Thursday, December 30, 2010

Swimming to stand still...

 Ireland to Scotland-18hrs :59mins-
1st Irish woman 11th swimmer in history- 2nd September-2010
The crossing was a 3 year journey with 4 trips to the North Channel.

 Standing in the Accident & Emergency of Belfast City Hospital at 5am-bundled in clothes, face swollen with red lash marks and blistered, long hair matted and clumped, eyes popping from my sockets & speech slurred.
The admissions nurse asked-"What is your occupation?"
"I'm a Health Service Manager". my swollen tongue impeded my speech..
"What's happened?"a tone of incredulity-as she stared at me. 
"Jellyfish stings & Hypothermia" I said showing my arms as well.
"What were you doing?" she looked solidly as me in that tone of voice.. 
"I was swimming to Scotland" I finished. Take a seat!!
I waited for a Psych consult.. as we giggled as to how that sounded.
Brendan Proctor & Annemarie

 In 2008 at 3.30am Annemarie lowered off the boat with the intention of swimming for as long as she could. With only 8 swimmers in history having had the privledge of getting to Scotland. She didn't feel any pressure. Great progress was made for the first 7 hours, but then the tide turned. The tides in the Irish Sea are racing up and down the coast, the power of excited water heading NE and wanting out into the freedom- north of the Irish coast for the 1st time.

10 hours of swimming for Zero distance.. !!
14 hours in despite swimming strongly, the tide turned and pulled her body North east 8-9 miles.All the boats could do was stay with her. Like a beast letting go when it was done-at 5.30pm she was at the distance she had passed at 7.30am that morning & facing back to Ireland. This is torturous for the crews-their job was to get her to Scotland.

Many athletes need the win just to feel progress. To validate the months of training, to feel that glory. To have that moment of crossing a line. To stand tall. So many athletes need the affirmation that they are great. So many athletes need to feel that they are faster than their previous time.
How do you train to stand still? For six hours you're not going to go forward?

It takes a rare athlete/swimmer to chose the greatest competitor in the world to combat. For Annemarie her only battle was to trust herself, trust the eyes that guided her in her crew and to survive the North Channel. She had swam for 20 hrs before but never in 12 deg water..
Understanding the sea, where it goes, how it feels & what it wants are crucial. Having a crew so special is the heartbeat of the swim. The cruel blow of 2008 gave Brendan P, Noel, Ryan & Team Delta just enough of a glimpse of a secret to go back and think again. If eyes of sea faring men are open, a sea can always give you a peek at it's secrets. After 17.5 hrs of darkness Annemarie apologised to the crew.. for not being able to get there.. They apologised for not getting her there..

2008-blue line-the tide turns and with it went Annemarie back to Ireland
9 miles north & at least 3 miles backwards losing 9 hours swimming.
   Winter 2008 was again set aside and Annemarie committed to another attempt to cross the North Channel. Another year of mornings at 5.30am with Ryan & Noel-getting into the sea before work, saturday nights spent training in the pitch dark of night under the supervision of her marine crews. Charts filled her kitchen table as answers were sought. Another summer of standby and waiting.

In Sept 2009 the whole crew transported to the North Channel, in the dark of night Annemarie was dropped in and once again started her swim-2.5hrs swimming, the weather took a turn for the worst, the wind lifted suddenly, waves started to break, she was once again taken from the water. Another year gone. Devastation. There was a shift in power & a sense of possibility.

Noel, Derek, Ryan & Brendan- the kitchen table ..
  2010 took a new approach. This had become personal. Annemarie had proven that she could stay in the water-the challenge was now for the crew to figure out a path to get her to Scotland. To sit & learn-
Annemarie never uses a pool so all her work is done in the sea-To vary the "fun" they popped her in the dark of night against a flood tide, like swimming on a threadmill to challenge her mind.The boys listened to the radio as Annemarie battled.
St. Brendan the navigator
They travelled to the North Channel towing boats, steamed out 10 miles and dropped Annemarie in, watched as she swam in the flow. Swimming just to stay still-swimming not to lose distance-all the time they watched. Back to the kitchen table, all the information Derek sat with the crew, they planned tuned down to the last hour, they headed content to take on the beast.
August 2010-conditions were magnificent. The 3 boats travelled miles up & down the coast trying to find a space free from Jellyfish to drop her in. It was 3am. For 5 hours she swam through jellyfish as her body swelled up from stings, she took the pain. So afraid to stop. Her feet beating them like basketballs. It was horrendous for the crews, watching in the dark as the tentacles trailed her body mercilessy. hearing the muffled cries as another trail filled her mouth.

Joe at the helm..
How long could they leave her in the water? how many more stings could she take? Her joints, knees & ankles started to stiffen, the toxins was seeping inside. Extending her arms no longer possible, finally the heartbreaking moment when Annemarie lifted her head- it was over once again.
Despite the stings, the energy was filled with adrenaline- The plan was perfect.

Annemarie & Derek F
Back in the kitchen it was decided- just one more go-there were now ten plus lives on hold-four weeks later, conditions were excellent-feeding off the positive energy, the team were gathered. work abandoned as everyone headed for Belfast. Three boats on tow-at 10.15am Sept 1st Annemarie touched rocks North of Gobbins Island for the very last time.

How many swimmers would swim for 5 hours just to stay in the same place..??
 There was no coming back. A sense of heat filled the water, Jellyfish came, stung and left. Nothing like before. The plan was picture perfect. For 8 hours she made similar progress. Once the tide turned, Annemarie knew what she had to do-the crews watched, waited and for 4 hours she covered just over 2 miles-but she did not go backwards.. she had not lost ground. The tide turned and once again there was hope. The water temperature was 12 deg & strangely Annemarie was not cold. Darkenss closed in again and this time it looked possible.

In the closing hours Annemarie dug deeper than ever before, she has not stood up, breathed freely & scratched her eye for 18 hrs, she can't swallow, her breathing is getting labored, despite being a mile from shore the distance was a life time away. The eyes drove her on, the energy was forceful. For 18 hours & 59mins 9 men watched, rotated, monitored, stared & counted. You never know with the sea-but secretly they knew. Sensing that the emotion of being so close might cause Annemarie to lose focus Ryan lowered into the water to shore her home.
The emotional support of company in the water. Another pair of arms splashing, it was too dark to see him but knowing he is there is enough. An hour later Annemarie under the independant observation of ILDSA Kieran Fitzgerald-touched Scotland. The 1st Irish woman and the 11th swimmer in history. The team worked like clockwork-all for this moment.

That radio...
The unsung heros of every swim are the crews who watch and man the safety crew. Brendan Proctor, Derek Flanagan, Noel Brennan, Ryan Ward, Buela Loughran, Brendan Hoen, Team Delta Int-Gus, Ivan, Joe & Eoin-people who gave up so much to get just one swimmer there. The swimmer rotates her arms but the crew are the energy that drives the heart. In 2008 Annemarie showed us that she was capable of spending 17.5 hrs in the North Channel. In 2010 her crew got her there.
Noel held the radio out-the tune blared... "Don't stop me now..." by Queen...

For me Annemarie is the World Open Water swimmer of the year.. for who she is.. for what she stands for.. for knowing how much it hurts and doing it anyway..