Being a Swim Angel at Swim Across America

Before I even jump into this post, if you have the opportunity to be a Swim Angel at a Swim Across America event – take it! You won’t regret it!

It feels like I’ve been training non-stop for the last nine months. I’ve gone through six races thus far this year and Ironman Maryland is finally in sight, but I needed a break from the training lifestyle to avoid a burnout.

I was going through my inbox when I received an email from a friend about the Swim Across America event that coming weekend and a need for “Swim Angels” to serve as guides. I had this particular weekend all to myself so I thought, “Why not? It’ll probably be a lot of fun.”

I didn’t contact SAA directly; I inquired to the Nautical Milers head coach Pat Thoreson to see if he still needed any help. All it took was a couple of minutes of filling out forms and I was good to go!

I made an assumption about being a Swim Angel that was incorrect. I thought being a guide meant you were going to be paired with a visually impaired (VI) swimmer; I was wrong. If you go through Swim Across America you can be paired with any swimmer who needs a guide (such a cancer survivor or someone in treatment). However, my experience would be different because I went with the Nautical Milers.

If you didn’t go to the link, the Nautical Milers are a Special Needs Swim Team based in Atlanta. Each swimmer is a truly special individual and their coach has a unique gift of his own. Coach Pat paired me up with a young man named Peter – so I will tell you about our experience!

I’ve worked with people with special needs before when I was employed with Student Accessibility Services as an Undergrad at Kent State, but now I had to guide a special needs swimmer. Back then it would take me a while to figure out how to communicate with some of those students, but today I was on a truncated time table.

The first thing that I noticed about Peter is what he would say to me when we were speaking. He mostly talked about Disney movies, but the way he talked about them made it seem like it was a guessing game (one of those games where you have to use references without saying the movie title or any obvious details). I caught on pretty quick, but I hadn’t seen some of these movies in over twenty-five years so sometimes it took me a minute.

Peter and I talked about movies for about an hour before the swim and he looked pretty comfortable. That just left the hard part – the swim itself! I wanted to know how to gauge his pace, so I asked Pat for a distance & a time. It didn’t really matter what it was because I can usually adjust it well to long distances. Pat told me he was about 1:04 in the 100 Free, which was much faster than I was expecting so I knew this was going to be interesting!

Based on that time, I figured Peter could hold somewhere between 1:30-1:40/100 yards over the mile swim. I had my Garmin Forerunner 920XT on that day, so I could at least keep track of our pace…and I wanted to see if I could keep us on course too!

Going into the swim there were different starting groups based on 100 yard swim times, so from my guess on his pace I picked Group 2 (1:15-1:30/100 yards pace). That turned out to be a pretty accurate guess because we had smooth sailing and didn’t run into many people. I was very glad about that part because I didn’t know how he’d handle it if it turned into a chaotic fire drill.

I told Peter going in I would stay on his left and nudge him when he wasn’t going straight. That sounded like a solid plan to me because he would be on my right and the sighting buoys would always be on my left. Then shortly into the swim I figured out Peter predominantly breathes to his right side. He did manage to go pretty straight and I only had to nudge him a few times. I didn’t know he would randomly throw backstroke into the mix. After the race his mom said, “Did he do backstroke too?”

Peter did really awesome! According to my Garmin, we held a 1:36/100 yards pace for the mile and I had us unofficially at about 27 minutes.

When you spend your entire life in a sport you should always take the opportunity to give back when it arises. This was an awesome event to participate in and I was able to work with a really talented young swimmer. It was a great way to escape from the constant grind of triathlon training and I feel rejuvenated after this weekend. If they’ll have me back, I’d love to do it again next year as long as my schedule is clear.


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