On This Night …

When Betty Gelbach passed away, just after Christmas, we all gathered through the snow at her house, high up on a hill. She lived by Doug’s parents since the very beginning and her son, Kurt, is Doug’s oldest friend. Her house was a slice in time. Silver pieces meticulously displayed. Weathered family photographs honoring accomplishments. A kitchen that stepped out of the 50’s that was so 50’s that if you bought this house you wouldn’t change a thing. Once a hunting lodge, the Gelbach’s turned it into a pretty cool place to raise their three children.

On this night, we drank wine and ate one of Betty’s most notable recipes … liver pate’. The kitchen was so packed that all you had to do was hand your glass in and when you pulled it out it was filled. The snow fell and danced a different dance through the old, wavy windows. Stories were told and it was clear that everyone was better off for having known her.

I remember her as being the prettiest older woman I had ever met, even when I met her 25 years ago. Shorter than usual, her smile was perfect and always there. Her hair tied back in a classic style that she probably invented. She liked to touch me. She touched everyone. Her humor was wicked.

On this night, Kurt played some of the Gelbach’s home movies, now housed on YouTube, on a big sheet in the corner of the living room. That’s where I saw My Bionic Boyfriend running up the hill at a family party as a little boy. I had never seen him as a little boy, except in pictures, and except in my mind. He was happy. I wished I could have reached into that sheet and picked him up. Who would have known that little guy with brown hair and serious glasses was going to grow up to be mine. And who knew he was going to grow up to swim the English Channel one day.

Kurt Gelbach, and his wife Sue, on behalf of the Gelbach and Upton families, just made the largest donation to date to The Les Turner ALS Foundation and A Long Swim. And, small world, they are currently living in England. The card arrived under an English postage stamp and even included England Slang, calling the English Channel swim a “blightly long swim.”

On this night, when it was time to go home, we were invited to take a Christmas ornament off of Betty Gelbach’s still standing Christmas tree. It was hard to pick, but eventually I selected one that I imagined she made. The felt was hand stitched in the perfect measure that only that generation and those before them knew. I didn’t put it in the attic when it came time to put Christmas away. I hung it on one of the kitchen cabinet knobs, so we could keep remembering her a little bit longer.

1st Open Water Swim Of The Season … air temp: 63.2 … water temp: 60.6

Got up early this morning and followed Doug and his training partner, Don Macdonald, to Lake Zurich for the first swim of the season. The air temp was 63.2. The water temp was 60.6.

They kidded around as they each started their getting ready rituals. I had no idea they stripped down naked and put their suits on right there at the dock. Caught off guard … no pictures of that.

Don Macdonald ceremoniously fills his swimming cap with water, sits it on top of his head, and then inverts it, letting the water crash down on him as he eases the cap on.

Doug fusses with his cap and goggles and snaps them a lot.

One thing I’ve noticed is that every open water swimmer, when they’re of the married sort, does something interesting with their wedding bands when they head out. Doug puts his in his shoe. Don puts his on his watch band. One time I saw a guy hand his to his little girl and she held it tight in her hand the whole time he was gone.

Anyway, on this morning, they eventually jumped in, waived at me and swam off into the distance. I got back into my car and quietly turned up the heat.

Note: The whole collection of photographs may be seen on My Bionic Boyfriend’s facebook page.

Grace The Birthday Present Who Hasn’t Gone Swimming … Yet

In a week, one year ago, it was a 50th birthday in our family and who arrived … Grace the Coonhound. She was a rescue and I’m not sure who did the rescuing … Grace, or us?

I know she can swim, she just hasn’t been given the chance. She’s been a nice addition to our family and even though she won’t swim the English Channel … she’s going to love training in Lake Zurich.

Last summer the kids and I got away from it all and took a car trip all around New England. We stayed in lots of “pet friendly motels” and the kids loved learning about those sorts of lodgings. We even took Grace to the top of Whiteface Mountain in New York. We ended up in Boston at the Boston Light 8 Mile Open Water Swim. The pictures are on facebook.

Pictures of her swimming will also be available soon. Just you wait and see.

Work Of A Different Sort

At the Barrington Area Development Council’s Citizen of the Year Award Dinner, where our good friend and A Long Swim advisor Bob Lee was crowned, Doug proves that he always has his A Long Swim literature at the ready. Or he’s just trying to impress the ladies.

At our table that evening we met an extremely nice guy whom will be invited to our big celebration when all of this is over. He listened to Doug tell his story about the English Channel and how he is swimming it to raise money for ALS. The guy tossed him his business card and said to put him on the list. He’s on the list. And this is where I have to say that doing all of this is good and all but we just made a new friend that night. I love that part. I wish I would have taken his picture.

Wanna Jump In?

Any open water swim in Chicago is a big party down on Lake Michigan and anyone may attend. The swim in Minnesota is pretty big and beautiful. The swim in Michigan is actually held on an island. To all of these I’ll take my camera and will report back. In the meantime, the schedule now lives on the bulletin board where spelling words usually hang out.

Happy Mother’s Day

This has nothing … and everything … to do with swimming.

The tradition of breakfast in bed is a nice one. Blueberries and cream, asparagus omelette and fried potatoes with rosemary. Every Mother’s Day they all whip up this frenzy and then we hang out in bed. Complete with dogs and cats.

One of the things you learn from being a swimmer is that you can do anything. Once you know that you can get up consistently at 5AM for years, once you know that you can swim faster than the guy in the lane next to you and once you know that you can swim 24 miles straight … you know that you can DO anything.

