Honor Swim: Swimming In The Wake of a Hero’s Sacrifice
I first heard about the Honor swim and Officer Lester in a FaceBook group, of all places: Sua Sponte Elite Race Team (S.S.E.R.T.). S.S.E.R.T. is a group of current and has been- scrolled Army Rangers most of which are reliving their glory days through a mid-life crisis called triathlon, and other multi-sport/endurance themed competitions. Day to day conversation in this private group borders upon motivation and crass harassment. To be honest, most discussions are reminiscent of, over the line, locker-room banter. Most of which would cause the average man to openly weep, or at the very least blush. Yet these Rangers seem to find it endlessly motivating. As one might guess, being involved in a group of 100 plus Army Rangers, standing out amongst heroes would seem to be a bit of an undertaking. Whether active duty, retired, or otherwise, these men are trained to do bad things to bad people in austere environments. However, as any good Ranger knows, we love a good challenge. Not to mention there are lots of people in this world doing great things for selfless reasons, but when I found out about what Olin, AKA: Mark, Lester was trying to do purely out of love for his fallen brothers I knew I had to be involved even if I was just a spectator. It was clear to see that something amazing was brewing. Officer Lester posted in SSERT back in June of 2015, from my best recollection. As soon as I saw what he was up to I messaged him immediately. Although he did acknowledge me, he kept this strange Ranger’s request to be involved at arm’s length, I suppose for good reason. As time went on, I persisted and just like a naïve prom date he finally conceded.
He asked for a brief bio to show the rest of his teammates before he made the official decision to include the strange Ranger from afar in his extremely personal and heartwarming dream. The rest they say is history, and I was committed to supporting Lester’s dream team as a dedicated Rescue Swimmer.
Two years of planning were falling into place as May 18th closed in upon us. Personally, my responsibilities were of relatively low burden. I essentially was a glorified cheer leader with a front row seat to watch, what would be, my most humbling event of 2016. Being a triathlete, ultra marathoner and ultra- swimmer my training/preparation did not differ much from the usual.
My biggest obstacle was navigating the 1200 miles between my home in Oklahoma and Lake Norman in North Carolina. I didn’t even have to bother with lodging as Mark had reached out to a friend who selflessly arranged a suite, not just a room but a two bedroom suite with a full kitchen, for my family of 6. Although this kindness seemed eerily familiar, we would not know how close this kind woman, I only knew as Yvette, and I actually were until after the event had ended and I was back in Oklahoma. Lester on the other hand, I can only imagine, was left organizing a logistical nightmare: 34 miles of open water, 6 swimmers, 4 dedicated support boats and their crew, coastguard support, News crews and other media, family obligations, not to mention actually raising scholarship money for his fallen brother’s children. I truly cannot fathom what he and his SWAT team members went through in preparation for this selfless act physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Late in the morning May 18th I found myself standing awkwardly in a parking lot at the Blythe Landing marina of Lake Norman. I eagerly waited to meet a team, none of whom I have ever personally met before. There were boats being put in the water, for which I assumed could only be my new teammates? I mean seriously who gets on a pontoon boat at 11:00 am on a Wednesday? Evidently several people in North Carolina. At one point, in an effort to make my introduction less awkward, one of the boats putting in was having some difficulty docking, so I hustled over to give them a hand. As it turns out, this boat had nothing to do with our team and the man I helped was just as confused as I seemed to be, with my aggressive eagerness to help a stranger. Finally I saw a group of people conjugating, two of which had paramedic shirts on… “Surely these are my boys” I thought to myself. I mean seriously how many SWAT medics can you find in a random marina? The reality of the Honor Swim was beginning to set in. As we waited for our boats and crews, media began to show up to prepare for the pre-launch interview. Mark was clearly stressed by this point, showing up just in time to juggle the news crews, boat crews and the like. The time to board the boats was incipient.
The responsibilities of the crew were as diverse as the team that made them up. There were four dedicated support boats which consisted of a Captain and first mate who were in charge of transporting the rest of us during the entirety of the swim. We had two kayaks, manned by four men who would prove to be crucial during the event, particularly at night. Kayak crews would rotate much like the swimmers and ultimately be responsible for leading/guiding the swimmers and being their closest lifeline/ support in their time of need. The rescue swimmer’s job was to watch tentatively in case that an emergency rescue was needed, an unlikely event, but a role I was proud to fill. Of course there were the swimmers, whose job it was to… well swim. By 3 pm our team was primed and in place at the northern most inlet of Lake Norman, under the bridge of Interstate 40. Officer Lester was first in the lineup followed by officers Greene, Graue, Mckinney Peetz and Rud. The current from the inlet made for a smashing start. With news helicopters and police choppers hovering above us Lester leaped into the water for what I can only imagine as an emotionally drowning, adrenaline surging roller coaster ride: reminiscent of a “log ride” cresting the big hill before the plunge into the abyss. The swimmers were in and rotating like clockwork. The first six miles flew by. It truly was an amazing start to such an inspiring event. As smooth as it was all progressing, I think we all knew there would be a few obstacles along our way. Surely enough, as the day progressed, the weather conditions diminished and the obstacles began to rear their ugly heads.
