The morning of Friday, January 14, 2022, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, an underwater volcano who’s top just reaches the surface of the ocean to form a small uninhabited volcanic island in the Tongan archipelago of the South Pacific Ocean, began to erupt. This eruption set off a tsunami that reached the waters of Puget Sound and Alki Beach around 10:30am on Saturday, January 15, 2022. While the devastation of the tsunami closer to the epicenter was sizable, by the time the waters reached the Greater Seattle area some 5,670-ish miles away, the effects of the volcanic eruption had reduced to ripples across the water’s surface.
After receiving the tsunami advisory a couple hours earlier, the group of swimmers that regularly flock to Alki Beach discussed and determined it was safe to swim for our particular location. In the water, we could feel something strong surge, the currents pick up, the sea grass flatten, and we were pushed parallel and into shore all at the same time. The morning was eerie, not a difference in color between the water’s surface and the foggy skyline, but one of the most beautiful mornings with glass flat water as far as the eye could see. When the ripples came the glass surface became distorted. It was a new experience for all of us and reminded us that we are all connected, specifically by water, as it shifts shape throughout regions and time. This was the ripple effect, the connecting of people by filling space with energy, that energy being water.
That same morning the skyline lit up with orange and yellow and pink and purple as the sun rose over Lake Desire in Renton, WA. I was busy packing my swim gear, rewarming supplies, and sugary snacks (a lesson learned from last season’s ice mile) while Glenn and Kirby were already on lake setting up the swim course. The swim course was re-designed the night before to consist of 4x550m loops, circling back to the dock in the middle of each loop so that at no point in time I was swimming further than 137.5m to each side and no more than 20m from the shoreline. Each time I would pass by the dock, my stroke count would be taken by Stacey and I would verbally check in with Dr. Will, my medical official, and the crew so they could assess how I was doing. If my stoke count dropped too low or I wasn’t speaking coherently, regardless of how I felt, they had the authority to call the swim and pull me from the water.
After arriving at Lake Desire, my observer (and my mom) who has been involved with athletics and sports for most of her career, gave the pre-swim safety briefing to my Support Crew, explaining what the swim was, the goals, reviewing the safety plan exit criteria, risks of the swim, risks of hypothermia, and what to expect for the most dangerous part of the swim, the after-drop. As Glenn finished setting up the course with Kirby, one of my safety kayakers, we all got together to have one last safety chat before the swim began. I wanted to ensure people knew I would be hypothermic upon exit, not if, but a medical certainty, and what to expect so we could get going on re-warming as quickly as possible. Being hypothermic and numb, I would likely not be able to change my own clothes or respond much to direction, which is why it’s important to set expectations with your crew, hold me, change me, layer me, feed me, and make sure I’m safe. As Sadie mentioned, pretend I’m a toddler and make decisions for me! Once the safety and swim briefing was done, I slipped off my bright pink Red Original changing robe, started down the ladder into the water, which was reading anywhere between 3.9 and 4.1C (39F), and began my count down 1, 2…. Oops, not ready. 1, 2….. ugh, not again. 1, 2…. go.
As I slid in the water I was shaking. I had been shaking all morning I was so nervous and for a split second I wondered to myself, how did I even get here? Is this even a good idea? I don’t know… just swim. Just relax. Remember your breathing. Just swim. As I was getting my breath adjusted, I turned to one of my safety kayakers and said, “don’t leave me in the lake. Stay with me, don’t leave me.” I was scared, not so much of the ice mile itself, which was designed into the course to be the first three loops, but the 4th loop. The uncharted territory past the mile that you don’t really hear about. Would it be the same, would it be different, would I be okay? I had two safety kayakers, one who was also tracking my swim via handheld GPS, and also a safety SUPer, Ofer, who is a teammate on my triathlon team, VO2 Multisport where I am a swim coach. Most everyone else was from my open water group that practices at Alki Beach, the Notorious Alki Swimmers, but having Ofer there with an SUP in hindsight was critical for safety. Since he was closest to the water surface, he was also my designated bail out person. He was fully wet-suited and if something happened, he would be closest to get me and pull me onto his board. Jeff, who was also fully wet-suited, was my designated safety swimmer. Should something have happened, he would jump in to swim to get out to me and help Ofer. Thankfully we didn’t need an emergency rescue, but it was nevertheless a critical and important part of the plan.
