I noticed a new face at swim practice and introduced myself. Josie is a very good swimmer; it was immediately apparent that this was not her first time in a pool, or on a team. She swam in a lane adjacent to me, and I did my best to keep up with her, as I do with all newcomers. It’s a competition thing.
The practice was a hard one, even for us veterans: 75-yard repetitions on an ever-diminishing (descending) interval, interspersed with sprints. During a much-appreciated rest period between sets, I leaned slightly into her lane, breathing hard from the exertion, and told her not to worry if she was struggling. Pointing to all the other swimmers who were trying to recover and prepare for the next round, I told her that we all considered it a tough practice.
Because I was concentrating so hard on my swimming, it wasn’t until the end of the workout that I noticed that Josie was wearing a pearl necklace. I complimented her on her aquatic abilities and added, “The pearls are a nice touch.”
She said she always wore them; she sleeps in them, showers in them, and yes, swims with them. She’s had a few different sets over the years, not too expensive, but makes sure they’re individually tied off, so if the string ever breaks, she won’t lose them all.
She competed with us at our latest swimming meet, and of course, was wearing her pearls. Competitions are serious, with strict rules about anything wearable that could give an unfair advantage. For instance, smart watches are not allowed. Our new teammate asked the meet officials about the pearls and was told they were perfectly legal. When she got up on the blocks to swim, the starters commented on how fancy the swimmers looked in that heat!
Rather than giving her an advantage, the pearls turned out to be a slight hindrance, catching on her chin as she was breathing during her breaststroke event, but not enough to prevent her from swimming very well at the meet. Our team has dubbed her the Pearl Lady.
Here, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we swimmers take advantage of the many beautiful, natural, watery settings. One of the favorite Open Water events starts from Baker Beach on the northern tip of San Francisco, under the Golden Gate Bridge, to Fort Baker on the Marin Headlands, naturally named the Baker-to-Baker Swim.
Josie told me about one of the times she swam the Baker-to-Baker. She had done the swim before and wanted to try something different. An item on her bucket-list was to swim the course naked and since none of us are getting any younger, the time had come. She swam au natural. For our Pearl Lady, that meant wearing only her pearls.
Her mother was on the Golden Gate Bridge, filming as she swam underneath. Unfortunately, due to the traffic and the crowd of people who had gathered to see the finish of the race, Mom was not able to park and get down to the beach in time to greet her. When Josie finally felt toes in the sand and emerged from the surf, completing the formidable swim, there was no congratulatory hug or warm towel awaiting her.
There was no way around it. She had no choice but to walk up the beach, past the other swimmers who had just finished, with all their supporters, hundreds of people, to get to the parking lot just as she was.
Rather than cower and attempt to cover up, she decided to “own” the walk. Holding her head high, feeling accomplished and proud, she competently strolled, found her mom, dried off, and went home.
A few weeks later at the local grocery store, a man approached, and asked if she had recently done the Golden Gate Bridge swim. Josie was a little surprised by the question and answered that yes, indeed, she had been there! He smiled and said, “I recognized the pearls.”
by Josie Viscardi, as told to Linda Hepworth
Rolling Hills Mud Sharks, Pacific Masters