A bundled-up couple leans into a stout gale on the wind-whipped boardwalk along Alki Avenue in West Seattle. Their dog wears a lined coat too, as it is unmistakably winter in this exposed stretch of promenade where the Puget Sound meets the land.
The dog’s leash snaps taut as the couple stops short. Two women in athletic-cut bikinis cross the boardwalk in front of them.
Six feet away, fellow swimmer Jerome Leslie stands ready for the expected question from the dog owners about the temperature of the daunting, frothy Salish Sea.
Leslie, 42, serves as Alki’s unofficial wild swimming docent. He provides answers in front of the Alki Beach Bathhouse about what eyes can see, but minds cannot always process: open water swimmers entering the Puget Sound on gelid days so inhospitable, often only the most intrepid dog walkers brave the predatory cold.
The sight of the swimmers, most with neon-colored floating buoys attached at their waists for visibility, inspires a barrage of questions. The gracious fellow oversees the swimmers like an attentive climbing belayer. He tracks the prevailing winds, knows the tide charts, monitors water conditions and scans the scene for a random jet skier or the possibility of a territorial sea lion.
“But they aren’t wearing wet suits?” the woman asks. “How is that possible?”
Leslie explains that yes, some swimmers do wear neoprene. Others, however, like Leslie, swim year-round in just a regular bathing suit.
“But … how?”
The question is fair. The water temperature of this part of the sound averages about 47 degrees Fahrenheit in February. The water gets really cold in March and April when the tributaries of the Olympic Mountains and the Cascade Range deliver snowmelt to the estuary.
During the recent Presidents Day weekend snowfall, the water temperature at this part of the 13,700-square-mile Puget Sound basin registered between 43 F and 44 F.
Leslie explains to those on land — often staring in wonder, often in fur-lined parkas and alpine-ready winter boots — about the work and the patience required to acclimatize to cold water. The activity that Leslie supervises bears no resemblance to the running, dunking, shrieking and retreating seen on the first day of January during “polar plunging.” The Alki Beach Bathhouse offers neither changing rooms nor warm showers when swimmers exit the salty, snug sea into the bitter winter wind.
To the curious observers needing further answers, Leslie is part ambassador and part historian, describing the efforts of the serious world-class swimmers living among us in Seattle.
A few swimmers are gracefully breast stroking 9 feet apart in the foreground, like a Scandinavian winter postcard, with the city’s skyline and the Space Needle in the distance. Other swimmers strike out to cover distance toward Alki Point Lighthouse, the southern entrance to Elliott Bay.
Leslie has answered the question of acclimatization thousands of times, it seems. If he wasn’t such a humble man, he might explain that cold is relative. In Boston Harbor, he once swam a sanctioned mile distance event, where the water was 41 F.
Acclimatization requires five minutes of grit and a lifetime of patience.
Should anyone inquire about swimming distance in the Puget Sound, Leslie could cite plenty of examples — like his 2017 swim from Bremerton to West Seattle, approximately 10.4 miles.
But instead of mentioning his own curriculum vitae, Leslie explains how marathon swimming rules impact how some athletes train. Swim associations permit goggles, a nose clip, earplugs, a basic cap and a bathing suit for official results. In other words, he says, rules forbid items such as gloves, booties and neoprene of any variety.
He proudly describes the superb training grounds Alki provides to notable local swimmers who attempt distances beyond 6.2 miles. These marathon swimmers train at Alki to seemingly defy cold and fatigue in the most challenging swims, nationally and abroad.
“If you can open water swim in Seattle year-round, you can swim anywhere,” Leslie says.
The conversation turns to Sarah Thomas, a great friend to the Alki swimmers and the exemplar of marathon swimming. She swam the English Channel four consecutive times in 2019 in just over 54 hours.
Locally, she is heralded as the fastest swimmer, male or female, to swim around Mercer Island in Lake Washington. She broke the record and then swam the 12.5-mile loop a second time.
Leslie also proudly describes how Alki swimmers escort other swimmers across the great distances and the busiest shipping lanes, like when Rose Filer completed the Catalina Channel in 2019 and the Santa Barbara Channel last year, supported by Alki swimmers. Or when Stephanie Zimmerman completed both the Bremerton swim and the circumnavigation of Mercer Island in 2019, with Alki swimmers as her crew teams.
Anecdotally, 2019 feels like many miles ago to the swimmers of Alki.
When coronavirus landed in the Seattle area in early 2020, the swimmers took the threat as seriously as they avoid timber in the water after a winter storm.
