Heather Grahame has done it all.
She captained her 1972 Staples High School field hockey team, then played at Mount Holyoke College.
During college summers she leveraged her experience as a Compo Beach lifeguard to teach swimming, water safety and first aid in rural Aleut villages.
After graduating from the University of Oregon law school, Grahame practiced utility law in Anchorage. She placed 6th at the 1988 Olympic bicycle racing time trials. As a competitive sled dog racer, her top international finish — 6th — came at the 2000 Women’s World Championships.
In 2010 she moved to Montana. She ran her first triathlon at age 56, and found another great sport.
Not enough? Grahame also completed a full Ironman. That’s a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run.
Not even COVID could knock out Heather Grahame. Though pools closed last spring, she did not miss a stroke.
I should mention also that Grahame is a gifted writer. This was published recently by the Montana Masters Swimmers. “06880” reprints it, for all of us back east.
I learned to swim at the Sherwood Mill Pond, a marshy tidal basin in Westport, Connecticut. It was connected to Long Island Sound, with the water swiftly going in and out of the pond with the Sound’s high and low tides. To this day I recall being terrified of being swept to sea as the tide went out.
Later I spent many summers as a lifeguard at the town’s 3 beaches, watching from my chair for swimmers in trouble and, as the water became very warm in August, signs of sharks with their ominous fins.
Little did I know that my years of swimming and lifeguarding, and the accompanying swimming/water safety/first aid skills, would provide the foundation for years of adventures.
The first involved spending summers in small, isolated Alaskan villages along the Bering Sea. Villagers hunted and fished for subsistence – there were no Costcos, Safeways or other stores.
Summers required going out in boats in the dangerous waters of the Bering Sea or fishing from the shore for enough salmon to provide for the rest of the year. Falling into the icy waters often had deadly consequences, as there were no pools in which to learn to swim.
To address rural Alaska’s high drowning rate, for several years the state funded a program in villages in the Aleutian Chain and Bristol Bay. For 2 summers while I was in college, I lived in 4 rural Aleut and Yupik Eskimo villages to teach swimming, water safety and first aid.
I flew to Anchorage (3 1/2 hours from Seattle). Another college student and I got on a 4-seater bush plane for 3 to 6 more hours. We were finally dropped off on a gravel airstrip with a month’s worth of pilot bread, peanut butter, cornflakes and evaporated milk. We had to find a place to live and teach.
In each village we found a pond by the Bering Sea for the swim lessons. What quickly became clear was that water safety was the most important tool we could teach, together with the ability to tread water or swim a few strokes. If a person who fell overboard or waded too deeply had confidence to tread water or swim a few strokes while another person extended a jacket or pole, they could be rescued.
The kids loved the program. Adults sometimes wanted to learn as well. I spent hours standing in cold ponds in my old Speedo lifeguard swim suit with the equally cold Bering Sea wind whipping around me teaching floating, treading water, a few strokes of freestyle, and how to extend a pole or jacke.
Toward the end of my month in Egegik, I saw a young kid fall into a shallow pond. Before I could help, another kid extended his jacket and pulled him to safety. I have never forgotten the significance of that.
Swimming opened the doors to many other adventures. In Good News Bay I lived in the jail, except on the July 4th when a few villagers needed the cells more than I did.
In Unalaska I lived in a large barrel-like structure near a stream in which I often caught salmon, as an alternative to pilot bread and peanut butter.
The most remote village was on the island of Atka. It did not even have an airstrip. I flew from Anchorage to Unalaska, then get on a very small plane to Adak (a Navy base). I had to wait for days to take a 9-hour tugboat ride to Atka.
It’s amazing I actually made it back to college on time because due to repairs, the tug only made it to Atka and back 3 times. Had it not made that 3rd trip, I would have been stranded on the island for nearly a year.
Other adventures are much more recent. While they were not rugged, they are equally memorable, and made possible by my swimming skills.
I was fortunate to race in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2016 in Mooloolaba, Australia. The swim took place in the Pacific Ocean, with the surf pushing us to the shore at the finish. Sweet!
After the race I asked officials about what appeared to be crab pots just beyond the racecourse buoys. I knew they could not be crab pots, because the water was too warm. I learned they were the tops of shark nets, to try to keep sharks out of the swim area. I’m glad I asked after the race.
I raced in the Atlantic Ocean in 2017 as part of Ironman 70.3 Maine. When my husband and I had dinner on a high pier overlooking the buoys designating the course, I was a little intimidated. They extended straight out from the beach directly into the Atlantic for what appeared to be infinity.
I got into the water a day before the race. I swam along the buoys until I could easily see the turn buoy, and realized there was no reason to be concerned.
In 2018 I raced in the International Triathlon Union’s Multisport World Championships, in a channel in Denmark off the island of Funen.
The water was a comfortable temperature. There were no surf, tide or shark risks whatsoever. Easy!
When I reached halfway in the 1.2-mile swim and dove off the turnaround platform, I decided to change how I normally race. Instead of swimming conservatively and saving my energy for the bike and/or run portions of the race, I decided to truly race, in appreciation of my Helena swimming buddies and coaches who had helped me get ready for the event (thank you, guys!).
I finished with the second fastest swim time for women in my age group, due to the confidence and fitness achieved through the Helena Ridley swimmers and coaching.
All of these experiences flowed from my early years learning to swim in the Sherwood Mill Pond in Connecticut. From those moments of swimming terror I have enjoyed years of adventure, joy, challenges and friendships, and the treasured camaraderie of the swimming community.