alex what he did with all his bracelets, he responded that he gave them to family members. What a kind, gracious, and good-natured person he was.

Just then, Lauren and Lance walked in, and my dad said he had something to give her. He unhooked the bracelet off of his wrist and put it on my sister. At that moment I felt a great weight came off my shoulders and I could be happy for all three of us that had done the race. It was meant to be that she could reap the rewards of the race through a matching bracelet owned by both my dad and I–we both had won our divisions of the two-mile race in 2008—an experience, much like the bracelet, that cannot be bought, but must be earned.

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