As I rounded the first loop, I mentioned I was okay, verbally checking in with my crew and I headed off to start the second loop. During the second loop I remember starting to feel a little cold. Nothing bad, but just cold, and then I started questioning whether I had made the right choice. Was the jump from the ice mile to an ice 2.2K too much? Had I trained enough? Why am I feeling cold already, I mean it’s only been 700-ish meters? I could feel my mouth starting to tighten and go numb when I breathed, it was disheartening a little bit because I thought I trained better for this. I had spent months chasing the cold, swimming in different bodies of water all around Washington state, taking ice baths, why was I getting numb already? I thought I trained better than this?
If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s communication. A lot of people, in my experience, believe they shouldn’t tell their crew or medical official something that’s going on because they’re too embarrassed, they don’t want to be pulled from their swim, etc. For me, it’s important to communicate and tell them everything. After all, that is what they are there for and if you don’t mention something and an accident happens that could have been prevented, you’ve all of a sudden put a huge burden in their hands and hearts. It’s not cool, so upon lap 2 check-in, I said I was numb, but that I was going. Sadie was in charge of getting all the photos and videos required for documenting the swim. Looking back at the videos, I could hear numbness in my voice, so my assessment of being numb was accurate!
Lap 3 begins, no issues, then mid-way through the straightaway to the second turn my ears started to ring. This was something that happened last year, so it wasn’t anything new, and my stomach started to feel sick. I knew the effects of cold-water immersion and hypothermia were creeping in. I kept an eye on it and it only seemed to get worse with each stroke, the ringing got louder, and I thought I was going to throw up a few times. I felt like I could feel my internal organs shaking. It is a very strange feeling, but not unfamiliar to me in cold conditions. After the second buoy turn, I was questioning whether I should take the 4th lap or not. Is it a good idea? Am I doing too much? I don’t know, but I checked in at the dock and out of my mouth I said I felt sick, but that I was going. I could see my mom in pink, Sadie in her umbrella hat, Dr. Will on the edge of the platform, and Jeff ready if something happened. They were my focal points and at that very moment just decided. I had to go for it. I had a safety plan. My friends love me and if I am in trouble they will pull me. I felt good enough to try as this ice mile felt stronger than last year’s and I felt the ripple effect of love and support. I’m going, I have to try.
The fourth lap is where everything fell apart. Rounding the first buoy it occurred to me I didn’t know if I was starting to forget things or not. For me if I have a focus it helps, so I used Dr. Will as my focus and I repeated to myself, “I have to tell Will when I finish that I don’t know if I remember things. I think I do and if I can remember to remind myself then that means I’m currently remembering things, so I’m fine because I remember chicken sandwich.”
“What? Chicken sandwich, how’d that thought get into my head? Where did chicken sandwich come from? I don’t need to remember that, I need to remember to tell Will I’m not sure if I remember. Chicken sandwich with ranch. I don’t think I’d like that but maybe. Stop Melissa, no chicken sandwiches, just remember to tell Will you don’t know if you remember. Why is there cold water between my thighs? I have thick thighs and water doesn’t go there when I do freestyle kick. Why did my leg move? Oh my gosh, was that an involuntary breaststroke kick? I think I’m going through muscle failure right now. Is this what this feels like? I need to tell Will this, and that I don’t think I remember, and I need to stop thinking about chicken sandwiches. How much longer is this going to take? Where is the next buoy, this is taking absolutely forever. I just want to be……”
“You’re done, that’s it, you’re done.” Glenn had yelled I was done and what a relief. I turned around, heard all the whoops and hollers from my crew, swam back to the dock, and as soon as I touched the ladder, I heard Heidi, who was my designated 911 caller and timekeeper, yell she had the time. I remember getting stuck on the first step going up the ladder, grabbing my mom and Jeff’s arm as they helped me up, unable to let go. I couldn’t get the drawstring of my bikini bottom untied in the water (thanks to numb fingers) and remember repeating over and over again to Sadie and Stacey they needed to get my suit untied to get it off. I remember getting inside, being changed, seeing Stacey’s hair and focusing on that, but I don’t remember hearing much of anything. I remember feeling sick, being there and seeing things, but I can’t comprehend what. I remember hearing sounds. I remember Dr. Will asking me, “Do you know where you are?” and replying “I’m at Kirby’s house.” That’s the last thing I really remember clearly before turning to Dr. Will a while later, him sitting on the couch, me all bundled up, and realizing he was there. And I mean actually physically there. I could actually see him and understand I was seeing him. I looked around the room and for the first time in nearly a half an hour I could really “see” people and my brain could comprehend they were there. It took another 15 or so minutes before I was smiling and fully recovered, but that feeling of full comprehension and “seeing” my friends was the best!
