Living by Lake Okanagan and driving over it every day I wondered if it was possible to swim across it. As always Google had the answer. There is an organised 2km swim every year from Westbank to Kelowna called The Across the Lake Swim. In 2009 it was to take place on July 18th. I signed up right away. It was then when it hit me, the swim was only six weeks away! I regularly swam 2km in the pool but up to this point I had not done any open water swimming. It was time to train in the lake. Three times a week I swam laps in Gellatly Bay. As a pool swimmer I had become accustomed to turning at the wall every 25m and used the push off the wall as a chance to sneak a rest between lengths. No such luck in open water. The distance from the end of the beach to the car park was around 400m and for the first few training sessions it seemed an awful long way before I turned and headed back.
I bought myself a cheap wetsuit, convinced that this would not only help me stay warm but also help me swim faster. Little did I know. I found out a couple of years later that the type of wetsuit I had created more drag in the water than my skin did. It was in fact slowing me down.
The night before race across the lake I thought it best not to watch the late night movie – it was Jaws!
I had entered myself in the start group for recreational swimmers and as everybody started to assemble at the start point I began to realise just how big this event was with 375 starters. On the beach I stood out like a sore thumb in my cheap wetsuit, everybody else seemed to have proper triathlon suits. Knowing I would be slower than many, I decided beforehand that I had to stay back from the front of the group at the start line. I don’t know how it happened but as the race started I was right in the front row. It was some experience I can tell you. Imagine swimming in a washing machine and you get an idea of what it was like. I collided with people on either side of me, I was kicked, two people even swam right over the top of me, pushing me under and after only a couple of hundred metres I wondered if I was going to make it to the end.
I moved to the edge of the pack and swam by myself. It took a while for the panic to go away and for my breathing to settle down before I could get into my swimming rhythm. It was amazing to think I was actually doing it and as got part way across the lake I could see the W.R Bennett Bridge to my right – it was an awesome sight. I had no real idea of how to sight and couldn’t make out the beach – I just continued to swim in what I thought was the general direction. As I got closer I could just make out the finish line. I was about 200 metres off course and had to swim hard to get back on track. As I entered the finish area with its big orange marker buoys suddenly my goggles started leaking, and I couldn’t see anything. I soon realised that it wasn’t a leak but I was crying. I pushed through until I felt the sand with my hands and pulledoff my goggles, I tried standing and immediately fell over. I dragged myself up again, and made it across the finish line in an official time of 41:17.
I met Angelique on the beach and she was so pleased for me. I told her that two Paul Duffields had started the race and I pulled out the photograph that had been taken of me in 2006 from my wetsuit. The picture of course was wet and the person in the picture was unrecognisable, which to me was the whole point. You see, the swim for me was more than a journey from one side of the lake to the other – it was a symbolic personal journey from one place in my life to another. As soon as we got home I spoke to my family back in England via Skype they all asked about the swim and all cheered when I told them I had done it. It was quite a moment.
For the next few weeks every time I drove across the bridge to work I would look at the lake and proudly say to myself “I’ve swam across that”
And so began my love for open water swimming.