Monday, May 7, 2012

AKA Mermaid, or almost

Two legs minus one is one, which is one more than a fish, although I guess that's not an advantage in the water. Five years ago when I jumped into my pond just a few months after my above-knee amputation, my then-seven-year-old daughter said, "Mom, you're a mermaid!" I liked that title. (It also made me feel better about the way I slither onto shore.)

The next summer, my friend Debbie suggested I swim across a lake with her. (My cousin said, "You've only got one leg--you'll swim in circles!")

The local Hospicare & Palliative Care Services holds a fundraiser every August called "Women Swimmin'": an all-women swim across mile-wide Cayuga Lake, the Finger Lake that touches Ithaca. Hospicare raises most of their budget for the whole year--upwards of $300,000 dollars--with this single event.

I'd always swam a lot, but never laps. Never trained before. I strapped on goggles and earplugs and learned how to breathe on either side. My pal Debbie gave me pointers and encouragement. We swam together sometimes to practice. I hoped I was ready.

The actual swim was a blast. I was with a hundred women grouped in pods (like whales!) with matching  colored swim hats waving from a ferry chugging across the lake just after a summer dawn while a bagpiper played. (I was on crutches; they were returned to the yacht club that was our starting point and destination.) At the far side of the lake, dozens of canoes and kayaks paddled out to greet us, to accompany us. Motor boats patrolled our closed channel across Cayuga. Pod by pod, we jumped in the water and started swimming. My heart settled into a steady beat as my arms stroked and my single leg kicked double time; I could feel my phantom leg kicking too. I think it helped. I realized that though I might never gallop my horse bareback across a field again, I can still feel the same way of pushing my body, exhilarated, going flat out.
Women Swimmin' isn't a race. We stopped here and there to tread water, trade encouragement, laugh, and be advised by our kayaks to keep swimming towards the huge balloon bobbing above the yacht club. When the dock grew close I was disappointed. Over already?? My crutches were policed by my older daughter who brought them out to me on the dock when I emerged up the ladder. Waiting onshore was a party: a live band, a breakfast tent, and a big crowd of spectators cheering every single swimmer as she climbed the ladder. A celebration.

I swam the next year with my older daughter; last year I swam without a partner, still surrounded by friends both in the water or in canoes. I love the community, the sense that we're all in this life together, that we're invested in challenging ourselves for the benefit of us all. I write Why I Swim essays for the Hospicare newsletter and help with publicity.

This morning, I registered bright and early for Women Swimmin' 2012. This will be my fourth year in the water. The pond looks cold and murky right now, but it won't be long. It'll be warmer. I'll be in the water, the one-legged swimmer. The mermaid.

And dammit, I don't swim in circles, Scott. So there.


  1. So far out of my comfort zone, Liz, I can't even imagine myself doing it. But I love reading about YOU doing it. You are amazing!

    1. Thanks, Sandy. It's so much fun. I'm going to keep updating my progress.

  2. Replies
    1. Nah...swimming is easy. Having the stamina to fight the Insurance Overlords for a brace for my knee is the hard stuff...but thanks, Seth!