It’s 7:45 a.m. on Wednesday, August 10. I arrive with my team at the North Cove Marina, where Erika and Mayra are already with their respective teams. Erika surprises me; she is barely 20 years old. Mayra greets me warmly. Immediately everyone wants photos of the three of us. We get together and take the first of the many pictures of that day.
The boats are scheduled to arrive at 8:45. I take some time to talk with my fellow swimmers. Erika is 20 years old, a cadet at West Point, and this is her second open water swim (last year she swam once around Manhattan). I joke with her that if we both finish, we’ll be the youngest and oldest persons to complete this swim. Mayra, for her part, lives in Portugal. She started swimming six years ago and has a Guinness World Record: 31 hours of swimming in a continuous-flow pool.
Both are excited about the swim, but their nervousness is noticeable. I feel calm. Unlike swims in the ocean, the variables here are limited to currents in the Harlem River; the rest depends on enduring 20 hours of non-stop swimming.
I relax for a few minutes, start the warm-up routine with Rafael Álvarez (Rafa is my coach), and, when I’m done, I get ready. Rafa begins smearing sunscreen and Lassar paste on my skin and, immediately, one can tell that this is not his specialty. This activity is under the purview of Ariadna del Villar (the team physician), who unfortunately did not receive her visa on time and, like Ricardo Durón, who got sick with covid, had to stay in Mexico. We get on the boat and shortly after 10:00 a.m., we start the swim.
In the days before the event, I received an email with all the relevant information, including the partial times of the two laps. When we saw them, Rafa and I were surprised: 7 hours 33 minutes for the first lap and 11 hours 58 minutes for the second—a difference of 4 hours 25 minutes. We decided not to worry and wait for the meeting with Alex Arévalo.
I finally met Alex the Sunday before the swim. We had written to each other several times over the years but had never met in person.
“The schedule that we sent to you,” he explained, “was determined according to the time that you reported from your continuous one-hour swim in the pool. It is important to stick to it, because otherwise we can get into trouble with changing tides. I’ll probably tell you to go slower on the first lap; take it easy.”
I had never been told that I would be asked to slow down or take it easy during feeding stops. He went on to explain, “The difference between the first and second laps is due to the currents in the Harlem River and the time we will have to wait to enter the East River.”
This information matched with what Jaimie Monahan, Courtney Moates Paulk, and Stéve Stievenart had told me months before. “Go easy on the first lap and be prepared for the Harlem River,” they had warned me.
I finish the first lap very calmly indeed. I have swum quite relaxed, and the only annoyance has been the water temperature, around 76.3 °F. Reaching Mill Rock for the first time today in 7 hours 19 minutes, I complete my third Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. Rafa is happy and, from the boat, he congratulates me. At the next feeding stop Alex tells me, “Now we have four difficult hours ahead of us. We are going up the Harlem.”
At the beginning of each season, in addition to planning outings, technical work, and goals for each training component, Rafa and I identify the key moment(s) of the swim. In the case of Manhattan, we knew that swimming against the current, especially in the Harlem, was going to be the main obstacle.
So, when Alex tells me we are going upstream, I remember all the training sessions at Las Estacas and start swimming. However, I don’t feel much difference in the current for a while. I am concentrating on the rhythm of my strokes when, suddenly, the sensation that we are in an area without any current at all brings me back to reality. I stop and ask what’s going on.
“We’re going to stay here for a while, until you can overcome the current,” Alex tells me. We have reached the NYPD boathouse, under the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, which connects Harlem with Randall’s Island Park. To continue, we need to swim between two structures separated by no more than 20 meters. The resulting funnel causes the current to be very strong.
I stretch a little and Alex asks me, “Do you want to give it a shot?” “Let’s do it,” I reply. “Stay to the right when you exit,” he instructs me.
I try, but I can’t go more than two meters; the current pulls me back. Erika and Mayra try as well, and the same thing happens to them. I rest for a few minutes and try once more. Again, no luck. Alex leaves us to go see if the current is calmer on the other side. Meanwhile, I take the opportunity to do chi-kung, stretch, clear my mind of all thoughts, and relax. When I pay attention again, it’s been 20 minutes since we stopped, and Alex is back.
“The other route is not an option either; we will wait.” I ask how long. “Last year, it took Bárbara Hernández (a Chilean swimmer) an hour and a half.” I think to myself that there is no way I’m going to wait that long. As the thought runs through my mind, another kayaker tries to cross. He follows the strategy of sticking to the right, but the current is so strong that it moves him to the left. A few seconds later, I watch as he moves forward more easily.
