Hundreds of volunteers keep her in the swim

  • By Sarri Gilman / Herald Columnist
  • Monday, August 16, 2004 9:00pm
  • Local News

At one extreme, there are those with a list of pitiful excuses about why they can’t get off the couch and exercise, and at the other end there are those who do triathlons.

Triathletes have just as many reasons why they can’t get enough of three sports at once. When I got really close up to the triathlon experience, at Try the Rock on Whidbey Island, I was relieved to hear the majority of people whining about all the same things I whine about. I was relieved to discover that the imaginary voices I hear in my head were not imaginary.

I don’t really call myself a triathlete since I did not personally do three sports for the race.

I did one sport. I was the swimmer for my three-person team. At a slow and steady pace the swim phase is a 20-minute endeavor.

But, still, I was in the lake. And I had spent months preparing for the half-mile swim. Since I couldn’t really approximate what swimming with 300 people would be like, I puttered along by myself. I did hear horror stories of sumo wrestling for position while in the water. Surely these triathletes are more sportsmanlike than that?

The swim phase of the “tri” is unlike any other part of the event. Each phase of the swim, bike and run conjures up visions of endurance, exhaustion and pushing on in spite. It’s a mental test as much as a physical one.

But the swim adds a heaping of vulnerability to the whole thing. Experienced triathletes will talk about having panic attacks and fears of drowning in the lake, even in a familiar lake.

Panic attacks? I said. Oh yes, real ones. Surely all my training as a therapist would give me that extra edge on race day.

On race day, almost all of the experienced folks were wearing wet suits in spite of the 70-degree temperature of the water. The wet suits add buoyancy that gives reassurance to the swimmer. I, of course, was planning to rely on my therapy training to get me across the lake.

As a first timer, I was stunned to see the lake lined with kayaks and jet skis. I probably got through my first triathlon swim without a panic attack because every time I looked above the waterline, I could see a kayak volunteer. I knew I was not going to drown.

As I scrambled out of the water and ran to my biking teammate for the handoff, I couldn’t help but feel appreciation. Not because my swim was finished, but in appreciation for the volunteer who laid a carpet path between the lake and the bikers. The volunteers covered the gravel and rocks for the barefooted swimmers running to get to their bikes.

I had plenty of time to kill while my teammates did the grueling parts of the “tri” – the 19-mile bike race and the 3.8 mile run (not jog). I was munching on watermelon, served by volunteers, chatting with folks and mostly trying to figure out where to position myself to get the best photos of my teammates as they hit the finish lines.

I wanted to capture the photo finish as my husband crossed under the big banner. I didn’t want to miss the moment. No worries. There was a volunteer with a bullhorn announcing the name of every single person entering the finish zone a full minute before the person crossed the line so their friends and families would not miss the moment.

So all those months I spent practicing in the pool, getting ready for the big day and thinking about how I would carry on for my team, I was not prepared for the biggest surprise of all: on the day of the event there would be a couple of hundred volunteers helping to carry me.

Sarri Gilman is a freelance writer living on Whidbey Island. Her column on living with meaning and purpose runs every other Tuesday in The Herald. She is a therapist, a wife and a mother, and has founded two nonprofit organizations to serve homeless children. You cane-mail her at

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