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Bay Swim Takes More Than Mettle

By Adele Levine, Wheaton, MD

Thursday, January 4, 2007; Page B03

Even at its narrow throat, the Chesapeake Bay is a dauntingly wide piece of water. Swimming across it might not appeal to just anyone, but the annual Bay swim has become so popular that this year's swimmers will be chosen today by lottery. Oh, and the entry fee is $250.

I am not a fanatic about anything, which makes me unusual around here. I am not a wine enthusiast or a political enthusiast, and I have distinguished myself at work by my complete lack of ambition.

But I am an absolute fanatic about the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim.

Every second Sunday of June, about 600 swimmers run into the water and thrash their way across 4.4 miles of open water underneath the twin Bay Bridge spans. It's an event well known in the local swimming community -- last year it closed out in 15 minutes online -- but otherwise it seems to be a virtual secret.

I have done the Bay swim four times, which is nothing. A handful of people have completed 20 crossings.

We leave the beach like a pack of wild, fighting pigs and swim the quarter-mile out to the bridge, sorting ourselves out as we go. I behave like a simple single-celled amoeba reacting to stimuli. I dodge the clumsy, heavier swimmers, duck under waves, fight my way across the channel currents and desperately try to stay on course. By the three-mile mark, I feel like I am swimming inside a snow globe that someone is shaking aggressively. Nausea racks my body, and I am reduced to a miserable bundle of nerve endings wrapped in a wet suit.

One year I swam too close to a rock piling near the halfway point. The currents swirling around the rock jetty were particularly strong. I spent 30 minutes swimming in place beside the rock jetty, and then I was tossed onto the jetty itself. I was stunned to see a dozen other yellow-capped, black-wet-suited swimmers perched silently on the rocks. It was like stumbling onto another planet.

I was about to say something when one of the rock people stood up. "Shut up, man!" he yelled. "Just shut up!"

I sat down glumly and thought about my past Bay swim exploits: how I once gained notoriety by missing the start. I had been standing in the parking lot, pulling on my wetsuit, when the start gun went off.

I thought about how, a year later, I was hanging onto the side of the food and water boat when a swimmer popped up from the water. "John! John!" she said, waving at the swimmer treading water beside me. "It's Mary! Have you had a chance to review that proposal?"

I thought of the year that I swam into a large plastic garbage bag while training in Gunpowder River. A mighty struggle ensued, complete with blood curdling submerged screams, as I fought for my life against the plastic bag.

I thought about the friends who were waiting patiently for me on the other side as I sat on this rock in the bay.

I climbed down off the rock and slid back into the cold, green water thinking that, considering everything, four miles is not very far at all.

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