At that moment I remember the entrance to the bubbling spring at Las Estacas. I always start on the right side but end up coming out on the left. I’ve figured it out. This time I will get through. I turn around and tell Alex I’ll try again, explaining what I just observed. “Go for it. If you make progress, don’t stop until we’re on the other side.”
I estimate that it will be between two and three minutes of relentless intensity. Strength training, explosive series, paddles, and many laps upstream to the spring at Las Estacas have prepared me for this.
I approach, gradually increasing my pace. I turn and this time, instead of facing the current head-on, I angle my body to the left and feel myself making progress. I increase the intensity even more and feel my body pick up speed and move forward. When I see Alex again, he yells at me not to stop. About 200 meters later, when I feel that I am out of danger, I go up to him and ask him for a bottle with Maurten. I drink it and quickly feel my muscles recover.
We resume the swim and I feel happy because I think the worst is over. Big mistake! Alex stops and tells me, “We are about to enter another area with a strong current. Do you want to wait or try?”
We are under the Park Avenue Bridge, one of the many bridges that connect Harlem with the Bronx, and in front of me there are two metal structures, old dikes about 50 meters long that cause very strong currents to form. I know that as soon as I go around the structure, I will feel the force of the water once again. Surely this is the place Jaimie was referring to when she told me to stick my head in the water and swim hard.
Rafa is not the only person with whom I identify the key moment(s) of the swim. I also do it with Jaime Delgado, my mental coach. When I swam across the North Channel, for example, we sought warmth through a method called “the pearl.” This time, I had to prepare myself to face the currents of the Harlem River. Three weeks before the swim, I came to my training session and told Jaime I had a problem.
“I am very worried about the currents in the Harlem,” I said. “We have to do something.”
“What are you worried about, specifically?”
“Feeling tired when I reach that point, my arms hurting a lot, and not being able to handle the currents.”
“We will do two things: first, prepare for that stage, and then identify what you’ll do next, after you have passed the currents. We are going to do an exercise that will allow us to connect.”
I mentally review the state of my body. Everything is fine and I feel recovered from the previous effort. I enter the dimension, light the red fire, call the sapphire, establish the connection, and raise my hand to signal to Alex that we’re on.
I go around the structure and the current hits me head-on. The effort does not have to be explosive, but if I want to move forward, I will have to swim hard for a while. I not only take energy from the fire that I visualize in my arms and abdomen, but also from the memory of the ten ascents to the spring at Las Estacas. I know that the pain and fatigue of that day will help me right now.
The structures have profiles every certain number of meters, like the Aquatic Park dam in San Francisco. Every time I breathe, I make sure I’m moving forward. Little by little I make progress and, finally, I move past both structures.
The swim continues up the Harlem River and then the Hudson, where at nightfall, a beautiful moon appears. I don’t have time for much contemplation, but at the feeding stops I take a few seconds to enjoy the spectacle of Manhattan at night.
As we move down the Hudson, my left arm starts hurting. It is the same pain that I felt in the double crossings of the Catalina and English Channels, a pain that never appears in the pool or during long training sessions. I approach the boat, explain to Rafa what is happening, and ask him to talk to Ricardo so that he can send me some exercises.
A few minutes later, Dan Simonelli, my kayaker for part of the second lap, raises his oars. “We need to look for a place where we can wait for the current to change in order to enter the East River.”
I take advantage of the 30-minute wait to do Ricardo’s exercises and a chi-kung session. Resuming the swim, we enter the East River and, in a few more hours, reach Mill Rock again. I get on the boat and enjoy the return trip. This time I can do it with just a towel on my back: I’m not cold.
The next day I get up early and go for a walk around Central Park. I can’t have been in New York without walking around for a while, especially this morning when the temperature has dropped and it feels like an autumn day.
After walking I meet Rafa for coffee. We talk about the swim, the transition, and the swim we will do in 2023, because we already know that we have a date in Dover in 2024. We discuss the topic without being able to decide. At the end he tells me not to worry. “Remember that this swim is just a long training session for your next swim,” he points out.
I keep thinking and make sense of his words. I swim because I like it and because in every swim, I learn something new that will make me improve next time. The answer to “What’s next?” will have to wait.