By Elizabeth Myer
Rewind to Saturday, August 6 at 10 p.m. Instead of getting a few solid hours of rest like I had planned, I lay awake completely preoccupied. I’d been training intensely for the Nautica New York City Triathlon for months, meaning I was probably in the best shape of my life. Physically, I was ready to race at 6 a.m. the following morning. Mentally, I was not so sure.
I grew up training with a USA swimming club team and was accustomed not only to the concepts of individual competition and setting ambitious personal goals, but also to swimming in open water races. In what seemed like short fashion, however, my focus turned from swimming to my studies at NYU, and eventually to my career at EPA. While each of those things shaped me in a unique way, never before had my personal and professional lives intersected so sharply until July 20, 2011, when a fire at the North River Sewage Water pollution Control Plant in Harlem released hundreds of millions of pounds of untreated sewage into the Hudson River.
After learning about the spill, my first reaction was to consult the news, which I admit, did little to calm my nerves. Swimming in untreated sewage can cause skin rashes? Ear infections? Ingesting the water may result in KIDNEY FAILURE, you say? Then came the announcement from New York City: Four popular city beaches were temporarily closed due to plumes of pollution. Additionally, the city issued health advisories for portions of the Hudson River, and people were cautioned against participating in water-related activities, such as kayaking, canoeing and swimming.
In a more clearheaded state, I reached out to some EPA subject matter specialists, who reminded me that the NYC Department of Environmental Protection and the City Health Department were continually taking water samples and would not lift swimming advisories until they could ensure that bacteria levels remained within acceptable ranges. I had mentally prepared for environmental factors associated with competing in early August in New York City. I knew it would likely be hot and sticky, and I had even accepted that thunderstorms loomed in the weather forecast. At the end of the day, I went with my gut; I trusted the science, and needed to overcome this minor mental hurdle. When I jumped into the Hudson from a barge located just off 99th Street, I was focused on one thing: performance (okay, so I may have spent a few extra minutes under the showers at the swim/bike transition). Here I sit, nearly two weeks later (infection-free, might I add), counting down the days till next year’s race and maybe – just maybe – a cleaner Hudson…