Late Friday afternoon, the work week behind, the weekend to unfold. The pool is lit from the natural light that flows in from the glass walls of the lobby. Fleet Foxes rumble from hidden speakers, bouncing into the high ceilings and against the splashes and chops of the few swimmers churning out laps. I sink into the 85 degree water, adjust the strap of my goggles, and push off from the wall into the waiting blue. It’s my favorite moment of the week.

I’m swimming again, after a multi-year hiatus. I decided late last year to attempt another sprint tri summer or autumn 2011.  After setting this goal, I took another four months to screw up the courage to seek swim lessons. I’ve attended the weekly clinic on Sunday mornings for the past month, in addition to swimming laps on one morning during the week and on these blissful Friday afternoons.

September 2005 was the first and last time I donned a wetsuit. I completed- by sheer piss and vinegar-a sprint tri that started in the chill waters of Lake Washington. I trained methodically and took a few private lessons with a member of the CWU swim team. I dutifully cranked out my laps until I was certain I could survive a 1/2 mile in the water. I’d hop on my bike at the Ellensburg Pool and Fitness Center, bike around for miles and end up at home to drop the bike in the garage, run into the house for a pee, then head out for 3 miles’ run around campus. So, I was ready.

Or, not so much. I went twice to People’s Pond southwest of town, to try my freestyle in the open water. I never ventured more than a couple dozen yards from shore, weirded out by the murky water and the hidden vegetation that wrapped its rotting fronds around my calves. Being out there alone felt too much like a scene from a teen horror flick, so I scared myself back to the delineated comfort of swimming pool lanes.

Utterly unprepared was I to face the world of flailing bodies, jabbing elbows, and the adrenalin rush that made my heart slam into my throat as my inaugural triathlon experience got underway in Lake Washington. Within moments, my freestyle sank to the bottom of the lake along with all coherent thought. I was unable to breathe.  I let the wave of swimmers pass me, keeping my head above water with some variant of dog-breast-paddle-stroke. Once I had space to myself, I tried again with freestyle, but I couldn’t slow down my heart rate or catch more than a gasping breath.  I couldn’t bear to submerge my face in the dark water- to lose, even for an instant, my connection with the sky.

I made it to the first buoy, the turning point that designated the halfway mark. I hung on, to rest, to have a chat with myself. In an instant, a lifeguard in a kayak came paddling up. “Are you all right?” He asked. “Do I need to pull you in?” His calm voice was a balm on my frayed nerves. I could see the shore a mere quarter mile away. The swimmers were emerging like black silkies from the water and running to the bike station. I was so far behind. And suddenly very pissed off.

“No. I’m good. I just needed a rest.” The lifeguard stayed with me for a few moments longer, until I pushed off from the buoy. I finished that piece of shit quarter-mile with a meandering backstroke. And I had the time of my life biking and running another 17 miles, to end up right where I’d started: on the shores of Lake Washington. There’s nothing like kicking your demons in the ass to get the endorphins revving.

I’ve just registered for the Danskin Triathlon, August 14. It’s a course that will force me to stare down another 1/2 mile of Lake Washington. This time, however, I do not have the bliss of ignorance. I know the heart-shrieking grip of panic, that moment when your lungs seize and you think you could, quite possibly, die right here, amidst dozens of thrashing bodies.

Last night I had a lap lane to myself and I practiced closing my eyes during the downstroke, as I planted my face in the water. The first few times, panic seized me and I gulped in a nasty mouthful of pool water. Then I calmed down, and other than running into the wall a couple of times, I found my stride. I told myself that it’s like an asana flow with eyes closed. Your body knows what to do, just let go and go with the flow. Use the Force, Luke.

And I’ve got a plan. The awesome swim clinic in which I’m enrolled (Mary Meyer Life Fitness) offers an Open Water/Triathlon prep series beginning in June. I’ll be there, the weekend after the Seattle Rock-n-Roll 1/2 marathon on June 23, when my tri training will kick into high gear. I also live one mile from Green Lake, an ideal open water training ground. Later this spring, I’ll hit those murky waters and face my open water demons once again. May the Force be with me.