I was assigned Jessie Harewicz, a swimmer from Vancovuer, BC, as my swimmer to observe.
I'd never been a swim official before, but it was easy to get the hang of. The role was to:
- make sure everyone, swimmer and crew, stayed safe.
- ensure the swimmer followed the official rules of the swim.
- document the swim to verify that the swimmer completes it unassisted.
The swim rules are pretty basic. The gear is a bathing-suit, goggles and swim cap (ear and nose plugs as well as sunscreen and anti-chaffing balm are permitted). The swimmer needs to complete the course without any assistance in flotation or forward movement. If she needs to rest, she must float or tread water. Touching the support boats is not permitted.
The documentation was also straight forward. I was given a blank template to fill out every 30 min. It included location (GPS would be nice, but I just used landmarks), weather-- especially things that would impact the swim like wind, stroke rate for the swimmer, nutrition for the swimmer, and anything about the swimmer's mental cognition or physical condition that was worthy of note. I added a few notes on what we were seeing, since her head was down through the whole swim. It then serves both the purpose of official documentation, and of being a journal for the swimmer. The final log looked like this:
I also got to spend the day in a boat with a guy I don't know. His boat is a little ski boat that he mostly uses to take his 10 year old twin sons out skiing on. So there is no cabin. Which, of course means no bathroom. More on that later.
The day was rainy and overcast, temperatures around 15-18*C. The water was a touch warmer, the Lake Bouy reading 19*. We gathered at Luther Burbank Park at 7am for an 8am start. There were over 50 people involved between swimmers, race staff, observers, kayak support and boat captains. The pre-swim time was a combination of transactional, getting stuff ready, and social, reuniting with old friend and people who would be friends by the end of the day.
Every participant got a number on their hand, to match that of their swimmer, to help keep us together in teams.
Swimmers who live in various places but have bonded at other major swims, reunited and caught up on swims past and future.
There was also tons of gear to pack into each boat. Food for the swimmer and the crew for a whole day, as well as safety gear including a "Caution Swimmers" sign, extra water, and the GPS systems for tracking and communication (also known as our cell phones).
The start was a wet start, the swimmers dove in, gathered behind the starting line (imaginary, between two buoys) and at the sound of "go" started swimming. I also started the timer on my cell phone, as the official time keeper for Jessi.
Here she is, diving in:
It is hard to describe something that both had nothing happen for hours and also was very nuanced every moment. As an Observer I did observe the whole 8 hours and 21 min. I kept Jessi in my sight for the entire day. While she did all the work, swimming and swimming and swimming. I gained a lot of respect for her and learned a ton about her without even talking to her all that much. I know that her right arm makes more splash than her left and that she kicks very little. I know that she almost never takes a break or switches stroke. I know that she has a competitive streak, even when the competition is among already very accomplished swimmers. I know she likes PB&J for her swimming snacks. The relationship is both very remote and very intimate. You really learn someone's character from watching them accomplish and endurance feat like this.
One of the funnier threads, was about bathrooms. The race director had flagged four spots on the map where there were parks with public facilities. As the front pack of swimmers got to one, they did a mass stop off on shore to use the bathroom. The text message thread was full of potty humor. The observer from one of the boats with a head posted to the thread about how they had a flusher, and it was heated! We all got jealous. Apparently, the team boat behind me (with a head) had a conversation about how those of us without heads would go. About 10 min after that, they saw me sit on the swim step and splash myself. One said to another, "Oh, I guess I get it now".
From my perspective, it was a day on the lake, with the great bonus of watching a crew of amazing athletes in a sport I'm growing to love.