One of the good things to come out of the COVID pandemic was the creation of our swim group, the Rosy Hypothermias. Previously, some of us swam at the Island Athletic Club when we believed open water was too cold. 

However, when COVID closed the club in mid-March 2020, Sharon Emerson began swimming at Goss Lake. I met up with her and we invited Gretchen Lawlor to swim with us starting in April 2020. We swam in ‘skins,’ meaning our swimsuits.

Barbara Schaetti, April Fitzsimmons and Linda Morris have since joined us. Some of us wear wetsuits to stay warm when Goss Lake temperatures dip to 43 degrees and the saltwater Sound as low as 45 degrees. Some wear bathing suits only. We swim in wind and rain, with Canadian geese, eagles, harbor seals, and diving ducks. We have fun. We share stories of the high and low tides of our lives. 

Rosy Hypothermias welcome the Spring Equinox and the returning gray whales March 20 in the Sound outside Seawall Park in Langley

We got to talking about channeling our inner Esther Williams in synchronized swims, as Gretchen has organized us now and then in a flower pattern where we lie on our backs and gather our fins together in celebration of the solstice and New Year’s Day.

Linda gifted us all with old-timey colorful flower-covered swim caps that distinguish each one of us. Gretchen suggested a welcoming the whales on the Spring Equinox, and our synchronized swim practice was underway. March 20th we met at Seawall Park in Langley. The rain stopped. Family and friends cheered us on while David Welton took photos. Exhilarating!

Our Rosy Hypothermias weigh in on what it means to swim in the elements with an eclectic group:

Sharon Emerson — I love the first 90 seconds of entering the water. I like to go in at an even pace, not fast or slow, no pauses, no lunges. The crisp line of the water surface moves smoothly up my body, above transforming magically to below. Around breast level I gently push off the bottom then I’m up to my neck in cold water, feeling light and calm and free. I like looking around for a bit at first. 

Sharon Emerson and her Esther Williams-inspired bathing cap welcomes spring and the gray whales

When I was little, I had a recurring dream of being on a beach. A tidal wave came and I walked into it smoothly, never losing contact with the bottom, a new world waiting. Entering cold water feels like that. 

Some people find the beginning of a cold water swim unpleasant, something to be endured for a few minutes until they acclimate, but I find the beginning delicious, almost the best part.

There are now six of us. A year ago, none of us were close friends. Some of us knew each other a bit, others were completely unknown. I so love the way we have grown, at first a little hesitantly, later with an automatic yes! to anyone who wanted to join our group. We are accepting, some in wetsuits, some not, all good. I love my new companions, some very different from me. We tease each other about our differences, but gently and kindly. We trust each other. We are welcoming and encouraging and helpful, and I love that about us.

So profoundly honored to know you all.

April Fitzsimmons joined the Rosy Hypothermias in January and acclimated to the open water, whose temperature ranges from the mid to high forties.

April Fitzsimmons—On the heels of a wretched year, it was pure joy to find a merry band of women who were “taking the waters” in the midst of winter. Why on earth would anyone join a swim club in January? Good question. One I probably should’ve asked myself, but I was desperate to shake off the pandemic blues and this seemed like a safe option. Why on earth, indeed.

This cadre of women welcomed me with kinship I didn’t know I needed. They tossed bits and bobs of warm gear my way until my wetsuit arrived. The first day in the frigid water I counted to 100 and ran out. The second day a bit more. “Go at your own pace,” the women shouted.  “Take your time!”  And even now, many swims in, when I enter the water, for a brief moment my body asks — What are you doing here? 

But then the cold, firm, knowing embrace of the water hits me, as if to say: You belong here. From the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, you belong. Water below, sky above, and you, floating somewhere in the middle, belong. On this earth. This is what you’re doing here.

Once I’m in the water, the chatter stops, the worries vanish, all goes quiet. There’s only the sound of my breath, the whoosh of eagles’ wings overhead, the geese charting a purposeful course, and the women calling out: “Everyone okay?…Take your time…Go at your own pace.” And for the rest of the day, I feel calm and centered as I remember what the water said. I remember we belong here. Why on earth, indeed.

