My heart was pounding as we pulled into the parking lot where they had just begun setting up for the big event at High Tide Farm, located directly across the bay from Gibson Island in Maryland. As the aroma of horse dung hit my nose, I took a deep breath and said a silent prayer.

I felt the breeze and remembered the email I received the night before:

Conditions will be a factor; see the below latest forecast from NOAA. (North winds 10 to 15 KT, with gusts to 25 KT. Waves 3 foot.) Please call or text me if you’d rather not proceed with the swim tomorrow.

I had just learned to swim roughly one year before, and had never come close to swimming 5 miles, much less in the open water, with choppy conditions. But, I had stuck to the training.

I signed my waiver, grabbed my timing chip and t-shirt, and headed off to make a pit stop before scoffing down my breakfast, which consisted of gobs of sautéed sweet potatoes and a couple of eggs.

Moments later, I was getting out of a minivan at the starting line. At 6:30am, it was still dark, and the wind continued to pick up as the shuttle made its rounds. By 6:50am, the swimmers were suited up, and their kayakers were putting their boats in the water.

Kayakers are responsible for spotting, ensuring we stay on course and avoid swimming into each other. They also provide food, water, and supplies such as extra goggles and swim caps. Mine also provided a bit of good humor and cheerleading.

As I talked with my new friend and kayaker, Bob, I noticed the waves were increasing in size, and my adrenaline started pumping faster.

“Will I even be able to make progress in this choppy water? This is crazy!” I thought, as I did my best to remain calm.

Then, Dave came over and started asking Bob about the timing chip and start time. Realizing that Dave thought Bob was in charge of the event, I said, “Bob’s just my kayaker. He doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Clearly not believing me, Dave continued staring at Bob, waiting for an update on the start time. In an attempt to make the odd stranger go away, Bob, in a thick accent, smiled and said, “I speak no English.”

I burst into laughter, but Dave just looked confused.

“I from Ukraine,” Bob said, with a big smile.

Laughing hysterically, I walked away from them, over to a half wall, and started stretching. Bob followed me and we started chatting as I stretched.

Bob looked over and noticed that Dave was still looking at him. Dave was the only swimmer without a wetsuit, so maybe he was just too cold to think straight.

I was happy to have the comic relief, though. The laughter diminished my tension, and I was ready to get started. I prayed for the wind and waves to calm down, so that I could make it to the finish line, where my friend and neighbor, Maria Dennis, was waiting to embrace me.

Having battled leukemia a little over a year ago, she served as a giant inspiration for me as I trained for this swim. Throughout the process of chemotherapy, her spirit and attitude have always been strong and inspiring.

Having her to swim toward strengthened my spirit, as the waves pummeled me and made it nearly impossible to see Bob. After about a mile of swimming in 5-foot swells, the waves decreased by a couple of feet and the undertow picked up. I felt like I was in a washing machine.

After struggling to breathe, inhaling gulps of bay water, and making what felt like very little progress, I started laughing. Try as I may, I could not figure out what to do with the current or the waves.

In an effort to reduce the amount of water I was inhaling, I shifted to breathing only on my left side, facing Bob, which made staying on course much easier.

“Just keep going,” I told myself, “You’ve only been in this water for thirty minutes.” The last part was my way of keeping myself present, rather than worrying about how far I’d gone, or if I had energy in the tank to finish this swim.

Refusing to waste precious time on eating, I stopped only to grab a quick drink and pee—every minute counted.

While I didn’t know where I was in the swim (miles or time) when I saw the boat, and a lady waving her arms, I flat-out ignored her and told Bob, “Come on, let’s go.”

I knew she was there to pull me from the water, and I wasn’t ready to stop. I was there to finish this darn thing. Besides, Maria was at the finish line, waiting for me—I had to finish.

Moments later, I saw that she had gotten Bob’s attention. He immediately put his arms in the air, a signal we had agreed would let me know I needed to stop.

Frustrated, I stopped, and heard her say, “We need to get you on the boat and shift you ahead. We won’t make the time cutoff.”

I understood the rules. I knew they needed us to be out of the water within a specific time frame, but I wanted to finish.

As I approached the boat, I heard that they were just shifting us ahead by about ¾ of a mile so that the area could be reopened to boat traffic at the scheduled time. I would still get to finish the swim, and hug Maria.

About a mile away from the finish, they said, “Jump in and finish.”

Fear shot through me as I realized I’d have to spot for myself—something I have yet to master. In fact, I wound up doing almost double the length in my last open water swim.

Frustrated and uncertain, I started swimming toward kayakers, hoping they could help guide my way.

Then, I heard Bob saying, “Come on, let’s finish this thing.” I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to keep up with the boat.

At the end, a friend asked, “Are you upset that they had to shift you ahead? That you didn’t swim the full 5 miles?”

I said, “I showed up. I did the training, I got into that water, and I gave my very best effort. The rest was up to God.”

A few days later, we got an email from one of the seasoned swimmers letting us know that we swam closer to 6 or 7 miles, considering the conditions. I wonder how many times we re-swam portions of that swim!

On my drive home, I got a text message from Betsy, one of the original organizers of Swim Across America – Mid-Atlantic. “What’s your goal for next year?”

While the answer didn’t come to me right away, it is now abundantly clear that I need to face my fear and address my greatest weakness: spotting!

In 2016, I will swim 3 miles, without a spotter.

Here are your 5 strategies for overcoming fear:

  1. Decide what area of your life in which you want to progress. (Health, Wealth, Community, Fun, Etc).
  2. Set specific goals, with timelines.
  3. Know why you care about achieving your goal(s). (Help a non-profit, bolster your career, increase your energy, increase your income, etc.) If you picked “Increase income,” be clear about what you will do with the extra income, and why that’s important.
  4.  Share your goals with people you trust, and who will (gently) hold you accountable.
  5. Envision yourself reaching your goal(s). (Hugging someone at the finish, hiring someone to take over XX project, going to an exotic/awesome place for vacation or work, etc. The key is to KNOW what success looks/feels like.)
  6. Bonus – Stay Focused. Don’t concern yourself with the bigger picture from the start. Instead, think about the small steps you can take TODAY. Trust me, it adds up. Patience and persistence are key here.

I look forward to hearing your stories of overcoming fears and stepping into your greatness!

Here’s to Your Greatness,

Misti Burmeister