Marathon Swimming Meets the Greater Lansing Area Sports Hall of Fame

The past several years have been an incredible journey. I’ve swam across the United States and around the world. I’ve met people of all different backgrounds and cultures, learning about their daily lives, dreams, and desires. I’ve watched as friends reframed thoughts on their potential and witnessed them achieve goals then raise the bar higher. I’ve embarked upon new relationships with athletes as a mentor and stood ashore as they started their own journey. I’ve worked with individuals, small business owners, local retailers, and large corporations to help raise over $10,000 supporting marine wildlife and oceanic conservation as well as the physical and mental health needs of our military.

My confidence has grown, my mind has expanded to places I didn’t know possible, and I’m reshaping my beliefs on what it means to live life every single day. What is the one thing that has allowed all of this to happen? Open water swimming. And on this day, December 30, 2019, where I have officially been announced as an inductee into the Greater Lansing Area Sports Hall of Fame for the Class of 2019, I want to take a moment to look back on how it all began and why this honor is not just for me, but for all of us.

My introduction to the water was as a baby at the YMCA with my mom. From there I took swim lessons, learned about lakes at my grandparent’s house followed by a warm tea kettle bath, discovered my favorite swimming hole up North during vacation at the Kegler family cabin, and joined the Holt swim team once I got to high school. One day while sitting in Mrs. Larner’s algebra class, she mentioned her son went to Alma College because they had a good business program. I don’t remember anything else she said after that, but Alma was something I never forgot. When I got to my Senior year, I remember sitting in the pool office on deck with my coach, Sean Donegan. He told me I was good enough to swim in college if I wanted to. Being a college athlete wasn’t ever something I had considered, but I immediately thought of Mrs. Larner’s comment about Alma College and I began to wonder if it was something I could actually do. Could I be a college athlete?

I started the application process for Alma, the only school I wanted to apply for, and got accepted with an academic scholarship. Unknowingly, going to Alma would introduce me to a person who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. At Alma I met Bill Copland, who I swam with over the summers at Delphinus Swim Club in Lansing. He timed each lap, helped me reach my goals in making my first Masters mile national cut, and encouraged me to continue swimming after college and through a move to Virginia. It was because of Bill I kept going, searching for my place in the swimming world.

While in Virginia, I tried several Masters groups across the region, but nothing felt quite like swimming at home. Then one afternoon, my mom called and said my Aunt who lived in Florida had an injury and couldn’t do her triathlon, but may be able to switch her category to a relay. My sister, mom and I made a girl’s trip out of it and that is when I discovered what would be a lifelong passion, open water swimming.

It was a half mile open water swim and I was terrified! I’d never been in a race before, didn’t know what to do, just knew it was in Florida and I’d probably be eaten by an alligator or something. We were assured there weren’t any…… only to see one the day we arrived walking out of a pond at the hotel. See, my sister and I were right! The day of the race came, I was doing the swim, my Aunt the bike, and my sister the run. I stood at the back of the pack at the waters edge, waited for everyone to go in so I could see what they did, then I followed. One by one I passed them and exited the water close to the front of the pack. I was hooked! What was this open water swimming thing? What did I just do and how on earth did something so new feel so right?!

I couldn’t get this open water business out of my head, so I researched and found a swim at Virginia Beach called the Jack King Ocean Swim. It was a 1-mile swim and I knew I just had to try. It was really tough for me, my first ocean swim, my first open water mile and I loved it! This eventually became an annual sister swim where it took me three years, but I won the second place wooden duck that I had my eye on from day one. A beautiful green wooden mallard duck made by a local artist.

After the mile swim, one became two, became three as I added a mile each year for the Harbor Springs Coastal Crawl, my all-time favorite swim in my home state of Michigan (also has the best post-swim BBQ chicken sandwich pretty much ever). After the three mile, I took some lessons at the community pool in Virginia to make sure my stroke didn’t get sloppy. My instructor, David, asked “So, when are you going to swim the English Channel?” For the first time in my life there was this monumental challenge, an area of swimming I was completely unfamiliar with, a complete naivety to the amount of training required, and it didn’t scare me. I was curious, intrigued, you name it, I felt it and it was all positive. I’ve never felt so sure about doing something that I had no clue about in my life. Up to this point, it was the one thing where I never really doubted what I thought I could do as long as I worked hard. My dad was the first person I told, the first time I said English Channel out loud.

