When Failure Is An Option

When Failure Is An Option

Walking up on shore and finishing a swim brings smiles to swimmers and their friends and family. The effort, the pain, the sacrifice suddenly evaporates and is replaced by joy.

Charlotte Brynn did not have that opportunity to walk up on shore at the end of all of her swims during 2013.

But those uncompleted swims never dimmed her bright smile. She keeps on going and enjoying her experiences, exactly embodying the spirit of open water swimming with a profound sense of adventure, tenacity and perseverance that open water swimmers are known for.

Despite her svelte frame, she did an ice mile in April (see video below) while the rest of her swims in 2013 presented other difficulties. She encountered tides around New York and cold water in the Catalina Channel, but the 46-year-old native New Zealander’s enthusiasm for the open water and her positive spirit continues.

For her multiple efforts in all kinds of open water venues and her teaching of swimming in her adopted state of Vermont, Brynn was nominated for the World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year.

Her nomination reads, “Charlotte Brynn has a deep passion for the open water and the individuals she coaches. She also loves to push her own envelope of physiological potential as she competed in the World 10-mile Championships and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, and attempted one of the most audacious channel swims in recent history. During her swim from Catalina to California, Brynn was hit by a shark in her swim late at night. The bump left a scar and a tooth on her hip. But she keep swimming and did not get out despite the blackness of the evening and the turbulence of the ocean. Brynn stroked on for another 11 hours before being fished out for hypothermia. For her dynamic spirit, for helping others realize their swimming dreams while she pursues her own, for her willingness to swim on despite a shark encounter, Charlotte Brynn is a worthy nominee for the 2013 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year.

Brynn talks about her night out in the Catalina Channel on August 29th when not only was she defeated by hypothermia, but she was also interrupted along the way by a shark. “I knew I’d been hit, but I didn’t know by what, but it was painful unlike anything I had ever felt before. It clamped on to what felt like my whole left side. Whatever it was, it let go and I kept on swimming.”

Brynn started at 12:15 am, in the wee hours of the morning during pitch black skies off Catalina Island. “I got hit within the first hour, it stung, it was throbbing. I felt like a got smacked with a wide piece of lumber. It was hard and it stung. But I was focused and did not break stroke. I am geared in. But I start to get hip cramps and my shoulders start to burn, so put it out my mind.

I kept my same flow going. You can to deal with what you know, and I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t stop and thrash around. You know you start to go down the checklist of things it could be: did I run into the boat? Did I hit the kayak? A shark wasn’t high on the list.

So she kept swimming and swimming and swimming until hypothermia got the better of her within sight of the California mainland. “Along the way, I had 3 pods of dolphins swimming near me, but towards the end when I got within 2.3 km of the finish, the Observer called me and started to ask me questions. Barbara Held was asking me questions and I was so happy with myself because I could answer right away. But then she called the swim and said, ‘You are getting out.’ I had slowed down, I swam towards the boat and I got all wrapped up. But by the time I get to the dock, I was getting warm.”

Once onto shore, she helped carry the stuff and equipment over to her car. “So I am dragging all the stuff. I just sat down and the pilot comes over and says, ‘I just want to know that you are so upbeat [even though you didn’t finish]. You did everything we asked you it.'”

Finally, they make it back to the car and she drag myself in the back and sit down. I was in my sweatpants. I wanted to get the grease off of me so I started taking the grease off and then noticed that I had a couple of puncture wounds and, suddenly, I got something sticking in me. And something popped out of my hip, tooth was sticking out. But she still didn’t know what it was. She couldn’t imagine it was a shark’s tooth. ‘Hey, look I found a crab claw,’ I said to my friends. Doesn’t it look like a crab claw?

By this time, Brynn and her crew had been up almost 30 years. “Everyone was getting a big giddy and laughing at anything.” Then reality hit: “I got bit by a shark.”

