Going the Distance


Alex Meyer swimming at the 2009 Open Water World Championships.

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Behind my parents’ house in Michigan, through the woods, is a small pond. Over the years I’ve calculated it to be about 35m across -- maybe more like 50m from muck to muck, but most lap swimmers in this pond generally try to stay away from crawfish and ducks and mud-resting turtles. Whenever I feel burned out from “pool swimming” I come here. Returning to this Michigan pond of isolation is a welcome relief. It’s a place to be alone, to churn through open, wild, and free waters…

Alex Meyer, USA’s competitor in tomorrow’s open water 10km race, has his own pond he likes to return to and swim in. It’s quiet. Relatively secluded. It’s a place he can go to get away from the hustle and bustle of normal life. And it’s the same place Henry David Thoreau once wrote his ode to the quiet life – Walden Pond.

He trains in Walden occasionally, among the serene, glass-like waters of the Northeastern United States, in 60-degree water. These pursuits of Meyers have been well documented, but it wasn’t until I ventured back to my own secluded Michigan pond that I appreciated the beauty of Meyer’s journey, as well as a unique paradox of tomorrow’s open water 10km event.

Swimming is a lonely sport sometimes. Not always – but sometimes. The sheer nature of the element of water forbids you from hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting other “land” senses. You hear the water, but little else. You can communicate with coaches, but not really. You see other teammates and/or competitors, but barely.

Rather, there is water, and you.

In open water swimming, this solitude is magnified. It’s the “marathon” of swimming, except you don’t have the aid of thousands of screaming fans piercing your eardrum. When you swim the final laps, there are not 100,000 people screaming your name like at the Olympic Stadium. You wouldn’t hear them anyway. In the water, you’re stuck with that little monster of your inner voice sitting on your shoulder, telling you how much it hurts, how far behind you are, how you might not make it. And there’s no one else – no teammates, no coaches, no competitors – who will make that monster go away, except you. Open water swimming is an event of isolation. It can be lonely. It’s all up to you.

There are no helping voices, helping teammates, or helping hands.

And yet, here’s the paradox in tomorrow’s open water 10km: Alex Meyer couldn’t have made it here without the helping hand of a man who is no longer with us, Fran Crippen. Fran tragically passed away almost two years ago in a FINA open water race in the United Arab Emirates. Meyer swims in Fran’s honor tomorrow. He carries a picture with Fran to each race. He will carry Fran’s legacy every inch of tomorrow’s 10km. Fran’s passing has inspired and motivated Meyer to push himself harder, faster, and farther. It’s pushed him all the way to London. It’s a unique story of a lonely and isolated sport not at all lonely, not at all isolated.

On the one hand, open water swimming is completely self-reliant. You’re stuck in the waves, out alone in the waters. You’re by yourself, among turtles and muck and ducks and lonely, lazy waves. But on the other hand, no swimmer could ever swim without someone before teaching him how. We’re all products of those who came before us -- the swimmers we once idolized, the coaches who taught them, the swimmers who inspired them, and so on…

We’re never alone swimming outside – whether that be in Walden ponds, Michigan ponds, or any open waters. The connectivity of water ensures us of that. And while Alex Meyer may train in Walden, this is no story of a man shaking the shackles of society.

Instead, tomorrow’s open water 10km is the story of a unique, beautiful, remarkable friendship between Alex Meyer and Fran Crippen. It’s the story of a swimmer who decided to honor his best friend by taking him to London, by making it there together. It’s a very special friendship that has stood the test of time…

And so, so much more…

Mike Gustafson (@MikeGustafson) is a freelance writer with USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. You can watch the men’s open water 10km live on NBCOlympics.com.

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