‘They Laughed When I Tried to Swim’: Pushing Past Her Comfort Zone to Raise Money for Swim Across America

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This weekend marks the fourth year of Swim Across America, the charity swimming event that has raised over $1.3 million for cancer research at Johns Hopkins. Read below the story of Misti Burmeister, a brave soul who was inspired to become a better swimmer so that she could participate and join the cause.  Visit the SAA website to learn more about the organization and find out how you can sponsor a swimmer for  the Meadowbrook pool swim on Saturday, September 20 or the open water swim in the Magothy River on Sunday, September 21. Good luck, swimmers! The Eds.


by Misti Burmeister

Has anyone ever laughed at you when you’ve tried something new?

When I got her text message at 9:30 a.m., I laughed, as I remembered feeling as though I might drown just fifteen years before.

Wanting to be the cool kid at nineteen, I went to get my lifeguard certification. As with most sports, I thought I could simply muscle my way through it.

I didn’t bother to learn how to swim, nor did I practice. When the woman in charge of the certifications blew her whistle, instructing me to get out of the pool, I knew I was done.

 “You look like you need to be saved,” she said.

I did!

 So, when my friend Janice Bonner sent me that text message, encouraging me to do Swim Across America (SAA), my immediate response was, “I don’t know how to swim.”

“Swimming might help your hip, you get training as a part of the deal, and you get to contribute to a worthy cause,” Janice said.

Later that day, I got online to check them out. As I was going to sign up, I noticed that I could not sign up without committing to raising $500.

First, I tried to make my way around that commitment on their website, but it didn’t work. I had to either make the commitment, or forget the whole thing.

Before I could think too long, I pushed the “enter” button and made my promise.

By my third training session, I had two opposing emotions hit me at the same time: excitement and guilt.

I had learned enough to swim 100 meters without stopping, but I hadn’t asked for any donations yet. Yuck!

When I got out of the pool that day, I headed straight for my computer. I wrote an email about this challenge, and asked a dozen or so of my friends, clients, and colleagues to contribute.

While I was prepared for my mom to throw a few bucks in the hat, I wasn’t ready for the result: $500 in 48 hours.

Misti Burmeister


The next day, in the pool with my new friend, Caroline, who I got to know after swimming into her lane several times during practice, I jokingly gave her a nickname: wave maker. The reason? When she passes me (we tend to share a lane), she makes a wave, shooting even more chlorinated water down my throat.

“I am a wave maker. Are you?” Caroline asked. If I raised $1000, then I could become a wave maker, help even more, and have the option to swim up to 3 miles.

Caroline’s dedication inspired me, and so I made several more requests.  A few days later, my partner, Yvette, and I were paddleboarding on the Rehoboth Bay, when Yvette suggested I could swim across the bay (just over a mile, roughly).

It was my fifth time paddleboarding, Yvette’s first.

Just like I did when signing up for SAA, I stopped all rationale thought, jumped off my board, grabbed my goggles and swim cap, and starting swimming across the Bay, with Yvette to my left on the paddle board.

On my swim across, I stopped several times to catch my breath, and took in more salt water than I care to think about, but I made it!

Then, out of nowhere, I felt a giant fish, as my hand went across the water.

“Fish! Big fish. Big fish in the water,” I shouted out at Yvette, who quickly instructed me to turn onto my back.


As I did, I saw panic in her eyes (little did I know she thought it was a shark) and realized I needed to calm myself, so I started chanting.

“It’s okay, I’m okay. Big fish – big water,” I said out loud to myself.

As I started to calm, I got the courage to see if it was still there, and it was! Chanting ensued, until Yvette took her paddle, poked it downward, and discovered it was the bottom of the bay.

As I swiped my hand again, I realized she was right, and proceeded to visualize myself being sucked under by the mud.

Don’t try to make sense of it!

After a few seconds on chanting Yvette insisted we simply get back to the other side. In fact, she had already started paddling in that direction when I stopped her, and myself.

“I’m afraid of mud,” I said, and then I took a deep breath and plunged to the bottom of the bay, scooped up the nastiest, smelliest, slimiest mud, and brought it to the surface.

Extending my arms, I said, “Here, this is my fear. You can have it.”

“That’s gross,” she said, “Put it down and let’s go.”

I watched it as I released it back into the bay, and then I proceed to catch my very first stride. I swam the entire length of the bay (a little more than a half mile) without stopping.

Soon after, this idea ran through my mind: “3 and 3,” I thought.

Swim three miles (instead of the one I had committed to) and raise $3,000.

Having achieved $1,000, when I didn’t think I could even raise $500, and learning how to swim, when I was scared of drowning, I figured it was time to stretch my comfort even more.

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