Paddling with a hero

Paddling with a hero - A group of people posing for the camera - Spring break


My swimmer kept telling me she was bringing “bags of water” to hydrate. I assumed she meant a bottle of water inside a bag. No. She tied off the tops of simple sandwich bags after filling them with about a cup and a half of water. She would bite off the tip and squirt it into her mouth. This is, I’ve learned, how the rest of the world deals with “portable” water. Genius.

Volunteering as a kayaker during the annual Swim around Key West

Trust me, kayaking around Key West is much easier than swimming. Swimming around Key West is just plain heroic. This is my second year volunteering as a kayaker for the annual event put on by Bill Welzien and company. And for the second year in a row, I was teamed with a Costa Rican, due to my (admittedly limited) language skills. Melissa Romero, my swimmer, was a total rock star. She finished 13th in the women’s wave and 19th overall as a female solo swimmer. This is truly an international competitive swim, attracting swimmers from around the country and globe. And she rocked it.

When some friends suggested I was crazy to kayak around Key West, I assured them it was MUCH crazier to swim around it. It took my (good) swimmer five and a half hours. That’s a lot of strokes and it’s definitely pro class. But what makes swimming so challenging, I think, is not the physical exertion but how swimmers are completely alone with their thoughts — no music, no banter.

“How do you feel?” I would ask Melissa when we stopped for our less-than-a-minute water breaks. “Me siento fuerte. Me siento feliz,” she told me, saying she felt strong and happy. And that’s the other thing about endurance racers: they have to be right in their hearts. Bitterness or vengeance is impossible to sustain; endurance races require a positive mindset. I tried to put myself in her goggles, and imagine what she would want to hear and what compliments I knew how to express in Spanish. “Andas super bien” (You are going very well). “Estoy muy orgullosa” (I am very proud). When we rounded the corner of Dredger’s Key in the backcountry, headed for Cow Key Channel bridge, I told Melissa it would be the hardest part but to be strong. When we made that milestone I congratulated Melissa and told her how many swimmers she left in her bubbles.

As a kayaker, I took my job seriously. From the moment Melissa entered the water, I never took my eyes or ears off her. It was my job to see her around the course — safe from boats and mooring balls. It was my job to stop her every half hour to hydrate and eat, and trust her when she wanted to keep going. It was my job to be her literal guide — she didn’t do much “sighting” (looking ahead) — but simply swam at my side and I like to think she didn’t have to take many extra strokes. And it was certainly my job not to complain about the knots in my forearms from gripping the paddle. Melissa had it tougher.

In the real world, Melissa is a professor of mathematics at a Costa Rican university. In her head, though, she’s planning her next endurance swims — a 35-kilometer distance race in Mexico, and dreaming of a long river race in South America that will take her through three countries. In the real world, I am a writer. In my head, I am the guru of Costa Rican swimmers capable of helping them achieve greater heights. Or, at least, a faithful fan.

A couple of final pro notes for anyone thinking of volunteering: Wear sunscreen on the backs of your hands and top of your feet. Don’t plan on doing anything besides paddling for as long as it takes and managing your swimmer’s social media. Prepare to be friends with you swimmer for life; you just went through a momentous occasion together. Finally, the next day in the garden, don’t attempt to pull out a stubborn weed. It will make your left forearm scream with anguish.

Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.