My feet hit the slick, rocky bottom of Whistle Lake’s shore. I stood. And tried not to cry. I’d just completed a quarter mile out and back swim with my friend Erin, relieved that I hadn’t drowned but afraid to do it again. Signing up for a triathlon from the comfort of my warm, dry computer chair had seemed like a good idea months before the race. Now, after my second scary attempt at open water swimming, I wished there was a way to back out. Only one thing stood in my way: Wanda.
I met Wanda a couple of years ago at the pool. The fiftysomething snowbird had arrived in Anacortes, as she usually did, in the spring, to escape her City Mouse life in Houston before it got too hot. Wanda was training for a triathlon. My friend Erin, her daughter, suggested the two of us train together because we are both slow swimmers. Before meeting Wanda, my typical workout consisted of lap after boring lap of a combination of freestyle, sidestroke, and backstroke for about 800 meters, which was about all I could stand. I say I let Wanda boss me around in the pool, but it’s more like student and sensei. We both majored in engineering in college, and Wanda thinks like an engineer when it comes to training, explaining the mechanics of the various strokes and why one technique is better than another to improve efficiency. Our first workout together was the least awful lap swimming experience I’d had to date. The variety made the time almost fly by. As we left the pool that day, I remembered her name by thinking of a phrase that fit A Fish Called Wanda. She loves to bike, hike, golf and run, but also: swim, Dragon boat paddle, and scull. This fall, she plans to take up stand up paddle boarding.
Wanda was raised like Roald Dahl’s Matilda, except without the magic and Miss Honey. She grew up in a foster home in Chicago, never knew (nor cared) who her biological parents were, confined most of the time to the basement. Like Matilda, books were her escape from an unconventional childhood. After high school, she left “home” and headed west, joined the military, started a family, attended community college, transferred to the UW, graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering, earned an MBA and became the first female chemical engineer employed by the Shell refinery in Anacortes. She worked there for eight years, then continued with the company for a total of 25, competing for a series of three-year assignments at positions in five different countries, eventually becoming Senior VP-Engineering Shell International.
Just before retirement, Wanda was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer that she’d tell you about but I won’t. She suffered through chemo, lost her hair but not her spunk, and got back to living the busy lifestyle to which she’d become accustomed in Houston from fall through spring, then Country Mouse-ing a similar, quieter lifestyle in Anacortes in summer. By the time the cancer returned two years later, she had implemented a more holistic defense against it, incorporating: meditation, prayer, chanting, tai chi, exercise and extremely healthful eating into her life, treating her body and spirit like a temple. Weak from chemotherapy, she turned down a chance to become a member of our Ragnar team in the summer of 2015 but joined us at the finish line for a beer sporting a super cute bald head. The following summer, she ran Ragnar and joined us for a post-race beer sporting a gigantic smile and a shock of white hair. Last fall, her tumor marker tests results showed the lowest numbers ever, but the cancer came back late last winter. When I learned she planned to complete the Lake Tye Tri while undergoing chemo, I knew I was screwed. There was no way I could back out.
A month before the race, I tried to crawl stroke my way to a tiny platform ten yards out from the shore of Lake Chelan. My lungs felt tight as I pulled myself onto the floating dock. A week later, Erin nearly held my hand as we swam the race distance at Whistle Lake. Every time I opened my eyes and spied the dark, murky water’s particulates, my lungs felt squeezy and my neck–chokey. The second swim went barely better. On the Monday of race week, I let Wanda boss me around Whistle. She had a plan (Wanda always has a plan) and it went well. We completed half a mile–twice the race distance, and I didn’t die.
Lake Tye, the site of the race, is a two-thirds mile long by one-eighth wide man made-lake situated on the south side of Highway 2 in Monroe. The Sprint distances: 1/4 mile swim, 12 mile bike, 3.1 mile run. We arrived an hour before the start of the Olympic distance race. I placed my bike and other items within the allowed handlebar-width space in the transition area, dashed back to the van to retrieve my forgotten timing chip, and started getting nervous.
The race director sent the Olympic distance athletes off starting at 8:00 am, first the men in green caps, then the women in white, including Erin. Most participants were on to the bike leg before the Sprint distance race even started. Huge inflatable red buoys marked our not-too-scary looking upside down U-shaped course. Wearing red swim caps, Wanda and I were in the final wave, women forty and up. We readied our watch timers and waded into the water as the director sounded our start. I walked out as far as I could, put my face in the water, and saw seaweed and darkness, which transported me back to that first anxiety-filled, lung-squeezing open-water swim a month prior. The wetsuit felt tight around my neck and I couldn’t catch my breath. Alternating between freestyle and side stroke, I completed the distance during one of the longest ten-minute periods of my life. As I pulled off my wetsuit in the transition area, Wanda arrived and headed to her assigned spot. Faster, fitter athletes passed me on thinner-tired bikes on a flattish out and back course with vehicles navigating the gap between racers on either side of the two-lane road. I saw Wanda again and Erin for the first time. Less than an hour later, I left my bike and helmet in the transition area and began the best part–the run. That each participant’s age was marked conspicuously on his or her left calf was a distraction, so after passing two women in my division, I refused to let my eyes stray to the calf-zone. Crossing the finish line 93 minutes later, I vowed never to try another tri, then waited for Wanda. She arrived sooner than expected, collected her medal and smiled. I gave her a hug and we waited for Erin to finish her first Olympic distance triathlon, which she did fast enough to land a fourth place finish in her division. I finished mid-pack in mine. Wanda finished first in a special one-woman category: athletes undergoing chemotherapy.