By Susan Saraf

By Susan Saraf

Friday, May 17, 2013

Swimming With Sharks, Lori King

This is the first time I'm featuring someone in a post (and after many technical difficulties on my end it may be my last:) But I was so impressed with marathon swimmer Lori Kings recent account of her swim.   Hers is a compelling profile of an athlete, it proves her fearsome determination, unyielding dedication - and that she has the code of a champion.  As a person who finds it easy to give up if so much as the breeze is not to my liking- I was awestruck.  I hope you are too.

Lori King in the beginning of her swim

Dear friends and family,

I know a lot of you have called, texted, and e-mailed curious about the outcome of my swim.   I receive an e-mail from my coach around the same time I was writing these thoughts.  I have included that below my write up.  Hers is a more accurate account.

Here is our story from my point of view.

The night before the race was a pre-race briefing where we were told official rules, were able to ask questions and most importantly finally meet our crew. Although I had spoken to both of them on the phone, when I finally met our captain Max and kayaker John, I knew I was going to be in good hands.

The race started out uneventful, and we immediately hit chop about 15 minutes to a half hour into the swim. John was probably feeling it more than I. When I realized the chop was not going to let up (I am not sure how many hours at that point, went by) I became ok with it. Then, came the swells. Some say 4 foot, others 6. Whatever the final number, I was feeling it but I did as Coach Bonnie had instructed me to do the day before and dug down (not letting my pull slip out but kept it under). The swells were brutal on John as he couldn't just power through them but rather had to steady his kayak to pace slower with me, hold his position in proximity to me, and also watch me, all while trying not to flip. We ended up picking up another kayaker that was part of another team at some point along this stretch and he (Craig) ended up being a Godsend for John...he needed to rest. For the rest of the swim they took turns switching to support me. The 1st bridge felt like it took forever to get to. I was convinced there either was not a bridge, or hopeful that we had gone under it and I hadn't noticed.

Around 8 hours into the swim I started to feel intense hunger pains. Bonnie knew this was coming and although I was not prepared for it, she was. She gave me a quarter of a peanut butter sandwich and immediately I felt better. When we hit the first bridge (mile 18) I felt good, tired, achy but good. Bonnie refused to tell me what time it was or what mile, I did not ask for fear of knowing and she did not volunteer because she knows things that I do not.

Here is the technical part. My coach said my stroke count was consistently at 70 strokes per minute dipping down to only 67 in the swells. I felt strong throughout and I knew I was ok because my arms continued to work and never failed me. This was all due to Bonnie's coaching. She trained me very well.

When we were approaching the second bridge, my crew started instructing me as to what I needed to aim for to finish (after the bridge, look to the buildings, you are there, you are almost done). Mile 21, as we approached the bridge, my kayaker started making his way toward the boat. I picked my head up and heard Bonnie's whistle and saw her giving me the sign to swim toward her. The weather had been overcast with periods of slight sunshine all day so I was unaware of the time but assumed it was earlier than it was and dark due to bad weather.

I swam toward the boat to hear her instruction. She said, “Listen, first I want you to know that you did an amazing job and outlasted most of the field today but now I need you to get on the boat.” I had no idea what was going on but automatically thought I had finished or there was lightning-- I'll get off then get back in was my thought. At that point Max tried to pull me up the side of the boat.

Once I was on I said, “what, was that the finish?” thinking that Bonnie, who had been playing Jedi mind trick on me all day to keep me going had done it again. She gave me a firm “no.” She said, sit down first and then I will tell you. I said “is it lightning?” She said, “no- you had two sharks circling you, we were afraid for your safety, we felt you were in trouble and we needed to get you out.” At that point, I was thinking, ok so am I getting back in? I might have said it out loud because Bonnie said, “No, it's over you're done, you can't get back in.” At that point I started bawling and just outwardly sobbing and maybe said no, no, no. I was not finished, I was not ready to get out, I wanted to keep going. Ending before the finish was not an option.

