In 1978, my friend Minh, escaped from Vietnam on an over sized rowboat. It took a huge leap of faith for Minh to step into that “rowboat” and head out to sea. There were no life vests aboard – and Minh did not know how to swim.

Today, Minh would face her fear of the water head on. Determined to learn to swim at the age of 50 – it is showtime. July 25, 2010 – the day of the Hagerstown Maryland Sprint Triathlon. Minh is poised at the edge of the pool. Will she be able to swim and overcome her fear of the water?

In order to appreciate Minh’s fierce determination – let me first share with you Minh’s story — in her words:

Minh’s Story

I was born and grew up in Dalat, a small resort town up in the Lang Bian mountain, with an elevation of about 1,500m, 300km north west of Saigon, where I lived until May 1978, when my family fled Vietnam on a small fishing boat – about 6ft by 20ft, with 17 people on board – 9 in my family, 2 family friends, 2 fishermen and their family.

We left Vietnam via the Cam Ranh bay on May 18 sometimes after midnight when it was pouring rain. It was very frightening for me, a then 17 year old girl, who didn’t know how to swim, to wade out to the boat in chest high water in the dark pitch of the night, compounded by fears of getting caught by the coast guards and sent to jail for trying to escape. Each of us had to carry our supplies of water, gasoline, and food too.

All of us cramped into to hull of the boat, covered in fishing net when the boat left the harbor. We headed straight out to the South China Sea, in hope of getting rescued by those big ships that we saw when we got to the international water. But none stopped for us even when we sent out the distress signal. After 5 days, we ran out of water, food, and had a little bit of gasoline left, so the fishermen decided to let the boat afloat. It rained a little bit and we caught some water using a piece of tarp. The fishermen caught some fishes too, but most of my family members and our friends were very weak by then, due the dehydration and sea sickness.
Desperation set in on May 23rd, when we didn’t see any ship for the whole day.

Around 4 o’clock that afternoon, we caught sight a small vessel ahead of us. The fishermen turned on the boat engine and chased after the ship. When we came up along side of the ship, their crew thought we were pirates, so they were yelling at us, wielding their big fishing spears. My father screamed for us to get up from the hull. After seeing us women and children, they put down the weapons and threw some ropes over to our boat. They were from Taiwan and one of them, the cook, spoke a little English. We were very lucky that they were following a school of fishes and veered off course and were going pretty slow for us to catch up to them. After giving us some food, water, and one can of gasoline – they were low on gasoline too so couldn’t give us a lot – they pointed us toward the coast of Indonesia while they went the opposite way.

Around 8 o’clock that night, a big storm gathered on our left and coming fast at us. The cloud was so black and lightening was everywhere. The fishermen were screaming and cursing in panic and we all thought that was the end for us. The big waves and rain had started to come in when we caught sight of the Taiwanese boat again. They had turned around when they saw the storm coming. They stayed on our left side to block us from the storm. I still remember those big waves. One minute there was a big black wall of water in front of me that I thought would smash into our boat, the next I was on top of one, looking down at the dark pit of water below me. The storm had passed quickly but it seemed to me like a very very long time.

When the sky cleared and the waves calmed down, we bid farewell to our rescuers one more time. The cook jumped down to our boat, crying, handed us a piece of paper with his name and address – which I kept and wrote him a letter when we first came to the US – more on that later.

At dawn the next day, we came to one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen off the coast of Indonesia. The people there let us came on shore to rest, and gave us one of the most delectable food I had ever tasted. Since they didn’t have any refugee camp in the area, they gave us some more gasoline, water, and food and showed us the way to Kuching, the capital of the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, where we stayed for 3 months in the refugee camp that was setup on a deserted strip of land on the bay near Kuching.

It was there where I was almost drowned one day when I went along with some kids to take a bath in the river. I was holding on to the side of one of the boats left on shore by us, the people who came to the refugee camps, when the tide rose so quickly I lost my footing. I could still see the sun fading as I sank down to the bottom of the river, holding my breath at first, then inhaling water, choking. I don’t remember how long I stayed there until someone caught me by my arms and brought me up to the surface. I vaguely remembered being slapped in the back and I was coughing so hard it felt like I couldn’t get any air in.

After that episode, I became panic every time I got near the water. I still have nightmare about being in the ocean at night. I’ve tried to take swimming lesson a few times since we came here in the US, but I every time, I had to quit after the first day because I couldn’t get over the fear even though I wanted so much to know how to swim. When we went to the beach or the swimming pool, the most I could do was standing in the water at thigh high, and every time I saw my family had fun in the water, I wished I could join them.