As the rain fell so did the temperature. It soon became evident that as a rescue swimmer it was going to be a chilly night. With blusterous wind, cold heavy rain, and white caps that appeared like distant mountains, this endeavor was turning into quite the gut check. Not just for the rescue swimmer, or the swimmers involved, but the entire crew. It was a “suck-fest” worthy of Ranger proportions. In my effort to remain ready at a moment’s notice I made a poor decision to remain scantily clad so that I could respond immediately. My uniform for most of the evening would remain my trusty Ranger panties (Google it) and military grade poncho. This would come to bite me later, when the cold air high wind and torrential precipitation, manifested into borderline hypothermia. As an avid open water swimmer, the temptation to seek refuge in the warm waters seemed to become my largest obstacle. So, when dehydration, nausea, and cramping took its toll on one of the swimmers and left a void in the flawless execution of the Honor swim, it was only natural that I couldn’t contain my swimming angst any longer. While I rotated boats keeping an ever watchful eye on the swimmers, I told Lester that if they needed a stand in swimmer I would be happy to step in. I must admit, this was a hugely selfish act on my part. I had been romanticizing about the warm water temperature all day, and to be honest I was freezing my ass off. The 70 degree water temperature seemed like a warm fuzzy blanket compared to the 50 degree air temperature. I don’t believe there was much hesitation, on anyone’s part, for my proposal. So in 60 minutes my dip in the abyss would become a reality. It is also true that Lester offered a spare wet suit for me to wear, but I was convinced the near “balmy” bathtub water would be of much relief. So when it came time to leap into the foray in just my Speedo, I was shocked (literally) when my body was submerged in the surprisingly cool water. So with a muttered shout, my leg of the swim was off to a chilling start.
Lester and other swimmers recount the night swimming portion as surreal, and to this I can attest. Despite the rain, the wind, and the waves there is just something words fail to express about the tranquility one can find amidst even the most devastating storm while being submersed in the bowels of Lake Norman. So as it were, we kept swimming, and swimming. Before the sun came up we were beginning to realize just how far ahead of schedule we were finding ourselves. With an anticipated 24 hour finish, the sun wasn’t even up and we had less than 6 miles to go. Because of the news crews and finish line festivities we were forced to pull into a marina to take a tactical pause and wait for the scheduled finish time to approach us. It is worth mentioning that there were just too many moments and memories made during this trip, to mention all of them in a timely manner. As a complete stranger, these men embraced me into their brotherhood. They simultaneously included me in their deeply heartfelt cause to support their fallen brother’s family and to honor their legacy. The relationships that were fostered during these 24 hours are simply awe inspiring.
The last few miles, toward the finish, were filled with a cascade of emotion. Looking back on the previous twenty plus hours, it was exciting to think about what was accomplished and the obstacles that were overcome. Although hardly any of this was of any “sacrifice” comparatively, it was truly humbling in nature. For the Officers swimming, I can hardly imagine what they felt. This was a time to be overwhelmed by the legacy of the two brothers that they have lost. A time to think about the families hurled into this violent wake of anguish and heartbreak. It was also time to eagerly anticipate the end of this amazing feat that would honor Officer Sean Clark and Fred Thornton.
The finish line was packed with Police, SWAT, and Fire emergency vehicles. Families lined the docks, spectators were everywhere. News crews eagerly waited at the water’s edge. Some of the officer’s families were even picked up in a boat to join us in our final legs. This is no exaggeration; you could hear the sirens, whistles, horns and hollers from over a mile away. This only compounded the emotions running rampant on all that were involved. As we closed in on the finish, all the swimmers entered the water to finish as a team. About 400 meters or so from the water’s edge, the police boat that had been part of our “boater-cade” had picked up Sean Clark’s two sons, two thirds of the very reason these officers were swimming in the first place.
Even as an outsider, I was overcome with emotion when I saw these boys leap from the bow of that police boat. Mark and I were to swim with the boys and the rest of the officers were to follow closely behind us, letting the children bring us home. The next few hundred meters are exceptionally difficult to describe. The cheers, whistles, sirens and horns were as deafeningly loud as they were unreal. Even my children could be seen on the docks screaming in support. If you weren’t overwhelmed with emotion, you probably didn’t have a pulse. Two officers sacrificed their lives. Mark had mentioned during a news interview that “two families Gave up their tomorrows” with their husband/father/son. The silver lining here is that an entire community rallied together to support the dream of a man and his team. Together they planned and strategized how to orchestrate this dream: to Honor the lives of Officer Sean Clark(End Of Watch: 4/1/2007) and SWAT Officer Fred Thornton (EOW: 2/25/2011). The result, however, was not just honor and humility.
The realization of this man’s dream resulted in much more than a memoriam. His dream realized offered a blinding beacon of hope. Not just for these two families, but hope: for a country divided; for a country lost in a sea of self entitlement and resentment; for a community devastated by the loss of two heroes. A beacon of hope is what my friend created. The outpouring of love from Olin towards these families inspires me to be better and do greater, out of love, not selfishness but true selflessness. We have a saying in Ranger Regiment: “Ranger’s Lead The Way”. Well, the standard has certainly been set. I am proud to call Officer Lester my Ranger buddy, and I am thankful that he let me to join him in swimming in the wake of heroes: the Honor Swim, and allowing me to ride the coat tails of a living legend, and for that I am eternally grateful.
At the time this article was written the Honor Swim has raised nearly $50,000 out of their $60,000 goal. If you would like to make an investment in the future of these children go to the Honor Swim’s Gofund me page: https://www.gofundme.com/honorswim
If nothing else be inspired to love, recognize the hope in the selfless sacrifice of others, and live a life worth living, which in reality is a life worth giving.