The thing about the after-drop is that it is the most dangerous part of a cold-water swim as your body is recovering from a self-induced hypothermic state. Your pulse is racing, you have that “no one’s home” look, you can hear noises, see people talking to you, but you have no clue what is going on. You don’t understand words and aren’t capable of speaking words. The brain is in a dense fog unable to process anything. During cold water swimming, your extremities cut off or minimize blood flow in order to keep your core warm. In rewarming, after-drop occurs, where the extremities open back up, the blood flows in, but also brings all the cold blood back to your heart and core, further dropping your body temperature. Your heart is racing, sometimes hyperventilating, you’re trying to catch your breath, can’t process sound, and you see things, but can’t recognize what the things you are seeing are. It’s almost like this catatonic or incapacitated state where you’re there, but your brain is disconnected from your body. Your body is trying to survive and as a part of that, remembering things is not a priority.
Recovery Photos by Dan McComb, http://www.danmccomb.com/
I can only imagine what this looks like to my friends and loved ones, which is why it was important for me to let them know what was going to happen. I know the first time I saw someone incapacitated at a swim event it brought me to tears and the first time I saw someone die at a swim event, it was one of those moments where you don’t even know what to say or do. You’re in shock. For me, it takes me about 45 minutes to fully recover, or at least that is what I was expecting, and we were right on schedule. I say we because that’s exactly what it was, we. Recovery is a team activity, it is team support, and it takes a lot to get warm. Cold-water hypothermia is no joke and without a sound and experienced Support Crew, the outcome may have been very different. Some people asked why I had so many people there, my response was simple. I needed them. I wanted each person to have a single job to focus on then have people there that knew me as a person, as a swimmer, as a coach, as a teammate, as a friend, as a loved one, that could help me get through the worst part of the swim, where the darkness starts to creep in from around the corner. My support crew was my light and if you have enough light, there’s no room for darkness.
How did I even get here? That’s a question I ask myself a lot.
After we wrapped up and went home, the pain set in from forcing your muscles to extend when physiologically shutting down to save your life. The force extension of a stroke on constricted muscles causes micro-tears and tissue damage that feel like all over body bruises in the days and sometimes weeks to come. I was determined to go to Alki the next day to see my friends who couldn’t be there, regardless of how I felt. When I arrived I saw Guila, who is the owner and founder of Say YES! to Life Swims. Sadie mentioned she did one of her swims and Guila asked the group what their goals were. Sadie didn’t know, but formulated a plan for a 2 mile swim with some friends. The 2 miles didn’t seem like enough, so they chose 2.2 instead. I overhead this conversation one day at Alki and before you knew it we were planning a course, I was kayaking, and told Sadie, “if you make the 2.2 miles, I’ll make my ice swim 2.2K this year.” That was the start of a great friendship, that is how swim plans are made, and this swim was the result of the ripple effect. That ripple from Guila, to Sadie, to me, and now to….. you perhaps.
It astonishes me to this day how the words of one person or the actions by one person can have lasting impact. The ripples from those words or actions, affecting so many things, connecting all of us just as the water does. That one person who asked me if I was going to swim the English Channel led me here today, connected by water, because it got me into cold water swimming. That one statement Guila made about goals resulted in a new friendship, an opportunity for all my Support Crew to learn something new, to teach each other, it created memories, and is spurring new ideas about where they want to go in swimming or how they will support other swimmers, all of us connected by water. Maybe they don’t know what they want to do just yet, I don’t even know where I want to go just yet, and maybe that’s because the energy from this ripple hasn’t reached where it’s supposed to be. Only time will tell, but for now, I’m warm, I’m happy, I’ve been able to share this experience with friends and family whom I love and respect. Where we go from here, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. The water connects all of us and it is because of that connection the ripple effect continues indefinitely.
Lots of cold love,
BIG THANK YOU to my support crew: Rebecca Kegler, Gleb Lunev, Kirby Drawbaugh, Will Washington, Heidi Skrzypek, Stacey Sterling, Sadie Schnitzler, Ofer Levy, and Jeff Crombie. Thank you Jerome Leslie for all your support, guidance, and observing my qualifying swim. Thank you Dan McComb and crew for capturing the process beginning to end, more to come soon!
Stats: Final distance swam 2.25K in a time of 51min 26sec, average water temp 4.0C/39.2F
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