Lake Berryessa is a manmade lake in Northern California, and where I spent all the summers of my childhood. It was formed by diverting natural rivers to flood the valley where the town of Monticello once was, and when I’d swim and waterski in the lake, especially as a kid, but even as I got older, I’d imagine roads and houses and schools, tables and chairs and beds, and sometimes, when I’d let myself get really carried away, ghostlike shadows of the people who had inhabited Monticello before the lake was made. Out in the water, alone, just me and a ski, waiting for the boat to come around and get me, I could get my heart racing with the thought of toys left behind, overturned in the slimy mud and now brown and mossy on the deep, dark floor below.
If that weren’t enough to freak a little girl out, to justify the family rule that everyone had to wear a life jacket or belt when swimming in the lake, my grandmother would tell us the tragic tales of people who had drowned while swimming without a safety device.
Her stories haunt me still.
Last year I swam a non-competitive 3 km in the sea in Croatia, and was panicky the entire time. I couldn’t wait for it to end, and when it finally did I knew I’d be just as jittery the next time around.
This year, I signed up for a competitive 4.5 km swim in Lago d’Orta, a beautiful lake in Piedmont, one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen, about three hours from where I live. Lake Berryessa will always and forever hold a very special place in my heart, but Lake Orta, well, as soon as we arrived and I caught sight of a perfect expanse of blue framed by hills and mountains, with a perfect little island in the middle, I couldn’t wait to jump in.
And so I did, we all did, everyone from my swim team. But as I moved farther from the shore, the water got darker and my chest contracted. What are you so scared of, one my friends asked, and I tried to explain. Oh yeah, said someone else, it’s that primordial fear of the deep, dark unknown. This was a guy two times my weight, with arms as thick as my thighs. “I get that, too, sometimes,” he said.
It helped to put a name on it, and it helped to know I wasn’t the only one. The idyllic setting helped too. I was a little freaked out when the race began, but pulled myself together by concentrating on the water, my stroke, the other swimmers’ graceful bodies in the water all around me. Once I got going, I was fine. It took me about the same amount of time it takes me to finish a half marathon, but it felt like half that. It was completely painless and enjoyable, nothing like a running race where I sometimes have to remind myself that the faster I run, the sooner the agony will end.
When I climbed out of the water, I was a little dazed from all that swimming. It felt funny to feel the weight of my body after my weightlessness in the water. Mostly, it felt good. I was almost sorry it was over. And next time I don’t think I’ll be scared at all.