Bonnie and John saw the sharks near the boat-Craig were kayaking for me at that point in the swim. Bonnie said something to the effect of let's see what they do, if they are curious and just go away we'll let her keep swimming. About a minute later, the fins came up behind/around me and Craig. Max, Bonnie and John, at that point, became very alarmed and felt I needed to be pulled immediately. Max commented that it was dusk – their feeding time--we are at a bridge which is where they like to go to feed and they would not show themselves unless they were going to do something.

As an aside, the next morning as I was crying at breakfast while eating a very big cinnamon bun, I had the pleasure of meeting the 5th place finisher who was from Buenos Aires. He has swum in waters all over the world he said. He finished in the place I believe I would have finished and he was behind me so he was in the water around the same place (about a quarter mile south of me) and same time when I got pulled. He said he also saw/encounter some sharks. He said he knew at the end he had a shark near him but he was so tired, he had traveled from Buenos Aires and he just wanted to finish so he went for it. I was honored to have spoken to him and shake his hand.

I do not know what else was being said on the boat as we got the other kayaker on, I do not know when I took off my cap or got to the part of the boat so Max could get us to shore but here are the things I do know:

1.        Regardless of what people say or may think, swimming is a team sport. I would not have made it to mile 21 and swam 12 hours without an amazing coach, an incredible kayakers and a top class captain. I was only a small part of the reason why I got as far as I did. This was a team effort and we were a well working team.

2.        I DO NOT blame the sharks. This is what open water swimming is about. I was visiting their home uninvited, not the other way around. They were only doing what they do and every time a swimmer, a boater, a kayaker, a surfer, a human, gets in the water, the natural order of things is disrupted, even when you have the utmost respect for the water and take care in what you are doing.

3.        This was a great race and I would/feel like I have to do it again so I can finish. Unless I am swimming in a pool, I am going to encounter all sorts of sea life, it is expected. I also had some dolphins swim with me and stingrays – which is pretty cool.       

4.   This too shall pass and I know I will get over      it. This was definitely a learning experience for me and I will take this      knowledge and experience on my next swim.

I feel completely defeated right now and devastated and I know that will go away. As I told John, Coach Bonnie will not allow the wallowing. I have three weeks to rest before she wants me back in the water and I will get back in.  A fellow swimmer and New Yorker, Yuta, fought a good fight and hung in there for 14 hours getting bit in the first 1 hr. 1/2 of the swim.  An amazing feat that he should be incredibly proud of.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me through these months of training, I know I was not easy and certainly not pleasant at times. The support my family, friends and fellow swimmer friends have shown and continue to show is truly a blessing.

From the bottom of my heart—thank you.  

Here is Bonnie's account of our story:

Hi Everyone!

Lori’s swim was incredible!  She had us all in awe with her power and strength.  As her coach, I am beyond proud of her!

It’s hard to call the Tampa Bay Marathon a “race” since each individual swimmer/Boat/Kayaker takes a different course.  Within 15 minutes of the start we barely saw any other teams.  What we did see, was some seriously choppy water with 2-4 foot swells. I also saw a boat take on so much water, that the Coast Guard came out to rescue it.  I couldn’t see what number it was. 

 Lori powered through with a consistent 70 strokes per minute.  I was stopping her every 30 minutes to drink her mixture of water, CarboPro and lemon juice.  She was only taking in about 1.5 to 2 ounces per feed and would get back to swimming after 20 seconds. I upped the frequency to every 20 minutes.  Her kayaker, John, was terrific!  He kept a solid eye on her and the surroundings at all times.

She consistently came in at 70 strokes per minute.  At about the 4 hour mark, there were 4 foot swells that the John was having difficulty navigating and she just charged through.  At that point, we picked up another kayaker, Craig, who had gotten separated from his team.  He was on a sit atop kayak, and with the wind and waves, it was paddling a barge!  We put him and his kayak on our boat.

John needed a break to rest his arms.  I got in the sit atop to see if I could give a John a break on the boat.  After 20 minutes, I had to give up, as I could not keep up with Lori’s swimming!  We put the sit atop kayak back on the boat and then we tried to get John on the boat and put Craig in John’s long kayak. 

