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An interview with marathon swimmer, Jessi Harewicz

I met marathon swimmer, Jessi Harewicz at our Warrior Women of the Sea Conference in June, 2017. She had just begun training to swim the English Channel. She told me a bit about her story and I knew I wanted this woman to be a part of our ocean community. She is big-hearted and inspirational and the ocean and her healing has meant a great deal to her, becoming a large part of who she is.
Photo taken by Julie Heather Photography

Before Jessi could remember, she was swimming. She does remember snorkeling above sea urchins in Hawaii at a very young age and being scared of them. Her parents taught her to swim then enrolled her in synchronized swimming as a kid. She later talked with lifeguards who remembered her and her parents playing in the water for hours. Swimming laps in a pool was boring to her and she didn’t get the point at all until later as an adult when she understood the value of it. Technique, technique, technique.

But it was the pretty ladies in synchronized swimming that grabbed her attention. She believes that syncro made her comfortable in the ocean. Through the good and bad times, feeling dizzy and ill, she’s okay with it all now. And though it never gets easy, she’s learned to live with the tough times.

Jessi began her swimming career in 2015 when she started training for a 3 km triathlon, which at that time, seemed long. Looking back at it now, she laughs! At a swim camp in Spain, she was one of only three that showed up in a wetsuit. The water was 15° C. There she met some amazing swimming legends—people who had done the English Channel multiple times.

Shortly after, Jessi was diagnosed with a non-operable degenerative hip condition and decided to stick to ocean swimming and get out of the wetsuit. That was the moment she decided to swim the English Channel. As part of training she swam the Bay Challenge with the Vancouver Open Water Swimming  Organization that summer. Jessi took the wetsuit off in the water and never put it back on and did her first six-hour swim in the ocean only three months later.

To Jessi, the ocean is a place to think.

How it makes her feel

Jessi does these swims because they make her feel very empowered and strong. When she started swimming without a wetsuit it was very difficult at first but she learned to embrace the cold. She fights currents, tides, the cold and many other conditions. She’s not fast but she’s steady. As long as her dad is kayaking beside her, she knows she can keep going.

I asked Jessi, why the ocean? She replied, “Why not? It’s right there (pointing to the ocean). There is more ocean than land on the earth. Seventy percent versus thirty percent. So much to explore. People say it’s cold out there, but I’ve learned you can adapt. There are small communities of cold-water swimmers around the world. Why not in Vancouver?”

To Jessi, the ocean is a place to think. She believes that as a marathon swimmer you need to be comfortable being inside your own head. The swims can be long, boring, tedious and annoying. She shares that when you spend long hours in the salt water, your body gets more sensitive to everything.

Bright lights during night swimming can be blinding and the odd splash of saltwater into your mouth can also become unhealthy. Too much saltwater is not good for your stomach. Sometimes she vomits at least once or twice a swim to get rid of it. “Salt mouth” is also a side effect. After a long swim she is unable to eat proper food for 24 to 48 hours, and everything in her mouth hurts. It’s said that your mouth will suffer more than your muscles do in ocean swimming.

She also shares that you can also get all kinds of things down your swimsuit. Jessi often swims on the surface so she deals with things that float there. Jellyfish, bits of small driftwood etc… She got stung by a jellyfish recently near Thormanby Island, just north of Vancouver, and it burned for hours. But eventually the cold seems to help take away the burning, depending on the species.

But even with these hazards, Jessi keeps swimming. She says that cold-water swimming can be an amazing experience. Once you get used to it, it gives you great endorphin rushes at different times. She shares that it can also be dangerous and that it took her a long time to get to the level of tolerance that she has today. The quick dips in Canadian waters during the winter can be an incredibly reviving and exhilarating experience. It feels like burning at first, but once you ease in it makes you feel so alive!

Photo taken by Julie Heather Photography

Jessi writes:

“The ocean does not judge you.

The ocean does not question you.

The ocean will challenge you to dig deep and find a way to make it through!”

For Jessi, the ocean can be the most frustrating experience mixed with moments of boredom and despair. She feels sometimes like she’s in a washing machine when swimming in rough water. All she wants to do is stop and get out. Her boat is only a reach away or the beach is right there! But she doesn’t quit. She keeps on going because being out with the seals, seaweed, barnacles and the odd piece of driftwood, is where she is most at home.

The ocean has allowed her to forgive herself for her mistakes in life. It has allowed her to be her own therapist. It’s given her time to think without distractions— a forced meditation where she has to breathe every two to three strokes. The ocean has improved her life in every imaginable way. Channel swimming has made her feel more powerful. Her motto is, “When the goings get tough the tough get swimming!” Jessi explains that, “It’s just one stroke after another stroke. That’s all life is, one challenge after another challenge. Sometimes it’s tough, sometimes it’s more pleasant.”

Throughout Jessi’s marathon swimming life, she has swum the Georgia Straight in BC; the English Channel (England to France); Catalina Channel (Catalina Island to the LA Coast); a circumnavigation of Mercer Island in Lake Washington, USA; a circumnavigation of Thormanby Island, Sechelt, BC; and a circumnavigationof Bowen Island, Vancouver, BC. She’s trained in other parts of the Howe

Sound and Indian Arm near Vancouver, BC and West Seattle’s Alki Beach. She’s also trained in Brighton, Deal, Dover and all over Kent in the U.K.

She is very excited about her next big swim: around Manhattan Island in New York, which will allow her to complete the Triple Crown of water swimming: the English Channel, Catalina Channel and the circumnavigation of Manhattan Island.

In closing, Jessi offers this piece of advice through her experience with the ocean:

“We are all a lot stronger than we think we are. And sometimes, just sometimes, the stars do align. All the hard work you put into something can translate into a glorious satisfaction. I do spend a lot of time out there. Through the good and the bad, take it as it comes.

Step by step, stroke by stroke, the tide will eventually let you in. You may discover something glorious in the journey!”

Thank you, Jessi, for your inspiration and dedication to this sport. We wish you all the best in everything you do and look forward to following you on your swimming adventures!

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