How Mindaugas and Nikolaj conquered Gibraltar: Part 22019 10 08 · 4 min read
They say be careful what you wish for – and I would say, beware friends who have daring dreams.
On 11 September 2016, I completed a marathon. Probably not quite in the way I had expected, but I still did it and got my medal. It was challenging both physically and mentally, but I did it. And what’s next? Next comes a ‘hole in the ground’ – a period of time when you allow yourself to spend hours on end lying in bed staring into space. And why shouldn’t you? My god, please, just lie around to your heart’s content, after all the years of preparation come rain or snow, whether it’s +25 or -25 outside. And that’s how I spent my time until February or March 2017: “lying down”.
And then Nikolaj enters the office, all shiny-eyed and grinning from ear to ear, looking straight at me and unblinking. Of course, I was still “sleeping”, but in Lithuania it’s such an odd thing to smile and look someone direct in the eyes without saying a word. Yet the silence was only brief, and was followed by a garbled stream of words with what sounded like “Gibraltar” thrown in, then a few more phrases – something to the effect of “I’ve already sent an application”; “we need to make haste”; “I’ll send you a link”. Well, yeah, I thought… “Madagascar, Africa, sharks, snakes, monkeys, jungle… scary stuff.” And right off the bat, my answer is: “Are you crazy? No, I’m not going there.”
That’s how men act around each other. They stomp their feet, smash a fist on the table, and there you go: the answer is strong, clear and not open to discussion. After that, I think Nikolaj assumed he would have to swim alone and never even tried to raise the subject again. From my side, however, the matter began to gnaw at me. After all, it wasn’t Madagascar he had suggested, but the Strait of Gibraltar. Are there sharks there? Hmm… in the whole 18-year history of swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar, there have been no reports of any shark attacks. Well anyway, I still don’t want to, I’m still pretty scared. I agonised over it for a whole week, unable to find any convincing excuses to myself or an answer to Nikolaj. Finally, I decided to go with an old tried and trusted method of resolving the situation: writing ‘YES’ on one piece of paper and ‘NO’ on another, I then took one in each hand and went into Nikolaj’s office.
– Choose: left or right.
– What’s this?
– Never mind the silly questions… just pick, left or right.
I open my right hand, and the paper inside reads ‘YES’.
– ‘YES’ to what? – Nikolaj asks.
– ‘Yes, I will swim the Strait of Gibraltar with you – I told him with zero emotion.
Truth be told, it was kind of difficult for me to give any emotionally suitable response at that moment, whether to jump for joy, go in for a hug, be happy, scream or yell… But of course, Nikolaj did shout and hug me delightedly. On my part, I would still have to wait for these emotions to hit me.
That very night, 6 March, I wrote a letter to ACNEG (Asociación para el Cruce a Nado del Estrecho de Gibraltar) to notify them of my intention. I told them about my swimming experience and about the challenges I had undertaken – my first marathon, and how deeply I was taken with the idea of swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar.
I was in for another sleepless night after I wrote my letter. Nikolaj and I wanted to swim in 2018, the year that marked the centenary of the declaration of Lithuania’s independence. After a week and a half, we received an answer that there was no guarantee this would be possible due to a sizeable waiting list, and that we should realistically plan our swim for 2019. But we remained optimistic and started our preparations in the hope that we would somehow get to squeeze it into 2018.
We started training at Lazdynai Rec Centre. We created our own routine, starting with two sessions per week between 8 and 9:30 p.m, and adding a third at the Green Lakes as the weather grew warmer. As you probably already know, Lazdynai Rec Centre was shut down in early August 2017, but our sessions there left us with great memories. First of all, we were able to watch the training sessions of the Delfinas water-polo club as we trained. What had the biggest lasting impression on us were the shouts of the coaches, the whistles, the encouragement… to put it simply, the water-polo training sessions were very lively indeed, while we would swim calmly without anyone bothering us or driving us along. Secondly, the pool stirred up memories for me of teenage games and sports camps. Strangely, nothing had changed there in 20 years, with the same tiles – or rather, every second tile – and the same eerie lamps that looked like they were about to fall into the pool, the plaster crumbling from the ceiling… even the plumbing in the showers and the cleaning lady in the locker rooms who, just like 20 years earlier, popped in just when you had your pants down. Déjà vu.
