The Braille Monitor                                                                                               __May 1997

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My Swim Around Key West

by Sharon Luka

From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the September, 1996, Freestate News, a publication of the NFB of Kansas. Sharon Luka is a long-time member of the Kansas affiliate and a staunch Federationist as you will see from her determination to succeed. Here is her story:

Born three months premature and blind, Sharon Luka, forty-one, of Saline, Kansas, took up swimming because she liked the freedom she found in the water. With the support of her family Sharon began swimming regularly after college, making real demands on herself. When you're blind, Sharon says, nobody wants to push you in sports because they don't know what you can do, and they are afraid you will fail. On Saturday, June 1, 1996, Sharon competed in the twentieth annual Swim Around Key West, a grueling 12.5-mile swim at the southernmost tip of the continental United States.

Sharon, who was expected to take up to ten hours to complete the swim, finished at 7:57:19. With corporate sponsorship from Pfizer, Inc., Sharon was the first blind swimmer to compete in this marathon event and fulfilled her goal of proving that blindness is nothing but a physical nuisance.

Several months before I competed in the Swim Around Key West, I had a dream about the event. It was a nightmare, really, because in it the race had begun, all the other swimmers were churning up the water, and I couldn't move since I couldn't find the boat that was supposed to guide me. Luckily, this was one nightmare that did not repeat itself, even on the eve of the marathon when I had a good case of pre-race jitters. Truth be told, I had little chance for any sleep, let alone dreams, the night before the race. All in all, it was a relief to get up and get into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Having trained only in a swimming pool, little did I know what I would face that day. If I had known, I would have stayed in bed and not done battle with tireless waves, stinging salt, oozing mud flats, clinging seaweed, submerged sea walls, and more.

I got my first big surprise when I arrived at the beach and felt a tremendous gust of wind that practically blew me over. I stood on the shore with 250 other swimmers, my feet planted in the sand to keep my footing. As waves slammed the beach, I could hear flags whipping in the air and caught fragments of conversations: "Oh boy, it's really going to rain.... Looks like hurricane weather." I made my final preparations in silence. First, I put on my receiver cap--the radio-equipped swim cap that would allow the guides in my escort boat to act as my eyes during the marathon. Then I gave my last good-by hug to my sister June, who trembled as we embraced. I knew she was scared as I headed off toward the wind-tossed waves.

Anita Allen, a marathon swimmer who served as my chief guide in the escort boat, took my hand, and we started into the water. I plunged forward to get started, caught a mouthful of water, and choked in surprise. How will I ever begin this race, I wondered, let alone finish it? I decided right then that, if I could swallow salt water, I could swallow my pride as well and, rather than swimming out to the starting line on my own, got towed out by my escort boat to avoid the hazardous surf near shore.

Once at the starting line, I knew I had to get through the next dozen and a half miles all under my own steam. Navigationally, however, I had to depend on others. My special receiver cap would enable me to get directions from Anita and be warned of any obstacles in my path. Since the cap is wired for sound, I sometimes use it back home in Kansas to play music and movie soundtracks when I'm practicing long-distance swims in the pool. On this day my guide Anita had selections from Peter, Paul, and Mary and the soundtrack of National Velvet ready just in case I wanted it. But I wound up too busy dodging waves and trying to breathe without inhaling seawater to listen to even a single chorus of "Puff the Magic Dragon." I did benefit from one bit of movie inspiration: Echoing The Wizard of Oz, Anita kept spurring me on with "You're not in Kansas anymore!" True enough, I thought.

The first part of the race was the hardest, because I swam headlong into constant waves for three miles straight. With no visual clues to help me, I had a hard time synchronizing my breathing so that my head hit the trough, not the peak, of the waves as I inhaled. Throughout this stretch I kept heading to the left trying to avoid the waves and get air while Anita kept radioing me to come back to the right. ("You're heading to Cuba?") The best thing I can say about this tug-of-war is that it was so aggravating I wasn't bored for a moment.

Somewhere along the way, I'll confess, the salt spray started to get to me. By that time my sinuses were so irritated that my head was buzzing as if I had gotten nitrous oxide at the dentist. This, I decided, was a situation that urgently needed help from above. "God, I know that you can stop these waves," I prayed. "But if you choose not to, then please just give me the patience to put up with them."

Well Plan B seemed to suit the Almighty just fine. While the waves and spray kept coming, I gained not only the patience to put up with them but also the creativity to turn them into a game. I'd stretch out my arm and try to decide which side was getting hit harder by rain. This told me which direction the wind was coming from, and that in turn told me which side to avoid when inhaling. Certainly not the world's greatest game, but it did keep me busy!

The irony was that Anita told me I was starting to look like a real ocean racing pro! But I'm sure I didn't look so great when, about halfway through the race, I ran into a mud flat. I probably could have walked, not swum, this part of the route. But since getting up on your feet during the race is strictly prohibited, I just oozed right on through, wriggling my way across the smooth silt and seaweed like a tadpole until I hit deeper water again. The experience was surprisingly not unpleasant, but you would surely have to try it to believe me. The ocean holds many mysteries, even when you have sharp-eyed guides trying to spot the hazards for you.

At one point, supposedly in clear water, I hit a submerged sea wall and got stung by a jelly fish or some other creature at the same time. I felt fortunate, nonetheless. Since other marathon swimmers got badly stung all over their bodies that day, I was pretty lucky to get away with just one tingling spot on my wrist.

The last and best surprise of the day was that I finished the race sooner than I expected to; in fact, I completed the 12.5-mile course forty-five minutes faster than it took me to complete the 9.5-mile swim I'd done in rehearsal. So, when Anita radioed me that the buoy marking the finish line was just a mile ahead, I didn't quite believe it. At that point, I felt I could swim forever and had just one thought in my mind: I'm going to make it. When I finally touched the giant buoy that marked the end of the race, I heard a lot of whistling and commotion in the background and thought, "I wonder what all the excitement is. I must really be missing out on something." When I got to shore, I found out from my sister that the excitement was me. I was the last swimmer to finish, and what I'd heard was people cheering me on.

I can honestly say this was one of the happiest moments of my life. I had trained nine months for this moment. I had wanted to test my limits and see how far I could go. Looking back on the experience, I realize how important it was for me to prove to myself and other people that being blind is not a reason to hold back on your dreams. I hope that my experience will inspire others to challenge themselves.

Believe me, there is no greater satisfaction than meeting a tough challenge, especially when it is a tough challenge you have picked for yourself!