And you know that you can BE anything.

So Happy Mother’s Day, My Bionic Boyfriend. You are as much a mother as you are a father. You do homework and cook and build and create and tell stories late into the night. When the kids were little you could change a diaper with one hand tied behind your back. And, on this morning, you made an omelette that knocked my socks off.

Texting Boyfriends

Sometimes, after you photograph a fun event, you just end up at your favorite bar with a bunch of your girl friends. That’s what happened yesterday.

Ever being competitive I set an interesting bar interestingly high.

“OK girls, text your boyfriends and ask them to send you a loving and sexy text. We’ll see who wins.”

They obeyed.

Nance’s boyfriend: “You are the love of my life.”

Vicki’s boyfriend: “What?”

Nina’s boyfriend: “No, just come home.”

Laura’s boyfriend: “Huh?”

My boyfriend: “I’m stopping by in a minute to kiss your neck.”

When he walked in we gave him a standing ovation. He won.

What You Find Along The Way

Every September our family and our extended family participates in the “Buck Island Swim.” From the Wisconsin shores of Camp Edwards to Buck Island the open water swim is l/2, 3/4 or 1 mile, depending on who is telling the tale. It takes place at 6:00AM just as the sun begins to rise. The swim was Doug’s first ever as a little kid at camp.

I have great photographs of this event because I’m never in it. I can’t swim. I can doggy paddle and play but can’t perform one definable stroke.

However, at the age of 50 I was in the best shape of my life and figured I’d join in the fun, knowing full well that I’d be the last one to the Island.

It took a little coaxing and a few dares but in I went and was right out of the gate the last in line. The seaweed was freaky and the sun rising was fabulous. There was a slight mist on the lake that made me wish I had a camera of the waterproof kind. The air was warm and the water was warmer.

My friend, Meg, hung back with me for most of the trip and encouraged me. Doug and Mack kind of circled to make sure all was well. Mack tread water around me and quietly announced, “Mom, we’re having a moment.” Meg and I got the giggles. We teared up a little at the beauty of it all. It was easy to understand, now, the draw of open water.

The end eventually arrived, definitely feeling more like the mile kind of swim, and everyone was congregated on the island chatting while a couple of life guards were on boats waiting for the last of the swimmers. There were probably 50 yards left and I caught up to a little girl. I started to assure her that she wouldn’t be the last one, I’d take that place. She didn’t respond to my teasing.

She was quietly wimpering. She was in over her head, so to speak.

Me: Hey, how old are you?
Her: 9
Me: Who is with you?
Her: My dad, he’s up there.
Me: What’s your name?
Her: Olivia.
Me: What’s your middle name?
Her: Ann.
Me: Hey, my middle name is Ann too. Olivia Ann, let’s try this. Roll over on your back and look at the sky. It’s pretty this time of morning. We can rest this way. And breathe a little easier.

She did what I told her. She calmed down right away.

Me: This is a pretty cool thing we’re doing, Olivia Ann. Swimming in this pretty lake on this pretty morning. Let’s just lay here for a minute and breathe. This isn’t really a race. We just want to finish.

We did just that. I needed the rest just like she did. I figured I’d try to help her accomplish this task that was obviously on her young bucket list.

Me: You doin’ ok?
Her: Mhhhmm.
Me: OK, Olivia Ann, you brave, big 9 year old girl, let’s swim different ways so that we don’t get too tired.

We swam on our sides, we swam on our tummies, we swam on our backs. I did all the talking. She said nothing but her wimpering was behind us. We made it. I let her finish first. Her dad went to her and she cried. He had no idea she was in trouble.

I picked up a rock out of the water and gave it to her. “This is your souvenier, your proof of how brave you are. Keep it forever.”

I picked up a 2nd rock that I’ll keep forever.

While I’ll never swim to Buck Island again, I’ll always be in the boat taking beautiful pictures. And I’ll always keep an eye out for that 9 year old little girl.

Sometimes you do things and you don’t know why. I think I was in the right place at the right time on that morning to make a difference. If you can recognize those times and grab them it’s all good.

PS … The picture above is what you see as you approach Buck Island early on a September morning.

It’s Not A Party … Well, Some Of It Is

Being on a guide boat for an open water swimmer can be all work and no play … but if the stars line up and all is going well … there is still a lot of room for play.

The 24 Mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim was practice for swimming the English Channel. So we had our serious selves on most of the time.

The work includes:

Timing strokes every 10 minutes. (On this swim they were consistently between 59 and 61 per minute.)

Delivery of Nutrition. The rules are that the swimmer may not touch the boat or a human, so the boys developed a bucket/net contraption on an paint roller extension pole to be used in the delivery of nutrition every 30 minutes. The chosen product is called Infinit. This is a pretty cool product that is a uniquely customized blend of nutrition made to Doug’s specifications. A powder mixed with water, it tastes kind of like a slushy lemony Gatorade without all the sugar. He used this product exclusively during this 24 mile swim and never felt hungry.

Handling emergencies. Jellyfish stings, our swimmer heading in the wrong direction, other swimmers swimming under our boat, calculating our position for water depth. It’s important to keep your swimmer out of shallow water as that causes a change in stroke technique, which can in turn cause muscle injury. This happened to one person, a good friend of ours, in this Tampa Bay swim.

The fun includes:

Good music and off color jokes.

• Swatting bugs.

• Learning to use a tiny bathroom.

• Trying not to look while the boys pee off the back.

• Solving the world’s problems.