The sport of open water swimming is filled with incredible athletes accomplishing remarkable feats. From leukemia survivor Maarten van der Weijden and amputee Natalie du Toit to breast cancer survivors Karen Farnsworth Einsidler and Selina Moreno Pasagali, many open water swimmers have returned to the water after facing severe health issues.
Most of the stories go untold as the swimmers soldier on and get on with their lives.
But these individuals are more heroic the more we learn about their individual stories.
A coastal native of Manchester-by-the-Sea in Massachusetts, Wood explains how she trained for her first winter swimming competition. “Several times a week, I face my fears, jump in the cold ocean, and swim for about 20 minutes. I discovered that not only is it not so bad, but it is also exhilarating. The first strokes are pure willpower as I churn to generate body heat. But after 5 minutes or so, I relax into a beautiful meditative experience.
It gives me confidence to be strong and take on other things I might fear in life, and recognize that the outcomes from doing so can be beneficial.”
The fact that Wood is strong – both physically and mentally – like many in the open water swimming world – is a massive understatement.
The home and jewelry designer swam with a local masters swimming team after graduating from Harvard University off and on for 10 years, primarily with the Calgary Masters Swim Club between 1991 and 1997. “I loved my team and the camaraderie in Calgary. [But] I stopped swimming for 15 years after I moved back east to the Boston area in 1997.”
But the proximity of living near the Atlantic Ocean gradually drew her back to the water.
“I started swimming daily on my own in the ocean in the summers when I rented a house near a beach in Beverly, Massachusetts in 2011. A friend got me training with him indoors in the spring of 2014. I then swam my first open water event with my older sister Lucy at the 1.7-mile Newport Save The Bay swim in July 2014.
I was surprised and pleased with how well I did.”
This prompted the former collegiate water polo player to compete in a few more local 1-mile races over the course of the summer. “Again I was pleased and surprised with my success. The act of swimming, being in good physical shape, and doing well in races helped lift me out of a slump in my life.”
Along the shorelines of her return to the water, she met a few hardened people who swam into the fall and, surprisingly to her, even through the winter. “My friend Doug, who had swum through the winters in San Francisco, convinced me we could swim well into the fall in New England. He taught me to ‘get in and make heat’ – in other words, swim fast – right away and check to make sure you weren’t getting ‘the claw‘. He taught me to put on a hat when you get out, drink tea, get out of that wetsuit, and warm up, perhaps with some shivering afterwards.”
She found the unimaginable experience – after all those decades swimming back and forth in chlorinated warm-water indoor pools – to be exhilarating.
But that frequent feeling of exhilaration quickly and sadly evaporated after a scheduled physician check-up.
“In November 2014, I went in for a routine colonoscopy, recommended for anyone after they turn 50. All seemed to go fine. I went home, going for a one-mile ocean swim the next day. A few days later, visiting with girlfriends in Buzzards Bay, I went for another 1.5-mile swim. In the days after the colonoscopy, my stomach wasn’t feeling great, but I assumed that was normal.”
Five days after the procedure, Wood woke up in the middle of the night, shivering and in excruciating pain. “I drove myself to the emergency room where after 3 hours of waiting while shivering with a fever, wearing a hat to keep warm, and [true to her newly developed passion] reading Lynne Cox‘s Swimming to Antarctica book.”
She was told she had a perforated colon. “They didn’t tell me I was septic [infected with bacteria], but I think I was. I was hooked up to two IV’s, and ended up in the hospital for a total of 21 days. Attempts to have the hole heal itself failed, I developed a huge abscess around my liver and pancreas, and it was decided that I required surgery to drain the abscess and take out the damaged section of my colon.”
She lost a lot of blood with the surgery and had to have a blood transfusion. For 21 days, she wasn’t able to eat anything in order to keep the colon clear so it could heal. Without food, being bedridden with excruciating pain, she lost significant weight and all of her muscle mass, literally shrinking from a size 8 to a size 0 in three weeks. “My sister, a physician, was worried I might die a few times over those three weeks. She has said that my being in such good shape from swimming may have saved my life.”