It sounds easier than it was!  With the water conditions what they were, when Craig tried to get into the John’s kayak, he capsized!  So Captain Max, John and Craig had to do a kayak rescue so it didn’t sink, while I kept my eyes on Lori.  She got freaked out because she didn’t know what was going on with the boat, so I told her not to worry about to “keep swimming!”  She did just that!

Once we, the crew, got ourselves sorted out, we caught up to Lori who was still swimming at 70 strokes a minute!!  She looked terrific!  The water calmed down just a bit and I saw 3 dolphins swimming around.  They were beautiful and I am pretty sure that they thought Lori was one of them.  :)

There was a lot of complex navigation by the Captain to avoid the sand bars.  The whole time, Lori just kept swimming at 70 strokes a minute!  At 7 hours, she told me she was running out of steam.  I informed her that she wasn’t, and so she kept swimming.  While we, on the boat, could see the Gandy Bridge coming up, Lori couldn’t.  She just kept on swimming and swimming and swimming.  John and Craig switched out on the kayak a few times.  We passed several boats and swimmers, but it was hard to tell who they were.

Just before we reached the first bridge, Lori said was hungry, so I delivered a little peanut butter sandwich bite on her feed line.  She ate it up and then we had to leave her and John to go under the bridge while Captain Max, Craig and I went 2 miles further out to pass under a section that was tall enough for the boat.  When we got back to Lori and John, she was looking as strong as ever.  It was 4:30pm.

We could then hear on the radio, that several swimmers were starting to drop out.  Lori just kept swimming.  The section between the Gandy the Franklin bridges is 3 miles.  Lori was still swimming at 70 strokes per minute (amazing) but we were only progressing 1.2 miles per hour.  By 6:30pm, we had almost reached the next bridge.    She was still going strong and I have no doubt she was have just kept swimming.

It was getting to dusk, so we were figuring out the best plan for getting Lori to the finish given that the boat had to be out of the water by dark.  Since we had 2 kayaks, they were both going to kayak her in and I was going to go with the boat to the finish and wait for her there.  Her stroke count had still not dropped.

At a few minutes to 7, we were about 100 yards from the Franklin Bridge.  That is when 2 black fins came within 3 feet of our boat.  John and I saw them, and we immediately went to the side to investigate.  They were indeed two 4-foot long sharks.  We informed Captain Max.  He hadn’t seen them, so we all just kept on the lookout.  Then Captain Max’s expression changed, and he pointed to the 2 fins circling Lori and Craig.  As a fisherman, he said “Where there are 2, there are more…”  We briefly considered that perhaps they would swim away.  Captain Max said it was indeed feeding time and there was a lot of fish activity by the bridge.

Lori showed no signs of slowing down.  She was ready to keep swimming for as long as it took.  It could have been another 3 hours, or it could have been an hour and a half and I have no doubt she would have continued at 70 strokes per minute. 

However, I was taking NO CHANCES with my swimmer.  She has an unlimited open water career ahead of her and she had more than proven herself has a hard core open water swimmer.  I made the final decision to pull her immediately.  At exactly 12 hours, I blew my whistle and instructed her to return to the boat now.  She wanted to know why, and I told her I would tell her on the boat, but she needed to get out now.

Once she got on, I put a towel around her and told her how proud I was and that I had to pull her for her safety. I know how upset she was and still is, but I am SO PROUD of her and how tough she was.  I see this as an incredible 12 Hours of Power Swimming.  This will qualify her other open water swims and should give her the confidence that she can attack her next swim. 

Captain Max, Kayaker John and Kayaker Craig were in absolute awe of her and I am just so proud!  I can’t wait till the next adventure with her.  I have instructed her to take 3 weeks off and RELAX and then she can get back in the water, where she will be stronger and better than ever. 

In my book, Lori and Yuta are SUPERSTARS!!!!!  I’m so glad I was able to be a part of it.

~Coach Bonnie

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