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Senior Editor Polly Sparling Swims Newburgh-Beacon Hudson River Race (The Final Word Opinion Column)


“Don’t worry,” my friend Karen said. “It’s a piece of cake.”

Mid-life affects people in different ways. Regular readers of this space have recently heard stories about getting a first tattoo at age 60, overcoming a lifelong fear of heights, and meeting up with long-lost Irish relatives via the Internet. All of these are, to some degree, ways of reconnecting with those heady days when we were younger, bolder, and less afraid to take risks.

Me? I decided the best way to fight back against the ticking clock was to become athletic — which is just a fancy-pants way of saying that I now routinely inflict various amounts of physical torture on my 55 year-old bones. I took up distance running, and have completed several marathons. I’ve tried contorting myself in yoga classes; I bought a bike. And, last year, I joined a local pool, where I swam endless laps several mornings a week. That’s how I found myself at the starting line for the Newburgh-to-Beacon Hudson River Swim.

The swim is an annual event that helps raise funds for the River Pool at Beacon, a wading-pool-within-the-river that offers locals a respite from the summer heat. On the day of the swim, about 200 hardy souls jump into the Hudson’s murky, white-capped waters and dog-paddle to the Beacon shoreline, which is about a mile away.

Last year, I was one of those 200 — thanks to buddy Karen’s nonchalant assurance that battling the river’s strong currents would be no sweat. On August 6, I lined up with the other swimmers (aka fellow lunatics?), on Newburgh’s floating docks. Stuffed into a wet suit and swim cap, goggles strapped tight against my eyes (gotta watch out for those man-eating sturgeon), I plunged gamely into the greenish-tinged deep and began doing my feeble version of the crawl.

If anyone tries to tell you that swimming in the Hudson is just like swimming in an indoor pool, feel free to inform them that they are full of pond scum. Indoor pools are warm, calm, chemically clean environments. The Hudson — well, not so much. Although the hot summer guaranteed that the temperature of the water would be comfortable, it was no 86 degrees (the usual setting at the pool). Right before we began our watery journey, the skies clouded over and a healthy breeze began whipping the waves into a frenzy; even our safety escort — a regatta of brightly colored kayaks — was having trouble staying afloat. And PCB infestation aside, the Hudson is a working river — which became apparent when I later showered a layer of diesel-tinged oil off my skin.

But — as we older adults have learned to do so well — I persevered. Waves crashed into my face each time I emerged from the water to gasp for breath. Disoriented — there are, unfortunately, no painted lanes on the riverbed — I fought to head east and not end up beneath the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. And a mile of water, which I can traverse with relative ease in the pool, seemed twice as long and three times more difficult with the fickle currents.

Exhausted (and, truth be told, a bit shaken), I emerged from the river behind Karen, who had stuck close to me throughout the ordeal. “Wasn’t that great?” she said brightly. “You’ll do it again next year, right?”

I gave her my most sincere smile, and shook my head. An athlete, I may (try to) be. But I’m also old and wise enough to look my limitations straight in the eye. Some things — like running with the bulls in Pamplona, say, or skydiving — are meant to be once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And for me, swimming across the Hudson ranks right up there at the top.

This year’s Hudson River Swim takes place on July 21. For more information, visit www.riverpool.org.