You see, I’ve had to work hard for everything my whole life. I was smart in school, top 10 in my graduating class, but I had to study…. a lot. I was good at the breaststroke, but I had to train really hard. I am successful at work, but it’s because I am persistent and determined. All the years of people encouraging, challenging, and pushing me to be my best was for this moment, the moment the English Channel didn’t scare me. It was something I was meant to do, I was sure of it. I signed up for Alcatraz as my first intro to cold water swimming, to see how it felt and it was yet another life changing moment. The feeling of being cold and the odd comfort of the surrounding water transcended anything I had ever done up to that point.

When I moved to Seattle, I met Ben Bigglestone (friend, mentor, coach extraordinaire) who told me to go to Alki Beach, where I discovered true cold water swimming. I remember the first day I drove to Alki. It was in November, sunny, not a cloud in the sky. I drove over the hill, I saw the snow-covered Olympic Mountains shining like a million diamonds over the sparkling Puget Sound and my love affair with the sea began. I say love affair because that’s exactly how it felt. That moment you just know, when butterflies flutter in your stomach at every sight, and you feel the whole world move. One look is all it took and my journey to swim the English Channel had officially begun.

After that day, I met and formed relationships with tons of people who you’ve all read about in my previous blog posts. Some I met randomly on adventures sea to sky and others through community groups such as my teammates at VO2 Multisport or the Notorious Alki Swimmers. Many relationships also formed through work with colleagues and clients as well as others through social media and other professional organizations. While the purpose and meaning of each relationship formed was unique, everyone I have met played a role of support on the journey to becoming a Triple Crown Swimmer.

You see, I initially had only wanted to do the English Channel, but it’s because of everyone who I had met that the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming came into my sights (English Channel, Catalina Channel and Manhattan Island circumnavigation). As I continued swimming, my perception changed over time with the more I learned, with the more people I met, and the greater my relationship grew with the water. The glass ceiling I had placed on what I thought I could achieve shattered a little bit more with each stroke, with each swim, with each person I met until there was no longer a ceiling. Open water swimming, in particular marathon swimming, opened the floodgates and allowed my mind to experience uninhibited freedom in regards to what I was capable of.

It was during this time I learned about the Triple Crown. I thought I knew how much dedication and determination it would take to accomplish such a feat. I thought I knew how much I would have to sacrifice, the new relationships I would have to make, and how deep I would have to go mentally to get there. The truth is, it was so much more than I ever anticipated it to be, but I wanted it. I wanted to go there, to explore what it would take, to determine if dreams could become tangible. I wanted to know if I could face my fears if the goal demanded it. I wanted my name on that list. I worked hard, I got it.

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine and quantify how much I had to sacrifice, how open and vulnerable I had to allow myself to be, and how fearlessly I had to face the unknown to achieve such a goal. All I can really make out of it is you. The people I met along the way who taught me how to swim, who gave me the idea to go to the college I chose, the motivation to keep swimming, the encouragement to dare to dream. Most importantly, everyone who didn’t know they were contributing in such magnitude, whose small gesture didn’t go unnoticed, who had a smile, gave a high-five, a thumbs up, a like, a hug, a text. Those who asked questions and took time to listen, who helped me when I didn’t think I could make it through, who provided thoughts, prayers, and spoke to the sea. All of you contributed and for that I am grateful.

Whew! That was a long story of how we all got to this point, but it’s taken a lifetime of dedication, commitment and relationships to get here….. and a lot of ice cream. There are so many points in my life, single moments, where I can remember a sole interaction with a person, one comment that has changed the course of my life. This honor, being a Greater Lansing Area Sports Hall of Fame inductee is for everyone. It’s for each moment, for each relationship that helped move that finish line a little bit further. This honor is for my home city of Holt, for my home state of Michigan, and for my family who taught me how to respect and care for people, nature, and the water. It is for each coach, mentor, and friend who provided guidance and taught me that no goal can be achieved alone. This honor is for my sport, for open water swimmers, for marathon swimmers, and for those just beginning to form their own ideas and opinions about the water.

In reality it’s much more than an honor. It’s a celebration of relationships, how one moment can impact the lives of everyone around you. I don’t know what’s next, but what I do know, as I lace up my hiking boots and tie down my swim top, is that I’ll wander into the wild with you by my side, always, and not take anything for granted.

 

Lots of swimmy love,

Melissa

Greater Lansing Area Hall of Fame - Class of 2019.jpg

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