I did not expect to learn life lessons in the Hudson River.
My first visit to the Statue of Liberty was on a school field trip when I was around eight. Gray sky above, I snapped a black and white photo of her from the deck of the ferry with my box camera. We happily marched up the many steps to her crown to look out at New York Harbor. Since that day years ago, I have watched her from afar, most notably during Operation Sail with the parade of tall ships in the foreground, but no less majestically from the deck of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the window of a jet approaching JFK airport.
Then I swam around her.
These days, the law does not allow climbing to Liberty’s crown, and swimming around her requires an organized event, sanctioned by the Coast Guard. So my journey began with an introduction to NY City Swim and its sponsored swim around Liberty. I’ll sign up, I thought, as the idea of swimming around our monument to freedom caught my imagination. Not so fast. I had to qualify by swimming 1500 meters in a pool in 35 minutes.
My fist attempt at qualification was about twenty percent off pace, so I had work to do. I sought out a coach, who told me it would take eight months to get up to speed. With 3 months to go before the swim, I was out of luck for a year. So I learned swim technique and swam—a lot. The following year I qualified with a time of exactly 35 minutes, and I was on my way to the Hudson.
Scheduling a day and start time for the swim depends not only on ferry traffic but also on the tide, as currents in and out on New York Harbor can be very swift, particularly at the Statue of Liberty. Repair of storm damage caused a change in the starting point from the New Jersey side to the the New York side of Liberty Island, resulting in the strongest tide pushing against the swimmers at the end of the race. If the race were delayed, the current would wreak havoc with slower swimmers.
On an August afternoon, I shared a picnic with family at Liberty State Park in New Jersey before boarding the ferry to Liberty Island. Start time for the swim was 6 PM.
The wind was calm when I stepped off the ferry and looked over to Lady Liberty, but gone was the lazy path to her base I remembered from my field trip. Now she was surrounded by tents, turnstiles and vendors hawking audio sets for guided tours.
As I sat under a maple tree before start time, I felt the wind pick up. Waves grew bigger, and soon white caps covered the harbor.
We lined up and expected a timely start, but the tourist ferries didn’t clear the way as planned, and the delay allowed the tide and current to build while I started to shiver.
Dusk was descending after an hour’s wait in the wind in our bathing suits, caps and goggles. Suddenly the line moved and I jumped into the Hudson. My first thought was, “I’m in trouble.” The waves were breaking over my head, the current was against me until I made it around the back of the island, and other swimmers were thrashing in the water. A second after my “trouble” thought I realized I was in the water, not going back, and I was ready to die right there if I had to. So I put my head down and found a rhythm.
The rhythm of a steady stroke carried me through the current and around the back of the island. Making the turn, I crossed into New Jersey, with the current giving me a push, and I relaxed as I approached Lady Liberty’ s right flank, her torch coming onto view.
I rounded her uplifted right hand and pushed through the churning water at the head of the channel. Almost there, I thought, as every other breath allowed a glimpse of her over my left shoulder. I read the tablet resting on her left arm as the lights came on in her crown.
By now it was dark. I saw blue lights of police boats at the finish. I figured I was about 100 yards from the finish on the New York side when I heard a whistle from one the civilian event boats.
“Get out of the water!” A voiced yelled at me.
I swam toward the boat.
“What did I do wrong?” I asked the man pointing to the boat ladder.
“Nothing. Race is over.”
I dutifully obeyed, while noticing another swimmer ignore a similar whistle.
I climbed into the boat as the wind did its work on my core temperature. To make sure all swimmers were out of the water, the captain waited about 20 minutes before attempting to dock at the finish line. The current was preventing him from negotiating a drop off at the floating dock, so he ordered me back into the water to swim to it.
About five yards from the dock, I jumped back into the water as directed, and was hit with a torrential current pulling me away from the dock ladder. I mustered all my strength to swim to those steps. Finally I touched metal and pulled myself out.
There were no lights, no medals and the hamburgers were long gone. A single stray grape littered the sidewalk. None of that mattered, though, as I remembered feeling that if I never left the water that day, I had lived a full life.
Heeding the whistle and boarding the boat short of the “finish” teaches a lesson we might share with patients: reaching the end is not the point. The meaning of a swim around Liberty and our time on the planet is what we do while in the water and in life—not out of it. As my dogs remind me: lick, play, nap—not necessarily in that order—as joy is in the moment, not the end.
Might such thinking replace “targets” such as a blood pressure reading, a weight on the scale, or the number of years we survive on the earth? How about the savor of life right now?
It took some time for me to understand that DNF (did not finish) in a race or in life is not a bad thing. I saw Lady Liberty from all sides while swimming around her home in the Hudson River. I am free, I was there, and I am living. That’s what matters to all of us.
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