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After School: The Water Is Wide

By Net Assets posted 10-08-2021 02:42 PM


Leadership |

Plunging into an old passion has helped this business officer approach the seemingly impossible.

Article by Jerry Walker, Kent Denver School

From the September/October 2021 Net Assets magazine

We all have our ways of leaving our comfort zone to tackle new challenges. One of mine was joining the University of Denver Masters swimming program seven years ago. I was looking for a way to escape from the demands of being the chief financial officer and associate head of school at the Kent Denver School, a grades 6-12 college preparatory day school.

I swam competitively in college but had not completed a serious workout for more than 20 years. I stopped by a swim practice, and the acrid smell of chlorine, the terrible acoustics of the pool deck, and the sight of dedicated swimmers staring at the clock, ready to start their interval workouts, sucked me back into the water.

The first thing I noticed when I joined the Masters team was how out of shape I was. Times and intervals that would have been incredible easy when I was 20 years old now seemed completely out of reach. The second thing I noticed was a subset of swimmers who seemed a bit crazier than the rest of the team.

At first I thought this was because they were distance swimmers. As a former sprinter, I always found the distance folks to be a bit “off.” They might say a word or two at the beginning of practice, and then they would be off swimming for the next couple of hours with only a brief stop now and then. Mostly they just kept swimming and swimming.

What I didn’t know when was that this particular group of distance swimmers had within their ranks some of the best open-water swimmers in the world.

What I didn’t know when was that this particular group of distance swimmers had within their ranks some of the best open-water swimmers in the world. Some have swum between the Hawaiian Islands, from the U.S. West Coast to Catalina Island or across the English Channel.

One of them, Sarah Thomas, is arguably the world’s premier open-water swimmer. She holds the world’s record for swimming the English Channel four times without stopping in 2019, which took her just over 54 hours. Another swimmer, Craig Lenning, is one of the most accomplished cold-water swimmers in the world, and the first American to be invited to swim in the Ice Swimming World Championships in Murmansk, Russia. He swam 1,000 meters without a wetsuit in water that was just above freezing.

I soon learned that swimming open-water events without a wetsuit is a big deal to these swimmers. For these open-water swims to “count,” they need to be done without the added buoyancy and insulation that the suit provides.

Somehow, this group befriended me, a lowly warm-water sprinter, and started dragging me out to swim in local lakes and reservoirs. The water was ridiculously cold, with temperatures ranging between 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Eventually these adventures led me to enter a 10-kilometer open water swim in Colorado and the Alcatraz Sharkfest swim in California. The Alcatraz swim is only 1.5 miles, but with a water temperature of 56 degrees and me in only a Speedo, it was certainly a challenge. By the time I emerged from the water in San Francisco, I was more than ready to escape from Alcatraz.

In addition to overseeing school finances, I have taught classes at Kent Denver, most recently AP European History. In that role, I have asked several of the folks I swim with to speak to my classes about taking on challenges, doing things that seem impossible, and how sometimes being a little crazy can help you accomplish remarkable things. I find these experiences and the talks about them are lessons not only for students but also for me.

I’m so glad I took a chance on something new and now appreciate swimming without a wetsuit, even if it is really cold.

Jerry Walker is CFO and associate head of school at Kent Denver School, a grades 6–12 college preparatory day school in Cherry Hills Village, Colorado.

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