But let’s not forget Spain and ACNEG – which, after all, made no promises we could swim in 2018. We had the courtesy not to pressure them, only writing them a brief letter once a month. How long do you think we had to wait for replies? Why, one month… and the answers were none too optimistic. They continued to say that it would be really difficult to arrange our swim for 2018, with the waiting list going all the way back to 2015, bad windy weather springing up, and many swims being cancelled… We somehow had to swallow that bitter pill, and in August 2017 we could afford to take a vacation to allow ourselves to rest a bit and unwind. I “fell asleep” again. And why not: we still had what looked like around two years – and possibly even more – until our Strait of Gibraltar swim. After all, you can’t order in the right weather, and what if 2018 was bad too? Basically, it was all up in the air for now…
Then, a phone call from Nikolaj.
– Mindė, I found a coach and a pool.
– Well, hello to you too. Long time no speak – how are you?
Meet me at Impuls gym Tuesday morning at 7. We’ll sign an agreement and the sessions will be at 7 a.m. twice a week.
– Wait, wait, this is all out of the blue. Which Impuls? What coach?
– On Kareivių Street, with a coach called Kęstutis.
– 7 in the morning???!!! So I’ll have to get up at… 6? And how much will it cost?
– Well, it’s a little bit more than at Lazdynai Rec Centre, but we’ll have a coach. And we won’t have to make up our own training routine – there’ll be someone to scream and yell at us, and kick us in the rear.
– Damn, what a deal!
Our first training session at Impuls was in early September 2017. I would say it was a little cold to start with… and not because it was cold outside, or the water was cold…
– Hi, for your warm-up, swim this and that, this many times.
So I’m thinking as I swim, where have I seen this Kęstutis before? Holding onto that thought, I kept going for nearly half an hour – which is how long it took for the smell of chlorine to conjure up one more memory from the depths of my subconscious. Kęstutis Steponavičius was the brother of my childhood training partner. Lithuania is truly a small country, and you’ll bump into someone you know wherever you go. After a few minutes, we began talking and reminiscing about the swimming pool at Panevėžys Žemyna secondary school (which is now a progymnasium), the coaches and the swimmers… It was all a surprise, but doubled my motivation for training. The sessions were fun because we didn’t have to take charge of our training routines or equipment and the coach would always come up with something new – so the sessions were never boring.
In other words, we put ourselves in the hands of the coach, and the 18 months we spent training with Kęstutis went by in the blink of an eye. The experience we gained was completely different from that of 20 years earlier, flagging up to me how much the methodology for training to swim and dry-land preparation had changed. But that’s a different story… Putting it simply, there was no time for “sleeping”.
How were things with our contacts in Spain? It had been 17 months since our last correspondence. When you think about it, that’s enough time to conceive and give birth to two kids… well, almost. At school, I was always good at maths; biology and geography I wasn’t that fond of, and history and political science were a disaster… Wait, what were we talking about? Oh, that’s right, letters. In late November, I wrote another one so we could get some information about the outlook for 2019. How long do you think we had to wait for a reply?
I remember that feeling of water you haven’t swum in before. Istanbul! One of the most exciting cities in the world. Azure, salty water! Not at all like what you get in a pool or lake. You can’t just walk up to the water and sip it… But… to start! You jump off from a height of two metres, quickly check to see if everything is there – the cap, the goggles, the watch – and begin swimming. At the start and finish line, you have to swim against a current. This is easy at the start, when you’re full of adrenalin and energised by actually making a start, that everything happened on time, and that you’re in a city where only a week ago tanks stood on the bridges under which you’ll be swimming… The flight was not cancelled, the swim has not been called off, and you’re in the water – oh, joy!
