Few things feel better than swimming in the ocean. I have to qualify that statement with “in the ocean”, because open water is truly healing—an idea I used to find utterly ridiculous, until I began reading Blue Mind.
Every morning, I wake up at 6am to do battle with my inner child who incessantly longs and cries for the easier, softer way. Together, we sleepily drag ourselves to the coffee maker, then the desk, then the car and finally, across the sand and into the surf.
This has been my morning routine for a month now. It never gets easier.
I hear a lot of voices as I make this pre-dawn shuffle. The loudest one is always the alarmist, the self-appointed know-it-all who firmly believes, without question, that “today is the day” we will lose a chunk of midsection to an angry bull shark.
This fear isn’t entirely unjustified.
I’ve been on charters in these waters and have seen tourists hook such sea dragons firsthand.* And while you might think you know what a 10-foot-long, 500-pound bull shark looks like, you don’t. Not unless you’ve seen it in person, smoothly streaking beneath the water’s surface at an eerily silent 25 mph.
That’s over 4x faster than Michael Phelps. And at approximately 3x slower than Michael Phelps, I am exactly 100 percent fucked if things go awry.
And that’s why I love swimming. Face-down in the water, you immediately feel where you’re holding tension. The more you struggle, the tighter you get, and the more you drag and sink. The only way to make it a quarter mile is to relax, breathe, and allow yourself to glide.
It’s like meditation with instant and continuous tactile feedback.
This morning, I found my flow a little faster than normal. I forced myself to smile as I kicked through the sunlit water. My mind drifted to Ironman training last winter. I’d been learning to swim at the local Y in Pittsburgh. I missed that dark blue line painted across the bottom of the pool, always leading the way. Without it, I felt nervous. Disoriented. I decided to pretend it were there, relaxing my neck as I stared straight down at the—
And that’s when it came up on me.
A dark grey streak, long and round, rushing up from beneath.
I froze, heart in mouth. Everything burned and blurred. When the eternal first second of panic subsided, my vision cleared just enough to see it wasn’t a shark at all. It was my shadow, coasting along the barren sea floor.
I’d been attacked by a fear shark.
Later, I shared this encounter at a men’s recovery meeting. The room erupted in laughter. “Afraid of his own shadow!” someone shouted.
I had to laugh, because it was true. But then I began to think:
How many other fear sharks am I allowing to knock me off course?
*It was only once, and it was catch and release. Although, as I’ve come to learn, catch and release can still be deadly for sharks. I wouldn’t do it again.