After getting checked out, Brynn went to the marine biologist who works in a nearby aquarium on the Manhattan Beach Pier. Later she was interviewed by and shared information with shark investigation researchers at the International Shark Attack File in Florida and the Shark Research Committee in California.* “I had a big bruise on my hip and a bit of shark’s tooth embedded instead. The biologist said there was a lot of squid running and the shape of the bite was the same as the leopard shark. I have no reservations to get back in the water. It was pitch black when the shark hit me, but I was focused and I always need to get fuel. When I got a call from a shark researcher, he was so happy that I was alive. He said, ‘I am really happy to talk to you.’

Forrest Nelson of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation believes it was the first shark encounter during a crossing of the Catalina Channel.

Brynn’s focus during the swim is nearly indescribable. After the encounter late at night when darkness enveloped her shortly after leaving Catalina Island, she swam another 11 more hours before being pulled for hypothermia – not because of the remnants of the shark tooth in her torso. She never told anyone on her escort boat about the shark bite during or immediately after her swim this Thursday night. She only informed the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation after she confirmed the tooth came from a 5-6 foot shark.

Swimmers can run into all kinds of situations where their hearts spikes out of fear and worry. Sometimes the fear is misplaced and sometimes the fear is a result of a very real phenomenon. But Brynn is the type of athlete and adventurer who gets in a zone, a mental groove where her focus enables her to stay cool, calm, and collected in situations where others panic.

Her unusual focus is in some ways a combination of her training and inherent personality traits. “With a ‘no worries’ Kiwi approach, people who know me are not surprised as they know that’s how I live my life. We can’t always control what happens in life especially in open water swimming but we can control how we react. A positive reaction can make a not-so-good day, a better day than it might otherwise have been.

The International Shark Attack File and the Shark Research Committee are documenting the attack. One is interested in a research paper; the other excited by the fact that I am not deceased and he can ask me questions. He has been studying shark encounters and attacks since the early 1960’s along the Californian coast. In some attacks, the species are identified; in others, it remains unknown, he seemed excited to talk to me rather than going to a morgue.”

She explains, “Do I want to erase the experience? It’s not possible, that dark night is etched in my memory forever. It’s another way I live my life: stand tall in the face of opposition, particularly after being bit by something in the black of the night. If they tell me I was hit by an aquatic Mickey Mouse that went rouge from Disneyland and not a shark at all, so be it. It won’t change anything for me, the experience is tattooed in my memory bank, nothing I can forget.”

With an unusual depth of determination and a come-as-it-may attitude, Brynn continues to smile and laugh with a great sense of humor and is well-deserving of the nomination for the World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year along with these other individuals:

1. Anna-Carin Nordin, The Oceans Seven First (Sweden)
2. Charlotte Brynn, Channel Swimmer and Aquatic Adventurist (New Zealand)
3. Diana Nyad, Xtreme Dreamer (U.S.A.)
4. Kimberley Chambers, Ballerina Soars in the Open Water (New Zealand)
5. Lorna Cochran, Near-nonagenarian Navigates Nirvana (South Africa)
6. Lynn Kubasek, Volunteer Extraordinaire In The Pacific (U.S.A.)
7. Martina Grimaldi, World Champion Racer (Italy)
8. Michelle Macy, Reaching the Summit of the Oceans Seven (U.S.A.)
9. Nadia Ben Bahtane, A Maternal Moroccan Miracle (Morocco)
10. Nuala Moore, Going to the Extremes (Ireland)
11. Olga Kozydub, Professional Marathon Swimming Champion (Russia)
12. Poliana Okimoto, 3-time World Championship Medalist (Brazil)
13. Sarah Thomas, Double Crosser (U.S.A.)
14. Sally Minty-Gravett, 5 Decades in the Making (Jersey)
15. Shelley Taylor-Smith, Serving with Distinction (Australia)

Online voting takes place here.

* Although it was first reported that a leopard shark was responsible for the encounter, subsequent research by the shark investigators has indicated that the type of shark was most likely not a leopard shark. The final report has yet to be issued.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones