Bambi Bowman Huisveld swam across the Catalina Channel in nine hours and 41 minutes on June 14 to complete the Triple Crown.
Outer space or the ocean: Which is more terrifying?
It it a question that has divided bloggers for years and has perhaps divided other less important people longer. It is impossible for me, a 27-year-old journalist, to know. My brain struggles to retain information on anything that happened before the MySpace boom of the mid-2000s, which is when I became terminally online. But I assume people were having this debate in the 1980s and 1990s as well, for it is a fascinating one.
I understand the arguments. Existential thinkers can get lost just by pondering space's infiniteness. Then there is the lack of oxygen, the gigantic meteors and other debris, plus the ever-present threat of other unknown life forms. All valid points.
To me, though, the ocean is worse. As little as we know about space, we know almost equally little about the world's oceans. Approximately 71% of Earth's surface is water and, as of this May, approximately 80% of that 71% remains unexplored. There are almost assuredly hundreds of species of fish, crustaceans and other critters down there that we have not discovered. The ocean's powerful tides can pull you to sea at a moment's notice. And, of course, intrinsic to all these points is that the ocean is our reality. I'm going to guess that everyone reading this has been in the ocean. I'm also going to guess that less than 1% of everyone reading this has been to space or will go to space in at least the next few decades.
For those reasons and more, open water swimming is the athletic pursuit I want to do the least. I would rather attempt to climb Mount Everest than, say, swim the 31.6 kilometers that make up the Catalina Channel, between southern California and Santa Catalina Island. The swim is one leg of the Open Water Swimming Triple Crown, the other two being the English Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.
Sarasota resident Bambi Bowman Huisveld disagrees.
Bowman Huisveld completed the Catalina Channel swim on June 14. She did so in approximately nine hours and 41 minutes. It was her final leg of the OWS Triple Crown; she completed the English Channel in 2021 and the Manhattan swim in 2020. Open water swimming is not new to her. Her interest in long, grueling swims came after qualifying for a U.S. Olympic Trials distance camp in 1992 in Hawaii.
"The first week (of the camp) was 'Hell Week,'" Bowman Huisveld. "They try to break you. Everyone swims, swims, swims until they can't. As everyone was getting injured or stopped swimming, I kept going and kept getting better. Then they put us in an open water, rough swim and I enjoyed that. … After my freshman year swimming at George Washington University, my assistant coach John Flanagan said I should train for and compete in the U.S. Nationals 25 kilometer swim. I won it and I got a free trip to Italy, basically: I went to the 1994 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Rome."
That is how her obsession began. She continued doing OWS events through college (and a little bit after), but eventually stopped to start her career and her family. After going through a divorce and other personal things five years ago, she started calling her friends, asking them if they thought she was nuts for thinking about picking the OWS habit back up — with the idea of completing the Triple Crown.
"I missed the community of it and how it made me feel," Bowman Huisveld said. "I wanted to reclaim my identity, so to speak. I wanted to get back my self-confidence and self-esteem."
Bowman Huisveld said she was expecting to be told she was crazy. She wasn't — only that she needed to space out the swims so she could correctly train and recover. Each swim requires months of preparation, swimming 40,000 to 50,000 yards a week. Otherwise, her friends said, it was doable. So she did it.
Nothing about the Triple Crown swims is easy. Bowman Huisveld actually attempted to do the Catalina swim last year, but failed because she attempted the swim during a new moon, which resulted in a sky so dark — the swims take place at night to avoid the ships roaming the channel — she could not see her own arm when she reached it out to take a stroke; the person steering the escort kayak next to her — essentially the eyes and ears of the swimmer — tipped over because she lost her sense of direction. It was like swimming in a sensory deprivation tank, Bowman Huisveld said.
The failed attempt gave Bowman Huisveld extra motivation to get it done this year. Even with better conditions, the swim takes a toll. There is a lot of unpredictability in OWS, much more so than swimming in a pool. If your goggles get knocked off-kilter in a 50 meter freestyle sprint, that's no big deal. If they get knocked off during hour one of a nearly 10 hour swim? That's a significant problem that needs to be fixed. Then there is the feel of the water itself, which Bowman Huisveld said is filled with more energy on the ocean. It's also usually a lot colder. The temperature of the water during her 2022 Catalina swim was 65 degrees, and that's warm for the channel. For two months beforehand, Bowman Huisveld took ice baths to acclimate to those temperatures.
Bowman Huisveld said she took a quick break every half hour during her Catalina swim to "feed." Some swimmers actually eat during these breaks, but she does not, only drinking something, usually Gatorade mixed with something else — a CarboPro workout mix, caffeine or even liquid Tylenol if she's starting to hurt. While in the water, not much is going through an open water swimmer's head. Bowman Huisveld said she is sometimes entertained by what her observers on the accompanying boat are doing. Other times, it's only silence.
Through all this — the failed attempt in pitch black, the months of preparation, the nearly 10-hour successful swim — the question that remains is why. The ocean is a chaotic well of nightmares and Bowman Huisveld managed to tame it.
"It's not for everybody, I get that," Bowman Huisveld said. "It's like running an ultramarathon or any of the other extreme sports feats. Unless you have done it, you can't really get it. When you do, and you know other people who do, you understand."
Maybe that is for the best. Maybe, just like our understanding of the ocean itself, it's best this feeling remains a mystery to most of us. After all, you don't have to understand the ocean to see the overwhelming beauty in its terror, and you don't have to complete an OWS swim to acknowledge the awe-inspiring guts and determination it takes to do so.
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