Saturday, August 16, 2008
No goal is too distant for those who can believe
by Florence Chadwick
When I started out to swim the 21-mile channel from Catalina Island to the California Coast that July 4th, conditions didn't seem too different from my other swims, except for two things. I missed my father a lot, and we knew that an attempt was being made to televise my effort to be the first woman to swim this California Channel.
Fifteen hours, 55 minutes later, they pulled me from the water. I was just a mile away from my goal. It was the first time in my life I had been forced to quit.
It wasn't until some hours later, when the numbing cold in my bones began to thaw, that I really felt the shock of failure. When a sympathetic young reporter came to talk with me, I told him honestly, "Yes, I was cold. No, I wasn't tired."
Then, because he looked understanding, I blurted out what was secretly in my heart. "Look, I'm not excusing myself. But if I could have seen land, I might have made it."
Was that wishful thinking? The big "if" we all have afterward? Not entirely. When I first swam the English Channel in 1950, I thought I had gone as far as humanly possible. I was cold then, too. I asked to be taken out of the water.
Just then my father sighted land. He pointed. I saw it too. Land in sight! The thrill of that brought the warmth I needed and victory was sure. It didn't take much faith to swim on toward a destination I could see so clearly.
But the California Coast had been shrouded in fog last 4th of July morning. Even the boats in our own party were almost impossible to see. When my mother and my trainer told me we were in sight of shore, that only fog obscured our landing place, I thought they were only coaxing, only encouraging me. I didn't believe them. I couldn't see it. And I was so cold.
True, I did wish for my father, who had passed away in November 1951, but the best part of him, his sure strong faith, had been with me in that 48 degree sea. The same prayer for strength and courage we always made together when I entered the water, I had made alone. Tired as I was at the end, I thanked God for my blessings as Dad had taught me to do when each swim was completed.
So, even though I knew I would try again, this first failure was a blow. Then I remembered my father and his saying that "good can come out of any experience if we enter into it with prayer and keep an open heart."
Well, I had entered this with prayer, and I was waiting, now, with an open heart to see what good could come of it. I didn't wait long.
Because of television, millions had seen the swim, some staying up on through the night. The flood of messages and some 3000 letters indicated they had seen much more in my long effort than I had.
There was a letter from a man and his wife, on the verge of breaking off their marriage, who sat in their living-room and watched me to the end. Something in the picture of a cold, lonely girl, swimming on and on through the night, touched them. "If you have the strength, the purpose and endurance to try that again," they said, "well, so have we."
A young man, who described himself as a tough, hard-boiled skeptic, wrote: "I never prayed in my life before, but when you were so close to shore, I found myself on my knees, asking God to give you strength."
This kind of response made me feel almost unworthy. None of my successes had ever won me so many friends. But the failure to swim a channel of water enabled me to learn something that will last a lifetime.
For reflection helped me see clearly that I had been licked by the fog. Like doubt, confusion or discouragement, the fog alone had no power to stop me. But because I let it blind my heart and reason, as well as my eyes, then it really defeated me.
I remembered that Jesus had said to one of His disciples: "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed."
At that moment I knew the real meaning of faith described in the Bible as, "the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen." When fog obscures our own vision, even when we've gone all out, and still seem to be failing and are too tired or cold to go on, then we must be willing to accept the word of someone who sees a little clearer, knows a little better than we do.
Realizing this made me accept my many new friends with a sure feeling that, fog or no fog, I wouldn't let them down again.
The day we picked for the second Catalina Island to California Coast swim was September 20th, over two months later. The weather was better, but we encountered many of the same obstacles as before. Three times sharks were sighted; members of my crew were forced to shoot several when they got too close. In the middle we came into such a bad patch of fog I could hardly see the boats, but I swam on.
My brother, for the first time, sat in the rowboat where my father had always been. When it was time for my nourishment, he elaborately put on a chef's hat, clanged a dinner bell and then fed me my four lumps of sugar. His humorous remarks, on the blackboard by which we communicated, kept my spirits high.
When I reached the California shore, breaking the men's record by nearly two hours, I was never so humbly grateful for victory.
But the joy of this triumph can not compare with the thrill I received from a letter sent me by a chronically ill man. Though depressed by his sickness, he had watched my first failure, and what he could see of the second success. He wrote how my effort had given him courage and strength to fight on. Even if he didn't see his goal of a complete cure, he had learned to have faith that for him, somewhere, there was. . . land ahead.
This article appeared in Guideposts magazine. Visit the recently updated guideposts.com.