Sharks Might Not Have Been the Scariest Part About Getting Back into the Ocean

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Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

 

I missed five calls from my mother. In the span of five minutes. I called her back. She picked up on the first ring. “Are you OK?” she asked.

“Yes, Mom. Why?”

“You didn’t answer the phone! Where are you?”

“In the laundry room.”

“I heard sirens and, you know me, I worry.”

“Mom, I’m 20 miles away. At my house.”

“I know. I know. You’re not swimming today are you?”

“In the pool or ocean?” I asked.

“Promise me you won’t swim in the ocean.”

Ever since my mother became homebound because of a knee and ankle injury, she’d watch the news from dawn to dusk. She’d call at least twice a day, oftentimes more. The call frequency increased in June 2016 when she discovered I participated in open-water training on Memorial Day weekend. The training at Corona del Mar beach was designed for beginning triathletes who were timid in the ocean.

My first open-water swim as an adult was my last for years. When I returned home from that swim, our coach notified us that one of our teammates had been bitten by a shark—mere hours after I had swum around the same buoys. Though her injuries were significant, she returned to competition five months later. I knew from my obsessive online searches that shark incidents in Orange County waters are incredibly rare, and only two people have died from shark bites in California waters since 2010.

“They found another one of my ‘friends’ in Huntington Beach this week,” my mother said.

“Friends” was her code word for sharks.

I took a quick breath. Should I tell her I registered for the Huntington Beach Pier Swim? The entrance fee was nonrefundable. But so was my life. If I didn’t set goals, I would never achieve them.

I considered lying to her just to end the conversation. I went with the truth.

“I am swimming in the ocean. I need to practice.”

“No.”

How would she stop me? Hide my goggles like she hid my Doc Marten boots in college?

“Think of the children. You are their mother.”

The following Sunday at our family lunch, my father, the family comedian, stuck a fork in his Parmesan chicken, looked over at me, and said with a sly smile, “The big guy was looking for you.”

I gestured toward my preschool-age daughters to try to signal, “Don’t let them hear you.” He pointed to the chocolate cake for my mother’s birthday and nodded to me. “You would have been very tasty.”

My parents’ words seeped into my subconscious. I Googled “sharks” and “Huntington Beach” so many times that the search engine pre-populated the field for me. I avoided the ocean because I was a dutiful daughter and a responsible mother. I was too proud to admit to my mother that I was afraid.

A few weeks later, I drove myself in the early morning drizzle to the HB Pier Swim, collected my T-shirt, and forfeited my race number in shame. I registered for the race again the next year hoping to overcome my fear, only to chicken out at the last minute.

Last year, Wendy, our new swim coach, chatted with us between sets at the pool. “What are your race goals this year?” she asked. Everyone chimed in except me. I confided that I hadn’t swum in the ocean since the shark incident in 2016.

“I swim every week at Shaw’s Cove in Laguna Beach,” she said. “It’s fantastic! Would you like me to take you out sometime?”

Wendy was an experienced swimmer training for a long-distance journey across the Catalina channel. She was the perfect guide. I said yes before I could think about it, and we set a date.

“It looks like a lagoon!” Wendy shouted as we descended the stairs to the cove. The conditions were perfect. Clear skies, temperate weather for April, and small waves. The juxtaposition of the green palm trees on the cliff against the azure skies and the whitewash of the waves looked like a postcard from the tropics. But when I dipped my toes in the water, it felt more like Antarctica.

I ran shivering back to our group. Wendy teased: “Are you gonna wear a wetsuit?” My teammates Zanne, Toshi, and Mary pulled their wetsuits on. I hated wetsuits. Swimming in a wetsuit was equivalent to being suffocated by sausage casing. If Wendy could swim without one in 56-degree water, so could I.

Sensing I might chicken out, Wendy, Zanne, and Mary hopped into the water knowing I would follow. Toshi held back, hesitant about the waves breaking on the shore. I waded into the frigid water. I was confident I could get past the waves, but was it safe to leave our belongings on shore? What if someone stole my keys? A surge of water splashed my swimsuit. I yelped expletives. Was it too much to ask for the ocean to warm up just a bit more?

Zanne dove into the water past the small wave break with gusto. I reluctantly dove in after her and kicked hard to catch up with the group. Wendy slowed to match my speed, facing me with each breath. I felt safe under her sisterly watch. Strong women, mothers with children of their own, surrounded me. I was buoyed by their bold, jovial spirits.

Unlike the others, I swam with my head out of the water. The ocean appeared to be a beautiful blue blanket from afar, but to lift the covers and peek underneath was frightening. What world of sea creatures moved below?

Stop freaking out, I told myself. If something happens, just swim back to shore. Fast.

With every breath and stroke, I tried to relax and trust the ocean. In the water, my daily concerns began to fade: problems at work, friendship woes, anxiety about the kids’ futures. I was humbled by the vast expanse.

“Oh, this is gorgeous!” gushed Mary treading water midway to the buoy. I marveled at her ability to be present and envied her carefree optimism.

A searing pain of cold hit the lymph nodes under my arms. My legs felt like they would freeze into popsicles if I didn’t keep moving. What if I die out here, alone? I kicked fast to keep pace with the others. With every stroke, I inhaled salty water.

I must return to my children, my precious children. Otherwise, my mother is going to kill me.

As we neared the buoy, Wendy yelled, “Guys, look behind you!” Toshi swam toward us with long strokes. She had overcome her own fear of breaking waves. Our team was reunited. Together, we tapped the buoy, high-fived, and took photos, a triumphant group of women in pink swim caps.

As we headed back to shore, we swam in formation like a pod of dolphins. The fear was gone, replaced by pure joy and camaraderie.

Weeks later at a family party, I showed my mother a photo of us at the buoy with our arms raised. Her face became pale.

“No.”

“Happy Mother’s Day!”

“But the children …”

I wanted to tell her that motherhood was why I swam in the ocean. I wanted to be the type of mother who was physically fit, achieved her goals, and faced the world with optimism, not fear.

“Promise me you won’t do it again,” she said.

“I am going to do it again, Mom. And next time, I’m taking the kids with us.”

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