After my college swimming career, I moved on to real life. I met Susan on a railroad train commuting to my first job in banking. We were married in 1986, and our first child (he is named for my father, David, but has been “Mack” since he came home from the hospital) was born a year later in 1987. The 1980s and 1990s were filled with building our family – Billy in 1992, Gordy in 1994 and Ashley in 1998 – and building careers. Our lives were becoming wonderfully filled, but hopelessly overscheduled and chaotic.
During this time, I swam inconsistently. Then I discovered open water swimming, which is a whole new experience. At first, it was just a reason to stay in the water and to have something for which to train. Training makes you better at everything; you feel better, you function better, you sleep better, and you think better.
Open water swimming was always sort of out there, but never something I did seriously. Our family has been involved in YMCA Camp Edwards in southern Wisconsin since the 1960s. One of the really terrific things we do is a Labor Day Family Camp with the families of many cousins and friends. One of the challenges Camp provides is an open water swim to nearby Buck Island. It is about 1,000 yards, and is great fun to be out there and watch the sun come up on an early morning of Labor Day weekend, and most of us participate in it.
A brother-in-law, Don Peterson, suggested that I jump into a more organized open water swim. Don played college football, and now has a very impressive pedigree as a triathlete, including Ironman distance events. Don’s weakest event in a tri is swimming, but he has really persevered by getting advice from good coaches and by training his ass off. I am simply awed when I hear about someone who has picked up swimming a little later in life and has dedicated themselves to really getting good at it, and that is Don Peterson. So, Don suggested in 2006 that we participate in a two-mile swim being organized nearby. I thought that sounded like a lot of fun, and we made plans to go together.
So much of open water swimming is trying something you haven’t done before, and proving to yourself that you can do it. The Buck Island swim is a 1,000 yards, but the Lake in the Hills swim is two miles. I go through the process of asking myself, “Will I have a problem with that?” When you realize that two miles is just not that big of a deal, you sign up for a three mile swim, and the stair steps begin. For me, it has been a progression, and these “swimming challenges” are really mental challenges, and that each plays a part in teaching and reminding me that I have the background, I have the training, I have the ability, I can take the next step, and I can accomplish the goal.
Open water swimming is different because it is so varied. So much of pool swimming is the process of removing variables that could impair a competitive performance and open water swimming adds them all back in. Water temperature and waves are just at the top of the list when you may have to contend with wind, currents, tides, boats and other swimmers.