Cavalier swimmer goes the distance
Southern Lee student Eli Brightbill is a five-year veteran of open water swimming. Earlier this month, Brightbill won the gold medal in his division, men's 17-18-year-olds, and finished fourth place overall in the 5K race at the Georgia State Games.
Brightbill is driven by the physical and mental challenges of the grueling, long-distance sport. He talks about swimming five kilometers in an hour, 21 minutes and 20 seconds matter-of-factly, even when it's about part of the sport which is more testing than a swimmer's time or final place.
In the Georgia event, on Lake Allatoona in Acworth, there was one buoy each kilometer - a long distance between each buoy on the course.
"It could be very disorienting," Brightbill said.
It was an example, he said, of the mental trial of open water swimming being more formidable than the strength and stamina of completing such a distance.
"You'd look up and see just this dot in the distance. Then you'd swim what seemed like forever, look up again, and the buoy was still a dot. It didn't seem any closer," he said.
Brightbill, a Sanford Squid in club swimming, a rising senior at Southern Lee and a multiple-time Cape Fear Valley Conference swimming champion - this past winter he won the 200 individual medley and the 500 freestyle, the longest event in high school swimming, started open water swimming five years ago in the North Carolina state championships at Seven Lakes.
Exercise, preparing for the next scholastic season and overcoming everything, from in training to the actual races, keep him going.
"Swimming is a sport which teaches you delayed gratification, that's for sure," he said.
Sprinters, he said, have it hardest in that sense. They train hard for months trying to shave a half-second or second from their personal record. For distance swimmers, at least when the clock is more noticeably whittled away, it provides signs the work is worth it.
Brightbill wants to keep his swimming career going past his Cavalier career into college. He also wants to continue open water swimming for as long as he can.
The gold medal in Georgia makes Brightbill eligible for the National State Games of America next summer in Lincoln, Neb.
In general, progressing in open water swimming is about the individual challenge of longer races and better personal performances, he said.
Brightbill felt the course in Georgia was actually a little longer than five kilometers. Distance doesn't tell the whole story though. Take a 3K - in the Atlantic Ocean.
The current and waves, constantly trying to push a swimmer in toward shore, accidentally getting a mouth full of salt water and the stamina necessary all made it "harder than any 5K I've ever done," Brightbill said.
There's no quitting though, which means you have to keep looking ahead, figuratively and technically.
In a pool, such as in a high school meet, swimmers look and breathe to their side.
"In a lake, you have to look up, look ahead and in front. If not, you can go off course," said Brightbill. Off course means, at best, a swimmer having added distance to cover.
"It's very similar to running a marathon, but I hate running," he said.
Even in the midst of a 5K, some of what enters the mind makes finishing tougher.
"With open water, I'll say this," Brightbill said, "in practically every swim I've ever done, probably halfway through it I think, 'Why? Why am I doing this? This is so stupid. What's the purpose of going through this?'"
"For me," he said, "the sport's about seeing how far you can go."