When I was released from the hospital in early December, I had home health nurses coming to help out for a few more weeks.
But her physician gave her advice that she quickly followed. “My doctor said that I could swim right away, which I did. I couldn’t even drive yet since I was still on painkillers, but my daughter drove me to pool, and I started a long, difficult process of getting back in shape. My stroke was guarded, I couldn’t extend my right arm out front, and flip turns were out of the question with the stitches/staples along five inches of my belly.
But swimming helped me get rid of the painful pleurisy that I had developed. Slowly, after swimming a few days a week, I was able to up my yardage to 1,000 yards, then 2,000 yards.”
It was clear that swimming helped her to regain her health and, very importantly, a peace of mind after a very traumatic experience.
With that peace of mind, her journey towards another epicenter in the open water swimming world serendipitously continued. “In January, I came across a mention of the Nahant Knuckleheads which I had heard about at a race in Boston. After a bit of research, I met up with a bunch of them to swim at L Street in South Boston.”
Her naïvety was clearly apparent to the Knuckleheads. “Silly me, I was the only one wearing a wetsuit. Not to be deterred, no one made me feel like a wimp for the wetsuit. I swam about 200 yards the first day and really enjoyed meeting the group of swimmers.”
She continued to swim a few times a month through the winter, sometimes at Singing Beach in Manchester, and sometimes at L Street. “I loved the feeling of energy and exhilaration I had after swimming. After my second swim at L Street Bathhouse, I learned about the Boston Light Swim, 8 miles in Boston Harbor.
I signed up for the lottery. To my delight, I got in.
That set me on a course of upping my distance and working to become a marathon swimmer, something I never thought I would have an interest in. But for me, after the trauma, it was great to have a really big goal, and mark my progress as I added yardage to my swims.
When the summer came, I had some good swims, both with friends for fun and in races, including the 6-mile Kingdom Swim, 4.3 miles longer than any race I had completed. I also enjoyed getting to know the swim community better.
All along, my big goal, what kept me going and made me whip myself into shape was my determination to complete The Boston Light.”
After all her effort during her recovery, the swim in Boston Harbor proved too much for Wood. It was a cruel lesson during her comeback. “I pulled myself out of the Boston Light after about 4.5 miles with hypothermia. I knew that I couldn’t finish, and that it was stupid to push on with a fuzzy, disoriented hypothermic mind.
Again, I listened to the advice and kind support of teammates. One said, ‘The Boston Light is a great teacher.'”
The setback, as it turns out, helped motivate Wood to learn more about acclimatization and preparation. Her more experienced L Street teammates continued to be generous with their advice, time, and support. Being around the hardened group gave her another inspiration: winter swimming.
“I am now working on a new goal: acclimating to the cold better, so that I can hopefully complete the Boston Light and other cold marathon swims in the future. The goal of acclimating pushed me to swim in the ocean without a wetsuit on a regular basis (1-2 times a week) through the fall and winter. And that has been good training for the Mempramagog Winter Swim Festival.”
But she couldn’t swim at the Memphramagog Festival last winter because she was recovering from her follow-up surgery. But even during her rehabilitation and as she worked hard to gain back her strength and weight, her friends kept talking enthusiastically about winter swimming. “I was excited to go and try a new, admittedly crazy thing, and meet fellow ice swimmers.”
She pushed forward and pushed herself, acclimating quickly.
Her new hardened state was evident as she swam – quickly – the 25m butterfly, and the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle events. She was the overall winner in the 200m race, even faster than those 20 years her junior and the assembled ice swimmers of New England.
“In Lake Memphremagog, it was a new challenge to have to get in and out of the water repeatedly over the course of a day, but not too bad as it turned out.
I loved being there at the Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival. It was more than a swim meet; it was a wonderful celebration of people and life.
The ice swimming has connected me to health, friends, fun and a new ability to face my fears.”
Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association