Favorite group members, and some of Alki’s hardiest swimmers, fall into the age groups considered most vulnerable early in the first surge of COVID-19 cases in the United States. Members like Kirby Drawbaugh, 83, who is training for that 10.4-mile Bremerton swim with some friends in a relay format. Leslie calls Drawbaugh “an inspiration who defies age.”
And Guila Muir, who took gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the Scandinavian Winter Swimming Championship in 2019 in Skelleftea, Sweden. Officials sawed the “pool” out of the ice in Sweden’s coldest river. The water measured 32.5 F. Muir, bright-cheeked, organizes swims in Seattle’s blue spaces, with a special focus on dauntless hydrophiles over age 60. Leslie describes Muir as “a champion.”
After the COVID-19 shutdown, the open water swim community suffered a near-simultaneous blow with the closure of the West Seattle Bridge on March 23, 2020. The bridge once carried an average of 107,000 cars daily, including swimmers from all over King County and beyond. Traffic and detours ensued.
The tightknit community of Alki swimmers heeded the statewide COVID-19 stay-home recommendations and the local Department of Transportation requests to avoid the congested traffic routes to West Seattle.
For some swimmers, training recommenced in the freshwater of Lake Washington. Mary Sue Balazic started swimming six days a week at Edmonds Underwater Park. Heidi Skrzypek organized COVID-safe swims on Vashon Island and secured an English Channel date for a relay team of Seattle swimmers-turned-best-friends. Tricia Elmer completed a six-hour distance at Angle Lake, an English Channel qualifying swim. Kelly Danielson coordinated 28 swims totaling 45 miles to circumnavigate Bainbridge Island.
In West Seattle, Alki swimmers have done their part during the pandemic to stagger times and avoid the Saturday and Sunday morning meetups that provided weekly wellness habits and real connection in a city sometimes accused of polite aloofness known as the Seattle Freeze. The only frostiness apparent in this community lies in the nutrient-rich brine summoned from deep marine canyons of the sound.
Pandemic protocols have replaced boisterous gatherings in front of the Alki Beach Bathhouse. Social distancing has suspended affectionate post-swim victory embraces. Indoor dining restrictions have dismantled the post-swim huddling in local coffee shops, for the triumphant to combat the thunderous shakes of the warming-up process.
As in many corners of Seattle, COVID-19 has changed everything.
And the safety they once enjoyed swimming deliberately together? Leslie has stepped up and stepped in on weekends on the boardwalk. Gone are the tightly-packed group photos taken promptly at 9:30 a.m. on Saturdays and 11 a.m. on Sundays. He swims early these days to be at the ready later.
Despite a proper rewarming, Leslie greets the Alki veterans and the growing group of Alki newcomers with a warmth that 6 feet of distance and fabric masks cannot diminish. His hair is still wet; his hands appear yellow and waxy, but his cheeks glow crimson from the swim.
Braced against the wind from the north, he stands watch as athletes deliberately swim apart from each other. Despite the bridge closure, the number of swimmers continues to increase as COVID-19 persists. The Western Washington Open Water Swimmers group on Facebook now has 3,246 members, up from about 1,500 members before COVID-19. Even water polo players have taken to Alki, as pools and gyms are only open under limited capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Leslie says most Saturdays in 2021 are averaging 65 swimmers, spread scattershot throughout the day from the iconic Alki Point Lighthouse to the Luna Park pier. To the COVID-weary, the mental health benefits of cold water are repeated over and over by those who exit the water, beaming, a diverse array of skin tones airbrushed with a glowing shade of pink.
The staggered swim times mean Leslie’s effort — making sure swimmers safely return to the bathhouse and warm up intact from hypothermia — requires the majority of the day.
This allows Leslie to answer all the questions of all the dog walkers and the swim-curious on terra firma in West Seattle.
He describes the mind-energizing clarity that cold water bequeaths. He explains how earplugs help stave off hypothermia by keeping frigid water from the middle ear. He recounts the puppylike behavior of the playful seals who often mingle with the swimmers offshore. The dog walkers’ eyes brighten. The snowcapped Olympic Mountains to the west frame their picture of the water, the first municipal saltwater beach on the West Coast of the United States.
While COVID-19 presses pause on this communion of swimmers in their matching red and white caps, Leslie carries the banner every weekend, waiting for the pandemic threat to pass. In the same way winter does not mean cessation to the swimmers, COVID-19 has not meant estrangement to the community. Like the tide, the safe staggering of swimmers provides continuity, overseen by Leslie.
The Chinook word “Alki” translates aptly into “eventually” or “by and by” or “hope for the future.”
Leslie continues to stand steadfast as lifeguard to some of Seattle’s best athletes this gray Saturday, with the particular endurance and calm fortitude unique to Seattle’s cold-water swimmers.