Life in Water: What Drives this Local Swimmer to Hit the Lake Whenever She Can

Susan Hales describes the details of some of her more memorable swims vividly. She has been attacked by a merganser. She has been inspected by river otters. She has pulled herself out of the water on the brink of storms.

A typical day in the water for Hales is adventurous by most others’ standards. Take, for example, her ritual of swimming across the bay to pick up the Sunday paper. On the 1.9-mile swim from her cabin on Lake Pend Oreille to Odie’s Bayside Grocery, she ties an inflatable dry sack to her waist so that she can stash her coins and keep the paper dry on the return. Depending on the distance, weather and temperature, she may also haul a space blanket, protein bar and a two-way radio that her husband insists she carry in iffy conditions. Her long swims sound like mini-odysseys, especially when you hear her confess that, for lack of a swim buddy, “I always swim alone.”

Despite her safety measures, this statement is jarring for those of us who grew up taking swim lessons from the YMCA. You may as well exhort us to run with scissors or take as much candy from strangers as possible. While Hales recognizes that swimming with a buddy is preferred, getting in the water — accompanied or solo — is as enticing to her as a delicious dessert.

“I want to be in the water all the time,” she told me on our drive out to Liberty Lake on a sunny but cold October afternoon. The water temperature was 56.7 degrees. Despite the cool water temperature, Hales was excited about suiting up. We chatted as we shimmied into our wetsuits, which for me seemed to be going as well as a snake trying to wriggle back into its skin. “It’s torture to get near a giant body of water and not swim,” she tells me with a smile. “It’s like someone put a giant ice cream sundae in front of you and said ‘don’t eat it’.”

Photo: Summer Hess
Photo: Summer Hess

Her metaphor is apt as I consider the cold plunge we are about to take and the inevitable ice-cream headache that will clamp down on our skulls when we first duck under the water.

Hales grew up swimming in the Long Island Sound in New York, which lends to her comfort in open water, but she did not consider swimming competitively until 2006. At first, she swam a 45-minute mile pace in the YMCA pool. After taking lessons to improve her stroke, she is much faster. So much faster, in fact, that she is now winning her age bracket in local competitions.

The race she won last year is perhaps the most popular open-water swim in the region — the Long Bridge Swim, a 1.76-mile race across Lake Pend Oreille. Hales refers to this race as a “water Bloomsday.” Although it does not have as many competitors, it has a similar community feel. She recommends this competition because “it is a feel-good race with Olympic swimmers, first-time racers, children, and everyone in between.”

Despite Hales’ stellar finishes in local races, I still expected to outswim her in Liberty Lake. I thought for sure I would be stronger than someone who wins the 65-69 age bracket. However, I scrambled out of the water after only a few minutes. My ice-cream headache never subsided, and my surfing wetsuit was not articulated in the shoulders to provide the range of motion necessary for swimming distance efficiently — at least, those were my excuses. The truth is that, although twice my age, Hales is an endurance machine.

As for me, I’ll remain a fair-weather swimmer who floats Fish Lake in the warm summer months, but who knows? Perhaps when I’m Hales’ age, I’ll be leading the pack. //

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