ELLEN DE LA CRUZ

How Swimming Saved My Life: Parkinson’s, the Pandemic, and the Pacific Ocean

La Jolla Cove

In September 2020, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The diagnosis caught me off guard, I thought I had nerve damage from a fall down a staircase several years prior. The doctor had me do a series of tests and confirmed that the tremor in my right hand, lazy right foot, insomnia, and overall lack of balance was indeed, Parkinson’s Disease. 

My son was away in his first year at a military academy, we were still in a pandemic, I was teaching on Zoom, my mom’s Alzheimer’s was slowly taking her away from me, and THIS! Michael J. Fox and Muhhamad Ali flashed through my brain. 

During the pandemic, a miscellaneous crew of triathletes and swimmers started gathering at the beach for ocean swims, since our pool was closed. We were introduced by Tony, the YMCA swim coach and former professional triathlete who did guest spots on Baywatch in the 90s. 

We gathered, even when it was cold, dark, and foggy, waves crashing against the rocks and sea lions squabbling on cliffs nearby. I’d stumble down the shore, put my goggles and fins on, and dive in. All the blood rippled upwards towards my numb face. I’d jump into the seaweed, start moving my arms in a familiar cyclic fashion, and swim.

Swimming in the ocean is exhilarating and addictive. You may start from the same spot, but every swim is a little bit different. The swell and the chop push and pull you like a laundry cycle. Some days it’s like swimming in an aquarium and other days it is a dark, foreign river. 

We swim with schools of fish, Soupfin sharks, dolphins, Seven gill sharks, sea turtles, and our beloved Garibaldis. During the week I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, one of my friends spotted a sea turtle surfacing. I followed it for several yards as it slowly and gracefully moved its large green shell through the water. The creatures that we encounter are gifts from the sea. A pod of dolphins magically swam with us on a 3 mile swim to mark the anniversary of my friend’s mom passing. 

Swimming saved my life because it was my escape. It shapes my day and my world. In the water, I am not disabled and I leave my Parkinson’s at the shore. Sometimes, when I wake up, my body isn’t cooperating and I am stiff all over, but after my swim, I am transformed. I walk with a limp, but also a smile. The saltwater clears away the troubles that race through my brain the night before. 

Each swim is a testimony that I am still alive. Often, I witness the rising sun and the setting moon as a speck in the vast Pacific Ocean. The ocean is bigger than me. The pandemic is bigger than how it affects me. My Parkinson’s Disease is a story that I am just starting to write. When I’m in the sea, the salt and the air surrounding me, my arms pulling me through the waves, my

story isn’t about losing mobility, my story isn’t about losing things, it is about the mysterious, magical life that I am living. 

 

La Jolla Shores, CA where we swim.