By Teresa Albano
The ferocity of the waves cannot be captured in a single photo of a rising sun, although my swim buddy, Aliza, tries. The waves’ height are, according to Lake Michigan Buoy #45174, 4.3 ft., coming every 6 secs. They hit the shallow sandy bottom and break with energy that easily knocks you down.
It’s impossible to confront high-breaking waves by standing upright, as if you were a courageous Black Lives Matter activist, standing your ground for decency, democracy and the First Amendment. You have to submerge or swim through them, which may feel counterintuitive. But when facing a force like water, being relaxed and flexible beats being stiff and rigid.
Aliza and I, teammates on an adult swim team, take to Lake Michigan during the summer of 2020 for sunrise swims. With pools closed because of Covid-19, lap swimmers have transformed into open water fanatics. Swimming for us, like many others, is moving meditation. Water soothes the soul. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “Meditation and water are wedded forever.” But to meditate while swimming in Chicago’s saltless ocean is a journey of 1,000 strokes.
Although I have more experience in open water than she, neither one of us considers ourselves open water swimmers. Aliza is bolder than I am and that boldness pushes me to try. I may have a calm exterior, but inside it’s all fear and dread. The waves. The cold temperatures. The vastness of this great body of fresh water. What swims below the surface doesn’t bother me. It is the fear of not getting back to land.
In fact, my experience swimming in the Great Lake Mishii’igan (one of the names the Anishinaabe people gave for this fresh water sea) was vexed. The first time I swam in the lake, eight years earlier, I got seasick. Despite the calm waters, a number of factors united in a nauseating cacophony. Wave action off the Ohio Street Beach seawall along with the heat of the day, the smell of gasoline and the beach’s shallow water, which made visible the sandy bottom’s serpentine designs, knocked my internal balance systems off kilter. After swimming less than a half-mile, I walked back to shore to recover.
The next attempt came on a morning when the Great Lake was rocking and rolling with 5-foot swells. I jumped from the North Avenue Beach wall, enjoying the mid-70 degrees temperature and the wave action as I treaded water. As soon as I started swimming, the side-to-side watery tilt-a-whirl nauseated me. Only 15 yards from the wall’s ladder, I swam for it. I didn’t move. The backwash from the wall anchored me in place.
Panic, the enemy of all swimmers, began to creep into my veins. I thought I might drown just 15 yards from land. Earlier, an open water veteran counseled us newcomers to stay relaxed because “drowning is a physical response to panic.” Those words became my lifeline. I forced myself to relax and tread water, which gave me enough mental and physical space to notice that the waves, stronger than the backwash, could push me toward the ladder, allowing me to hoist my body out of the turbulence.
For the next eight years, open water swimming became a duty. I did it because I wanted to be part of the team, not because I enjoyed it. With fear and loathing tucked into my swim cap, I swam once, maybe twice, a year in Lake Michigan.
Until 2020 and the summer of the pandemic. The lake became really the only place lap swimmers could go to. With Chicago beaches closed, Aliza and I drove north for 6:00 a.m. sunrise swims. Instead of dreading the lake’s forever fluctuations, I embraced its endless variations.
Which brings me back to the 4.3 ft waves. Aliza and I duck, walk and swim our way out past the beach buoy into deeper water. Are we really ready to swim in this chop? Aliza is willing to try anything! Fear keeps stalking me but so does pride. My Italian inheritance to “fare una bella figura” (to make a beautiful figure) kicks in.
Off we go. Swimming up and down the watery mountains into the valleys, up to the apex, hugging the Great Lake with each stroke, grateful to be rocked in her rolling ancient seabed. I look for Aliza and spot her orange swim buoy belted around her waist and trailing in her wake. She’s swimming in the trough until the next wave carries her up the crest. I am amazed that we can actually put some distance behind us. Of course, the waves are in our direction.
Coming back is a different story. I’m making more progress swimming away from shore than parallel to the shore. The echoes of panic-past reverberate inside my head and body. Yet, something else kicks in. A mantra of sorts: “You got this. It is a gift to be here.”
Amid this terrible pandemic, I’m grateful to be buoyed by the lake and these swims. I learn to love this magnificent body of water. Even in the fierce waves, I feel composed. I decide to swim for shore and walk back to the beach where we started. No shame in walking back. In fact, I swagger, just a little.
“Water is life,” said the young people of Standing Rock, in their protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Lake Michigan is a life giver as are her sister Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Erie and Superior. They are gifts from Mother Earth, beginning 1.2 billion years ago when two tectonic plates ripped apart forming the Midcontinent Rift and finishing 14,000 years ago as the massive continental glacier—the Laurentide Ice Sheet—receded. The Great Lakes hold more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, and collectively provide drinking water to 48 million people in the U.S. and Canada. Climate change and pollution threaten this system of sustenance.
That summer of 2020—between the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd and too many others, climate catastrophes and contemptible conspiracies, Trumpism and the torrents of hate and violence it inspired—this vast inland fresh water sea seeps into my veins. And with it, every cell of my being is revitalized, strengthening me to face these daily challenges when I am on dry land.
Now, in the summer of 2021, as I reenter the watery wonderland for our sunrise swims, I tuck gratitude into my swim cap, with a healthy dose of reverence for our mother lake and her fluid spirits. Gliding and flying through sea green water, swaddled in a vibrant wet blanket with the sun rising over the liquid horizon, I relish plunging into Lake Michigan and embracing her power.