by Tim Cespedes
I entered the 2018 Bridge Swim because of a promise. I didn’t go into it with any expectations of winning or racing or “getting on the podium”. That was the farthest thing from my mind. I know that those things are not part of my world any more. Not in my “new normal”.
Around 2009, my health started to change. Even though I was still swimming regularly, I was getting slower and slower and unable to complete workouts. I had this feeling of being out of shape all the time, struggling to keep up. I wondered how I could I have gone from swimming the English Channel to getting tired from walking up a flight of stairs?
Swimming was no longer a source of energy and pride. I dropped out of the faster lanes. And even though I was happy to meet new lane mates, I was embarrassed to admit that I struggled with the slower intervals. I stepped away from the team for a while just to avoid the conversation. What was worse was that I didn’t know how to explain this to a doctor.
“I came in today to tell you that my problem is I’m getting slower in the pool.” I was finally able to describe it as a combination of heart and nerve issues. After years of doctors’ visits, I discovered that my heart was out of beat, an atrial flutter, and one of the heart chambers doesn’t function properly. My “loss of feeling in the water” and “out of sync” kicking was due to neuropathy.
Finally, in 2013, I was diagnosed with a rare, incurable, blood disease called “amyloidosis”. It often goes undiagnosed because the symptoms mimic other more common diseases. Amyloidosis is a disease where mis-folded proteins collect in different parts of the body, impairing their normal function. For me, it’s my heart and nervous system. Treatment for my type involved several weeks of chemo and a stem cell transplant requiring hospital isolation.
During my stay, I found a window that looks down on the Willamette River. I remember thinking about how I’d rather be anywhere else than sitting in that damn hospital wondering if my body would ever get back to “normal”. And seeing the river just made me realize how much I missed open water swimming. I missed feeling the water and having that sense of freedom. And in one of my lowest moments, I made myself a promise. If I could ever recover, if I could ever get back to “normal”, I will swim in that river and look back up.
So, somewhere in that second hour, breathing to my left, I looked up and saw the building. Kohler Pavilion, standing tall up on the hill. I resisted the urge to flip it off and yell “screw you Amyloidosis!” Instead, I realized how far I’ve come. Not back to “normal” but now in my “new normal.” I thought about my 11-day stay on the 14th floor. I thought about the nurses and doctors who work hard to find a cure for this disease. I thought about the other patients just now going through their stays; riding the exercise cycle or walking laps in the hall to build up their energy levels; their IV stands in tow. I wondered what they hoped for, what they wished for, what simple pleasure they wanted back.
I did this swim to fulfill a promise; to swim in the river, look back up, and celebrate. I knew that for me, in my new normal, this was going to be about a six-hour swim. And that’s how I approached it; a six-hour celebration. A celebration of life.