It was until the end of last year that I made a vow to myself that I had to learn how to swim before I turned 50. I signed up for a lesson at the community pool last November and went through 4 sessions where we learned to blow bubbles and float on our back and front in the kiddie pool. I finished the class without much improvement. Signed up for the next one at the community college where the instructor was like a drill sergeant. I don’t know how many gallons of pool water I had shallow in that class and still had not been able to swim except to float on my back and front crawl a few feet. I have to admit that I had been able to jump down to the deep end of the pool once (12 feet I think), when the instructor forced us to. I was coughing and choking when I came up to the surface and was so freaked out, but I survived!

The breakthrough for me came when my good friend Jane decided to take on the big task of teaching me how to swim. Something in the way that she showed me how to breath under water, how to move my body so I would glide instead of sinking, how I turned my head to breath to the side, made it so easier for me to learn.

When my 50th birthday came in June 2010, I was able to swim free style the length of the regular pool without stopping! I had sign up to do the swimming part in a relay sprint triathlon on July 25 – and now needed to swim 6 laps in a row. I’ve never done this before.

Sunday – July 25, 2010. It was another typical Maryland day. Sweltering heat in the 90s. Unrelenting humidity. Jill (driving at warp speed), Chuck and I arrived at the Hagerstown Sprint Triathlon at the wee hours of the morning – well before daybreak. Jill and I were entered in the triathlon – but today would not be about our accomplishments. Today was about Minh and her family. My bro Chuck is part of the “race crew” and heads to the registration desk to report in for ‘volunteer duties’.

Minh and her family arrive. Minh is understandably nervous. She has never swam in a competition before – and has the added pressure of being a swimmer in a triathlon relay. If she doesn’t finish her swim ‘leg’….then her relay team will not have the opportunity to participate. Her relay team, includes hubby Trung on the bike, and son Bach as the runner. Her daughter Lamie – will be attempting her first individual triathlon. Minh’s determination to learn to swim – has inspired her entire family – to TRI.

The first wave of swimmers – are the elite men. You know, the guys who are super speedy in their super speedos. They are out of the water in less than 5 minutes. The next wave of swimmers are the elite women. I don’t know what these ladies eat for breakfast – but I could use some of “that” in my diet. The swimming pool is completely churned up as the elite women power through 300 meters in the same time it would take me to do 2 laps.

The relay teams are next in line. This includes 9 super charged men…and our Minh. I watch in amazement as Minh remains undaunted by the field of swimmers that she is pitted with. Jill and I, along with Lamie, Bach and Trung stand on the sidelines – and I’m guessing that we are just as nervous as Minh. Well…maybe not. We can’t see Minh’s face – but she is about to put on her game. She steps toward the water…and taps the lane official on the shoulder. “You might want to take a nap” Minh explains to the man….”It’s gonna be a long swim for me”. The lovely man smiled, and assured her she could take all the time she needed. Leave it to Minh to charm the men.

The relay swimmers are OFF. The water is churned up with 9 serious manly swimmers creating what looks like a pool tsnaumi. Minh struggles to get air, but keeps working on getting to the end of the lane. We stand on the sidelines…and send her telepathic messages “One length at a time Minh…you can do this”. Minh completes her first lap. On her second lap, she falters. Freestyle is much harder with all of the waves created by the power swimmers. There are no wake barriers between the lanes…and the pool is ultra choppy. Minh tries swimming on her back…but struggles even more. We yell to her from the sidelines “COME ON MINH YOU CAN DO THIS!”.

People standing near us….wanted to know Minh’s story. So here it is. Minh didn’t need our screams from outside the pool deck that day. Minh would dig deep. Just like she did in 1978 when her family left Vietnam.

As we stood in the crowd of swimmers on deck….suddenly Minh appeared OUT of the water. Her face was BEAMING as she rushed toward us. We stood there hugging and crying. Minh had done it. While many first timers would have been intimidated to be in a pool with such strong athletes, Minh was undaunted. She finished swimming her 300 meters – and there wasn’t a dry eye among her support team. Trung was now on the road – pedal to the metal on his bicycle – and Bach was standing by waiting for Trung daddio to return.

It is now time for the run – and we cross paths with Bach – who is just finishing his last 1/2 mile. He’s in the shady section – and ready to complete the event for TEAM MINH. Bach is looking fresh – and has barely broken a sweat.

Lamie is less than 1/2 mile behind us and running as if she could run all day. Jill and I are busy applying cold bandanas…and counting the steps to the finish line. In this heat, it can’t come soon enough. Lamie races over the finish line – hands stretched high overhead – and with energy to spare.

Knowing her incredible journey, today was a huge day for Minh, and her family. Triathlons are more than athletic achievements. It is more than how fast you go, or where you place. It is bigger than simply competing with others or yourself. Triathlons are like the fairy godmother of infectious diseases …. camaraderie …encouragement …courage…. determination… inspiration. Minh – not only learned to swim, but she dug deep, conquered some very deep rooted fears of the water, and finished her first swim event. She inspired her family to be a part of her day. And she inspired countless more in the process. I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing Minh as a regular on the triathlon circuit.