by Mia Thomas

There are moments when it feels like everything is closing in. The ones when all the pain, fear, and failure fight so hard to creep under your skin. There I was, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, catching glimpses of land peeping over the 5-foot swells every chance I got. The pain, the one closing in, that’s the jellyfish stings blanketing my shoulders and back, on top of having to lift twenty-pound bricks that one might call arms for another stroke. The fear that shivers up and down my spine as I imagine what lurks beneath me, beyond my visibility. Even more than that though, was the fear that I wouldn’t finish. That I would let down my teammate swimming beside me. That I would let down my support team who dedicated time and money for me to pursue this goal. That I would let myself down. All of that work would be wasted. The thought of quitting now, after swimming for hours in place fighting currents head on, that’s the failure creeping inside. Salt water clouded my vision as tears pooled in my goggles. Salt water sucked every inch of life out of my skin, leaving my mouth tasteless and my feet resembling shriveled up prunes. And looking back now, it wasn’t the pain, the fear, or the failure that was seeping in underneath my skin, it was just salt water. 

Two years ago I took on the challenge of swimming across the Catalina Channel.  Every physical obstacle I encountered was met with an equal if not greater mental challenge. The 21-mile swim began at midnight, allowing my swim partner and I to swim through calmer waters and avoid the boat traffic of the channel. The eeriness of swimming throughout the night, the inability to see my own arms pulling underneath me started to toy with my nerves. I repeatedly had to remind myself that there’s nothing below me, but for the first few hours of swimming the lingering fear of sharks was inescapable. I’ve trained in the ocean before with a school of fifty bat rays, just an arms reach below my face, or looked down to see thirty leopard sharks ten feet below the surface, but those were familiar waters with the comfort of the shore nearby. These were uncharted territories for me and this was just the beginning. 

Despite my initial fear, those first six hours in the dark were in many ways the easiest part. The warmth of sunlight was just a few hours away, and I held onto that with every stroke. Sunlight was my only gauge of time. Not the kayaker next to me, nor anyone on the escort boat alongside me would tell me how far I’d gone, how much I had left, or what time it was. They said it was for my own good. And they were right. The “comforting” sunlight was only a teaser. The false sense of confidence elevated my hopes, leading me to believe that the shore at Rancho Palos Verdes was only a few hours away. In reality, I wasn’t even halfway there. The funny thing is, I didn’t know that I had already been swimming for eight hours – two of which I wasn’t moving anywhere – or even that I still had over four hours to go. All I knew was that the shoreline wasn’t getting closer and no matter how desperately I wanted to hop on the boat alongside me, I wouldn’t dare. 

Everything following sunrise was an uphill battle. My angst and frustration started to get the best of me. Throughout the swim, the only breaks I had were every thirty minutes to stop quickly to eat or drink. Breaks started as minute-long floats and shifted towards 20 second speed feedings. I wasn’t able to touch or hang onto the kayak at any point, therefore I had to have my food tossed out to me on a string like it was bait. At first, feedings were the most exciting part. They were the perfect reset button every thirty minutes giving me a chance to focus on anything but the bore of swimming. As the swim progressed, even the excitement of a break turned into a chore. Around hour six, every feeding became a race. I’ve never had to shovel applesauce into my mouth so fast while my support crew shouted at me to hurry up. They couldn’t tell me why they were so insistent, but I knew it meant everything was not going as planned. With the daylight came stronger currents and 5-foot swells; if I didn’t eat quickly, I would have been pushed backwards, sacrificing the progress I had made. In the final four hours when my body felt like it was about to snap in two, feeding became a dreaded impediment standing in the way of the finish line. 

After 12 hours, 37 minutes, and 6 seconds, the shore was at my feet and the channel was behind me.

I’m not the first person to cross the Catalina Channel, and I thank the pioneers like my mother who paved the way and swam the same channel before me. I credit so much to her and everything she has done to make open-water swimming a part of my life. Though I’ve always loved competitive swimming, open-water swimming served as my crutch. The ocean was there for me when competitive swimming broke me down to the point of wanting to quit. Personal setbacks in the pool and disappointing performances were heartbreaking. In these moments, I always found myself returning to open water swimming to reignite my passion. It helped me through the wake of my competitive swimming struggles, and it allowed me to focus on a process rather than an outcome. 

This past summer I coached a local swim team in my hometown of San Diego. My first day I was asked to share my story of the Catalina Channel, and I’ll never forget what one of the younger swimmers told me: 

“You are either really crazy or really brave.” 

I think many athletes will agree when I say that we’re all a little bit of both. Regardless of the sport, we share a dedication and perseverance unique to our individual aspirations. Are we all a little crazy for enduring the commitments and sacrifices to see success every third, fifth, tenth attempt? I think so. And when you’re frustrated with setbacks, it’s okay to lean on that crutch, the one thing that keeps you hanging onto the good in the wake of the bad. Redefining goals and taking on adverse conditions is part of the journey of reaching the finish line. Each part of the process is just as important as the end result; every stroke as important as the last. I took on this challenge not knowing if I’d even make it the anticipated 21 miles. After fighting through the current that added an extra three miles, I can say that every stroke of each mile nudges me with reassurance towards the future.