Reflections On The La Jolla Rough Water Swim

On a calm morning in September, the tourists and seals at La Jolla Cove were pushed aside for a historic sporting event: ‘The Big Wet One.’ More commonly known as the ‘Rough Water Swim’, this local competition has been swelling in popularity for almost a century. From its humble beginnings of seven men competing in the first race in 1916, to the second race of eight men and eleven women in 1925, the races since 1996 have been capped at a maximum of two thousand swimmers.


Before participating, I’ve had a memorable history watching from the cliff sidelines. As a young child, I first witnessed my 68 year-old grandmother finish the rough mile stretch, placing third in her age-group. My best friend was also a participant in the junior race. For years, I supported her with cheers and a dry towel before ever daring to attempt the race for myself. Rough Water Swim is an accurate description of the race – Mother Nature is not one to tame her moods for the convenience of sporting events. I understood the awesome strength my Grammy and best friend possessed to survive the unpredictable ocean, where there are no walls to hold onto and no lane lines to guide. Beds of seaweed block your way, swells push you off course and the feet of other swimmers are weapons in this brutal open water swim.

On the morning of competition, the cove was swarming with colorful swim caps. The ocean was calm, the sun shining and the water temperature a mild 68 degrees: a perfect San Diego day. At check-in they attached a tracking device to my ankle and marked my shoulder blades and thighs with numbers in permanent marker. The more serious swimmers warmed-up west of the cove and the official starting line. A half-hour prior to  my age-appropriated race, I and the other 19 to 39 year-old ladies stood in line, preparing to descend down the stairs and onto the shore.

During this time the other swimmers share their nervous jitters and console the new racers with words of wisdom. Swimmer abilities ranged from the completely inexperienced beginners (who had only ever swam a mile in a pool), to the in-shape college swimmers and Olympians competing against their teammates and personal times. I fell somewhere in the middle of the pack, as a 2 year veteran of the race and with many years of water polo training. I would not be last nor would I be a competitive finisher, but I was ready to conquer the brutal waters as an annual personal goal.

Finally herded down the stairs and crowded onto the inlet’s small beach, the women around me secured their goggles. The triangular mile-course would take us around two buoys and back to shore. Even though lifeguards were out there in case of emergency, they couldn’t protect us from the stampede erupting after the starting gun.

Thankfully there was no seaweed jungle or massive swells to overcome that day, but the tide played its usual games of pushing and pulling, turning the second stretch into an upstream battle. One of the most difficult parts of the race is swimming to shore against the ocean’s pull, then standing on wobbly legs and running through sand to the finish line.

The 83rd annual competition was concluded with big cheers, smiles and a survivor medal for each finisher. No matter how tiring the race is, it’s always rewarding to finish up and join the ranks of hundreds of swimmers who’ve completed the course over the years. So mark your calendars for next year: the Big Wet One is a La Jolla tradition that is not going to be swept away with the tide.

-By Lauren Cono, La Jolla Blue Book Intern

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