Gretchen Lawlor after swimming in Saratoga Passage in synchronized swim with the Rosy Hypothermias

Gretchen Lawlor — Everything gets pushed aside or neglected in the tending of my old dad (Peter Lawlor, now 99). Except for the precious, almost daily swims with you, my Rosy Hypothermias. I write of the ferocious delicious, raucous prayers and conversations that kept us afloat, bobbing and swimming together through the pandemic storms.  I write of swarming herons, of soaring eagles and curious, soul-eyed seals who held vigil with us. Of backstroking through clouds and moonlight and black and blue skies. The icy waters where bruises and brokenness fade away in the  demanding ecstasy of Now.

Linda Morris swims ala Esther Williams

Linda Morris—I actually look forward to getting in the cold water. I never thought that would happen.  A good wetsuit helps. So does swimming and laughing with wonderful women in our Esther Williams swim caps. No pressure. Just exhilarating fun. And the seals and eagles! I feel like superwoman after I swim and have a hot shower.

Barbara Schaetti—I love wild swimming in the Lake. Some people prefer the Sound, especially when the Lake temperature drops down, but for me it’s the Lake all the way. Even though I swim “skins” and even though it gets really hard when the air temperatures are lower even than the water.

Barbara Schaetti in one of the Esther Williams-inspired bathing caps, gifted by fellow mermaid Linda Morris. Kate Poss in her gifted cap waves in the background. Photo by Barbara Schaetti

Sometimes the Lake is flat, calm, peaceful, a mirror to the surrounding trees and to the eagle or geese flying overhead. Sometimes the wind is roughing-up the surface of the Lake much as some angst or another as been known to rough-up me. 

Whatever my state, and whatever the state of the Lake, I am always greeted and welcomed. I am received as I walk in, submerging to waist, then to chest, swirling my hands and bouncing on my toes to give notice to my circulation. I splash water over each shoulder, turn to face the shore, and lie back.

I’m looking forward to the summer temperatures, both water and air, which will allow me to stay in longer. Right now I’m careful of hypothermia. I back-stroke out into the Lake, the whole envelope of my skin alive, activated, sparkling with tingles, feeling the power in my core and the gliding of my body as I’m held by the Lake. Right now, though, I swim out only as far as my ability to still see the tops of the trees, and then I turn back to shore. Close enough to be safe but deep enough to be weightless, I shift from swimming to jumping jacks and kicks, front and back and sideways, to knee-up body swirls driven by my abdominal muscles, and the whirling of my arms making swooshes of water rippling out from me.

Such joy. Such a glorious gift. 

Getting out into the cold air is hard, but hot miso broth and a hand warmer await in the car. And come summer I’ll be able to swim and play until my fingertips are all wrinkly and I’m truly satiated. 

I’m mentioning the women I swim with at the end of this piece, but please don’t mistake them for an after-thought. I knew none of the Rosy Hypothermias before we met at the Lake; three of them were already swimming together. They welcomed me in, and since then two more have joined. We’re rarely all at the same swim at the same time (when we are there’s a special joy in the air), but there’s pretty much always someone to meet up. Like wild swimming, these new friendships are also a joy, a glorious gift.

Dusty the Australian Shepherd joins the Rosy Hypothermias as they exit from their swim  celebration of spring and the return of the whales
Gathering after their synchronized swim homage to spring and the returning gray whales. From left: April Fitzsimmons, Sharon Emerson, Gretchen Lawlor, Kate Poss, Linda Morris. Our fellow mermaid Barbara Schaetti had other commitments this day, but was with us in spirit.

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Meanwhile, the Orca Network and Langley Whale Center are organizing the second virtual Welcome the Whales Festival to celebrate the return of our pod of visiting gray whales to Saratoga Passage. The event is planned for Saturday April 17 from 2 to 5 pm. 

David Welton has photographed the beloved Welcome Whales the Parade in years past. He shared some memories from the pre-pandemic days when we could gather:

Whidbey’s conductor of fun and emcee of pre-COVID events, Jim Freeman at the 2019 Welcome the Whales parade
A pair of belly-dancing mermaids at a pre-Covid Welcome the Whales parade
An orca with a bearded Howard Garrett of the Orca Network  inside at a pre-COVID Welcome the Whales parade in 2015
A young whale sprite at pre-Covid Welcome the Whales parade
Whale sculpture graced pre-COVID Welcome the Whales parade in 2019
Gretchen Lawlor in a PNW-indigenous-inspired mask at a 2018 Welcome the Whales parade
Waving hello to gray whales on March 20, 2021
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