That year, of the nine registered swimmers from Lithuania, just four of us made the start; the others were scared off by developments at the time. Everything looks different from the water than from the ship that takes you to view the route. As I passed the first bridge, I looked to see why no one was getting in my way and I wasn’t obstructing anyone else, as there were supposed to be about 1,600 of us. But I only saw two other swimmers, with the rest were strung out all along the route. I swam by the prearranged landmarks and could see tiny balloons at the finishing line. I thought to myself that the Turks were an unusual bunch, blowing up some little McDonald’s balloons for people to see… Hmm… it turned out I was wrong: the balloons were actually huge, expanding in scale as you progressed along the route. I did everything as I had planned – though near the finishing line, I swam for a long time in which I wondered why the white tent on the shore didn’t seem to be moving at all, and had to find a second gear. All the people I was unable to see on the route started to appear at the finish, jostling with each other to be the first to climb the stairs and cross the finishing line. I managed, however, to complete the course without sustaining any injuries. A shower, gifts, a backpack, and a certificate confirming you as a transcontinental swimmer who has just crossed from Asia to Europe. The euphoria, the calls, the photos, and bidding farewell to the colleagues who flew over to root for me. I then stayed in Istanbul for one more day.
The trips, the food, the bazaar, the confectionery, and everything. Everyone who spots your T-shirt congratulates you and the sellers treat you to mussels, kebabs and other food you were unable to eat while you were training.
After I got back to BA, I was met with more congratulations, hugs and kisses. It’s great when the people you work with are interested not only in your work, but also in your hobbies – and BA is a big support team! Colleagues support you, offer criticism and otherwise express their humble opinions. Some will join you for a swim in a lake or pool, while others are eager to share the contacts of masseurs. Thank you!
When I returned, I knew where my next swim would be. Gibraltar! I started searching for information about the strait, how the swim was organised and other details. It all started to seem so much more serious and, at first glance, this challenge looked like it would require three times the effort in terms of distance, currents, challenges faced and organisation (which was a really exhausting part).
After I had failed to find any like-minded people to swim with me across the Bosporus, I could think of only one individual from Baltic Amadeus who I would approach with such a crazy idea – Mindaugas Gaurys. Once I recovered from the Vilnius marathon, I asked him if he would join me on the swim. The answer was clear as day – no. After all, no one in their right mind would swim a distance of 15 to 18 kilometres: that would be madness! I don’t like to hassle people, asking them the same thing over and over again, so when Mindaugas said he wouldn’t swim, I thought would be a little harder without the extra encouragement but just couldn’t abandon the idea.
I didn’t wait in vain. Then the inexplicable happened: Mindaugas suddenly said “yes”. I don’t know what happened in my colleague’s head to change his mind, but two years on, I would like to thank him for his resolve and the opportunity he gave me to draw lots from his hands.
The training began. We would take turns to coach ourselves, alternating weekly, and swam in the Green Lakes at weekends when the weather grew warmer. I remember we started looking for a proper coach. One candidate was Mikhail, a top veteran coach at Lazdynai swimming pool, but no one could say for sure whether he would prepare us for a swim this long. Male athletes tend to train to swim distances of up to 1,500 metres indoors and 10 kilometres maximum in open water. When we said we would need to swim a distance of 15 km, no one wanted to take us on because of a lack of appropriate training routines, let alone coaches in Lithuania – or, at least, none that we could find.
I partook in triathlon sometimes, so I asked that community about where they went to train. They recommended the coach Kęstutis Steponavičius as someone who was young, enthusiastic, and devoted to his job. It turned out that he and Mindaugas in fact knew the same people: Lithuania is a tiny place. So we signed up to his team and started to enhance our technique, and increase our speed and stamina, just the way we wanted it. It was also encouraging that results began to improve. News from ACNEG, on the other hand, didn’t. The Spanish team was reluctant to confirm our spot on the list of swimmers to cross the strait either in 2017 or 2018. Mindaugas and myself both sent them letters, and we filed various applications, but the answer was always “no”. We needed to seek an alternative – and I found it…
To be continued…
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