Swimming To Russia

People ask for stories about other swims I’ve done, so I am using this blog to share and make final edits on a short story about my swim to Russia. This story was written shortly after the swim and rewritten during a Summer Writing Institute class offered at Alabama A&M. When the class was over, the story disappeared and presumed lost forever. A few months ago, it surfaced in a stack of practice exercises for ACT. I was elated to find it because it is a story that could not be rewritten. I chose this story before the Drava and Mura River swims because I fear the wall of communication between Russian and United States civilian citizens may be coming back down. Your thoughts and general feedback are appreciated. mimi

Swimming To Russia

“There it is,” Eric, the pilot of Evergreen Helicopter Service casually stated. “Little Diomede!”

I look toward the horizon and catch my first glimpse of the island that has occupied my thoughts and wreaked havoc with my stomach for over a year. Little Diomede, the sister island to Russia’s Big Diomede, pokes majestically through the crystal clear waters of the Bering Strait like a prototype for the Prudential Rock. The blue skies and calm sea show no evidence of the inclement weather that caused us a three-day delay in mainland Alaska. My dream of swimming to Russia continues to move painstakingly closer to becoming a reality.

As Little Diomede comes closer into view, the anger an frustrations of dealing with ineffective and frustrating government bureaucracies begins to evaporate. I reflect on the congressman, who left me eagerly waiting for six months before informing me that getting the necessary permission for my swim was “too difficult” and “could not be done”. I think of the people at the Russian Embassy in Washington DC that kept returning visa requests because I could name the hotel we were staying at on Big Diomede. They knew there were no hotels on the island and that my crew and I were not spending the night. The irritation and frustration they caused do not matter anymore because I did not allow them to be an excuse for recoiling back into my kitchen and my fears.

As a result of blind determination, my dream is stretched out before me, and life is good. I consider the people who gave real help: Grebekin, the president of Moscow’s Marathon Swim Association, who used his Russian military contacts to put a “demand” on the Visa, the adventuresome teacher of Little Diomede, Dotti Haller, who arranged our lodging at the school on Little Diomede, and Lt. Commander Sullivan from the U.S. Coast Guard who contacted the Russian border patrol and set up the logistics. Those were the people instrumental in making the swim a reality. It was not the government making things happen, but average, humble people that believe in one person’s ability to make a difference.

As Eric circles the chopper around to the western side of the island, I catch my first glimpse of the small Inuit shanties that press against the rocky hillside, the village of Little Diomede. Eric glances at me indifferently. “Do the swim today,” he says flatly. “The weather doesn’t get any better than this.” He gives me a slight smile and shakes his head a few times. I do not smile back.

His statement momentarily sucks the exhilaration from my body and leaves me with fear and apprehension. “Not now. I am not ready“, I yell out in my head and pray my crew doesn’t press me to heed his suggestion. Maybe they can’t hear him over the noise of the helicopter blades or feel the same way I do because neither Pam nor Kathy respond. Mental preparation is not the only thing on our list of things to do before the swim. Besides the need to prepare mentally, we still have to secure a boat, a crew, and establish rapport with the most knowledgeable locals to discuss ocean currents and a strategy for swimming that will limit the possibility of missing Big Diomede. Lastly, the weather seems quite challenging. Is this really as good as it gets?

Eric skillfully lands the helicopter as Inuit children wait with wide-eyes eagerness for the blades to stop rotating, so they can meet the new guests. The men begin helping Eric to unload the chopper as we wait for instructions. An unfamiliar but anxious voice calls my name.

“Mimi, Miimiii”. Turning toward the voice, we see a woman standing on a balcony calling to us. It must be Dotti, the school teacher I’ve corresponded with for the last few months. I wave, and she yells she’ll be right down.

Dotti arrives with introductions, hugs, and smiles as the children dance excitedly around us. She guides us toward the school with twenty or more children frolicking around us like we’re Pied Pipers. Islanders are sitting around on makeshift chairs, greeting us as we parade by with the children. We think they are outside waiting to welcome us but discover it is the good weather and Eric’s mail and supplies.

We unpack and settle into the classroom that is our home for the next four days. We are relieved to learn we have a bathtub and a flushing toilet. Modern restroom facilities for the natives’ homes consist of a five-gallon bucket with a toilet seat lid set on top. When it is full, it is carried to the water’s edge and dumped into the sea. For bathing purposes there is a community shower that just opened after being closed for two months due to low fresh water reserves.