Mid July in New York City, and the second swim of my summer was on. I had competed in the Brooklyn Bridge swim in 2011, and had achieved my best ever placing. As such this swim has a special place in my heart, and besides it is a good excuse to take three months off work and travel to the city that never sleeps.
I had done quite well in the Statue of Liberty swim two weeks previously, coming 75th overall. However, I wanted to do even better in the Brooklyn Bridge swim, as I knew the course this time. On this trip I was also staying in Brooklyn, so I felt more like a local this time swimming across the East River to Manhattan.
Just to recap. The course for this swim starts at Brooklyn Bridge Park near the Manhattan Bridge. You swim downriver to the Brooklyn Bridge, then turn left and head to a small beach just upstream from the South Street, keeping the Brooklyn Bridge above you all the way across (at least in theory). The distance is a mere one km, which sounds easy enough. But this is a river with strong tidal influences, and they play a part in the swim.
I had found out that some of the New York Public Pools were open for adult lap swimming from 7am till 8.30 am on weekday mornings. I had found the closest pool to me was at Sunset Park in Brooklyn. This pool is situated in a park that is the second highest point in Brooklyn, and it has amazing views of the harbour, the Statue of Liberty, and the city skyline.
An added bonus was that the pool entry was free, and if you could swim thirty miles over the summer a commemorative T-shirt would be your reward. So I started doing some laps in the pool, in order to get some fitness back for my upcoming swims. Now I should point out that these pools are free to enter, but they are only open from the end of June to early September each year, from 11 am to 7 pm daily. In a city where summer temperatures frequently get over 30 degrees C it is a welcome relief for the locals. Did I also mention the pool is only one metre deep? Sure makes the pools at home look so much better with their longer opening hours and longer swimming season.
The night before the swim we went to Prospect Park to watch an outdoor screening of Saturday Night Fever, which was filmed 35 years ago in Bay Ridge (the other side of Sunset Park) in Brooklyn. It was an incredible experience to watch this movie again with a large number of locals. There was also a Bee Gees tribute band playing beforehand with their unique heavy metal interpretation of the songs from the movie complete with middle-aged rockers in jump suits. What a blast.
After what seemed like twenty minutes sleep, the alarm went off at 4.30 am to enable us to get on the subway in time for the 6.15 am cut off time for registration. As we arrived at the park we were greeted by a gorgeous sunrise.
The swim was scheduled to start at 7.15 am, and this is one of the few times of the year that the East River is closed to river traffic. The start time is determined in reference to the tidal movements as well to make it easier for the swimmers to get to Manhattan. During the swimmers briefing held earlier in the week we were told that the current would be slightly downriver at the start pushing us towards the Brooklyn Bridge. However, as you crossed the river you should expect that the current there would push you up river back towards the Manhattan Bridge. Once across the other side the current would shift again going downstream. I had experienced this last year, and I was keen to put my mistakes from that swim behind me.
I was in wave three this year as opposed to wave five last year. For this swim the NYC Swim organisers had implemented a ranking system to assist in their wave identification. I was ranked 91st, which put me in the middle of my wave. I was determined that I would finish a lot higher than 91st, and also that I would be towards the front of my wave.
We stood in our lines and watched the first two waves start. I noticed that the current on this Brooklyn side was definitely in line with predictions. This was reinforced as I waited at the start line with the current pushing me to the left. I wanted to start on the right hand side to get more benefit from the current, so I quickly moved to that end of the start line.
The hooter went and we were off. The wave moved quickly to the first buoy where we had to turn left. I was in the top third of my wave at this stage, but I was swimming at a comfortable pace. There were four more buoys to pass on my right shoulder before the turn. I had noticed that they were not straight, so I had decided to aim for the last one to save some distance. I was soon swimming by myself between the rest of my wave and the sea wall. I was tempted to drift over to the rest of the wave to get some drag.
As we approached the turning marker under the Brooklyn Bridge the current was in our face. It made it tricky turning at right angles. This also told me that the current would be sending swimmers back towards the Manhattan Bridge. As we turned the buoy I made a decision to head left towards the Brooklyn Bridge to make more use of the current going to my right. I noticed that all the rest of my wave had been swept to the right by the current. I was confident that I had made the correct decision based upon my experience of the previous year, and the information provided by the organisers.
However, as I was about one-third of the way across the river swimming all by myself, I noticed a kayaker paddling furiously towards me. As he approached me he yelled at me that I was going the wrong way and that I should go right. I thought this was absurd as if I did that I would be swept upriver and would have to swim further. Besides, just because everyone else had not kept the Bridge as their overhead line marker did not mean that I would do the same thing. So I ignored him and kept swimming aiming to the left of the far stanchion of the bridge.
I was swimming strongly and could see the rest of my wave with their pink caps well off to my right. I could also see some orange caps of the previous wave, and even some green ones of the first wave. There was no one swimming near me, and I was confident that I had navigated correctly.
I quickly got to the Manhattan side of the river and lined up my approach to the finish line. I could by this stage feel a slight pull downriver pushing me to the left. So I adjusted accordingly and concentrated on catching some green and orange caps just in front of me.
I ran up the beach and crossed the finish line. I looked around and could not see any other pink caps, so I thought I had done well. In fact there were orange and green caps on the heads of the swimmers nearby.
I eagerly accepted my medal, and we made our way to the South Street Seaport for the showers, goody bags and food. I knew what was in the bags as I had helped pack them during the week. This is so different to swims at home where you might get a small bag with some of the bigger swims. But with this swim you get a high quality medal, a backpack with gifts in it, and a t-shirt. And you get to swim an iconic swim.
So how did I do? My time of 20 minutes and four seconds meant I was placed 38th overall, which was an improvement on my 42nd of last year. It also meant my ranking of 91 would need adjustment in the future. I was also placed first in my age group, which is the first time I have ever finished in the top three of any event. I definitely approve of the rule that says anyone who finishes in the top three overall in their gender for the swim is ineligible for an age group prize. I had actually come third in my age group, with the first two in my age group coming first and second overall for the males. Hey I think this is a wonderful idea!
Overall I must say that for me the Brooklyn Bridge swim has lived up to my expectations. It is a glorious swim in New York City in clean water. It also requires some thought to navigate the shifting currents. And for me it has given me my first ever podium finish in my age group. It does not get better than that.
A big Thank You for the volunteers from NYC Swim who organise this and various other swims in New York City each year. They do a magnificent job, and the swims run very smoothly.
My next swim is at Coney Island, with my last swim in this northern summer the week after at Governors Island. This trip has been a huge success for me, and there are still two swims to go.
What is that line from the old Frank Sinatra song…..If you can make it there you can make it anywhere, New York New York.