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The West Side Spirit

Sludge Splashing and Loving It

One Brave Woman's Swim in the Hudson River

By Tracy L. Ziemer
August 1, 2002

I swam in the Hudson last week for the first time. I thoroughly loved it.

That is, once I got over the initial horror of it. The race start was delayed because a wayward log mysteriously floated across the start line. And I got entangled in twigs, flotsam and an ice cream sandwich wrapper. Still, it was one of my most amazing New York moments in the four years I've lived on the Upper West Site of my adopted town.

I left the safety of my pool behind and took a dip in the Hudson River for the first time late last month as a swimmer in the half-mile Cove to Cove Race. The competition started at the South Cove in Battery Park City and finished at the North Cove Yacht Club at the World Financial Center. I entered the race because I sort of had to. As an entrant in the New York City Triathlon on Aug. 18, I needed to meet the requirement of completing an open-water swim prior to that event.

But I completed the race because I discovered swimming in the Hudson turned out to be a decidedly different experience.

Normally, even New York neophytes know to avoid bodily exposure to the Hudson River, General Electric and others' personal garbage can and toilet for years. "But the Hudson is cleaner," everyone says. Sure, but no one ever says it's clean. And therein lies the problem. While my body felt ready to do the physical act of swimming, my mind was preoccupied with thoughts of PCBs, corpses wearing cement shoes and three-eyed fish.

For weeks, I had endured the good-natured ribbing. "Swim in the sludge yet?" and "I'm sure it'll be fine. You weren't ever hoping to have children, were you?" I tried to convince a friend to come to the race and wait for me at the finish line with a bottle of Lysol disinfectant and a scrub brush. "We can recreate that scene from 'Silkwood,'" I said. She was having no part of it.

So there I was on a Sunday, hardly believing for a second I was standing in Lower Manhattan wearing nothing more than a bathing suit. The first wave of the 118 total swimmers splashed away through South Cove, and I walked the gangplank to await my turn to jump in as part of the second wave. The tight, bright yellow race swim cap made my head smell like a balloon and was already making me sweat on this 84-degree day.

At the side of the dock, about 4 feet below the surface, I surveyed the watery scene below me. Debris and flotsam and jetsam, oh my. I took a breath, held my goggles and jumped. The water was cool and salty. When I resurfaced, the first thing I saw above the choppy waves was the Statue of Liberty, standing tall in the distance.

The starting horn blared and off I went. The river was the murky green color of an Army uniform and was about as transparent. I couldn't see a thing in the turbid water beyond my extended hand. A few strokes in, my fingers got entangled with a twig. I pried it loose and then encountered an ice cream sandwich wrapper as it wafted by underwater.

To calm my mind and turn my attention away from the goings-on below the surface, I focused on the skyline of Lower Manhattan that was slowly gliding by me with each stroke: the Regatta, Liberty Terrace, Liberty House, Hudson Tower, Gateway Plaza. The sun twinkled off the buildings' windows. People stood on the esplanade, cheering us on. Ferries and other boats buzzed by on my left as I plowed forward. Stroke, breathe, stroke.

Then, somewhere between worrying about the growing size of the waves and whether the current was going to slam me into the seawall, I realized what a remarkable vantage point I had in this river that was as rough, unpredictable and exhilarating as the city itself.

The view from the top of the Empire State Building has always made me marvel at the city's compactness and the collective magnificence of its architecture. The view from the Hudson River -- a few feet below terra firma -- emphasized the individual size, strength and detail of some of the buildings that give Manhattan its character. It seemed as though they were growing from the pavement right above me. I felt in awe and about as tiny as the floating cigarette butt I had to flick out of my path.

Rounding the turn into North Cove toward the finish line, I couldn't believe I'd done it: I'd conquered the dangerous beast of the Hudson. Then I glanced up and saw the glassy and gorgeous Winter Garden, still intact after the events of last September.

I was humbled again.

Copyright 2002 Manhattan Media

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