Ladies’ Pond swimmers Sheila Fitzgerald and Toby Brothers, with family and friends undertook the Hellespont and Dardanelles Swim (as run by SwimTrek) in August 2018.
The Swimmer by Toby Brothers
I am thinking about why I love the sensation of swimming – although with hesitation because something so magical naturally resists dissection. But if I am going to communicate how I ended up in the midst of the channel between the Asian and European sides of Turkey, I need to unravel that sinewy swimming thread back to the source. My first memories of getting into water – a sparkling lake in upstate New York – are infused with the sense of immersion, of being held suspended in a blue so pure it makes my heart ache to remember. I think we all want to be held, to be embraced without the sheepish sense that comes as an adult being hugged. In water, you are embraced - utterly, completely and singularly. When I discovered the Ladies’ Pond, I found this experience emphasized: as an adult, in a huge city, I can caper and slide through wild waters, skimmed by the resident heron, running into the tribe of fellow women swimmers and heroic lifeguards, the connections strengthening over the years of goose-bumped giggling encounters.
Like others, I have come to depend upon my regular pond ritual – some weeks the need is palpable as life gets heavy or too complicated: the Pond renews me in a kind of daily miracle that makes me want to be a believer in something. And I am: in the transformative effects of regular wild water immersion and the natural world and human connections that flow from that experience.
So why would I translate that experience into something challenging and fierce? To train for and participate in a swim event – whether it is the Great Northern Swim in Windermere, or a SwimTrek week of 5-7 km swimming in open water, or a crossing of several miles rocked with currents and tides – is to turn from the leisure and soul-smoothing realm of the Pond. Yet the Pond took me there. Exchanging stories in the changing room with some whose swim adventures – practically weekly – in the face of physical challenges are truly awe-inspiring. Sheila and I determined to celebrate a big birthday year by taking our Pond sisterhood on the road - and seeing what wild waters we might find ourselves in.
Participating in the Dardanelles as organized by SwimTrek was exhilarating. We were rightly daunted by the complex instructions for working with the current and careful sighting strategies to make sure we didn’t get swept past the finish line to wash up in, say, Egypt. A few years ago, the proposal that I would, with my game friends, daughter and partner – enthusiastically supported by Leah and Dare – cross this channel in an international swim event would have been unthinkable. This is, of course, why we train: the physical preparation is significant but also the realization that first I can swim a mile, then I can swim another mile, and then… Some of this training I did in my home waters of the Pond; training also led me to the shore in Brighton and Dorset, the London Fields Lido and the West Reservoir.
Into all those embracing bodies, I take the Pond spirit: in the focus of swimming technically and with endurance, I find moments to pause and stretch into the water’s embrace. To be aware of the surrounding sounds, the sense of this liquid body as a basin, as an entity full of life and requiring my respect – to be part of something beyond my small, needy self, to dissolve into grandeur. When I returned to the Pond after completing the Dardanelles, I appreciated again the daily miracle, the fellowship of the changing room where you just never know WHAT might be discussed, the spontaneous encounters with new and old swim buddies that shift the day’s energy towards warmth and connection.
The Supporter by Leah Royall
From the minute, nine months before, my friend told me of her plan to do the 4.5km Hellespont and Dardanelles Swim from Europe to Asia, I felt compelled to be there on the day – as a supporter, a non-swimmer (who does, however, dip into the Ladies’ Pond through the winter). Extrapolating the adventure into a longer trip to Turkey, I booked a SwimTrek Supporter Package for me and my daughter, age 13, so she could bear witness to the efforts of people who’d set themselves a steep challenge, worked towards and then plunged headlong into it. Interwoven into my close friendships, she could be part of how we cheer each other on. She was game.
On the practice day, the swimmers did some lengths parallel to the coast to acclimatise themselves to the water conditions. My daughter, invited to swim out to the first buoy, came back and became my supporter, urging me to test my limits of uneasiness in the waves.
The day of the race she was uncharacteristically up at 4.30am so we could have breakfast with the swimmers, hear their last-minute deliberations, wish them luck.
In the company of supporters from all over the world, we set out on a ferry chartered by the Rotary Club in Çanakkale. Once we’d reached the port on the other side, the ferry hovered silently among the yachts, dinghies and sailboats that were there to shadow the swimmers. On the top deck the onlookers waited, reverential, excitement in check.
Across from us, all of them in yellow rubber caps, setting them out as another species, the swimmers were amassed in the brightening early-morning light. Suddenly they stood still and more tense, the air went empty and quiet and then they all started streaming systematically down a concrete slope into the sea. Within seconds, the water was churning with controlled commotion, rhythmically sparkling yellow caps, arm after arm scything – graceful, rigorous, disembodied – among the boats. Keeping a distance from the windmilling limbs glinting like schools of leaping fish, our ferry made it back to shore.
Staking a claim on a seaside ledge, my daughter and I had a clear vantage onto the finish line. One by one the first swimmers precipitated themselves, with a running start, from their epic aquatic journey up onto hard land. It felt symbolic, these yellow-capped creatures dredging themselves out of a primordial element. The crowds applauded the first five swimmers; being American, I wanted to cheer for the next 700 too.
Over the next hour we watched all of the people we knew surge onto solid ground, the water shimmying off them like liquid bathrobes, and felt such pride, a contagious elation. It was an honour to share, by proxy, in the joy of an achievement so long in coming. They’d gone the physical, geographic and psychological distance, and it was breathtaking to be there.