Aerial shot of a Gray Whale swimming in the ocean without a tail.
My work has me always scanning for stories related to inclusion and disability. There are often feel-good stories of success in challenging situations or those of collaboration and integration. Some can be the impetus for these monthly newsletter topics. In a single week I read a story about a migrating whale who had lost its tail and then learned that a marathon swimmer doesn’t kick. Let me elaborate.
A gray whale was spotted off the coast of California on its 6,000-mile journey between Alaska and Mexico. Aerial shots clearly showed that it was missing its massive tail, theorized to be the victim of an encounter with a boat collision or perhaps a fishing net. Using its pectoral fin and leaning to one side, it was able to maintain a pace of three miles per hour (just 25% below the typical speed) to make this marathon migration.
Later in the same week I met Jeannie Zappe, a marathon open water swimmer, at Indiana Tech. In teaching a room of students what it took to be a master swimmer, we all learned that kicking was not part of the formula. Through lowering one’s head and not kicking, the body floats higher on the water and progress is made with less energy expended.
Both had traversed long journeys, one in its natural habitat and the other in a foreign one, and yet both did it without the use of lower “extremities.”
What do these two stories have in common?
Adaptation, simply, is when an organism adjusts either behavior, physiology, or structure to become more suited to its environment. The whale adapted to use the bodily resources available to it while Jeannie adapted her freestyle technique to work smarter, not harder. Part of Jeanne’s adaptation was her mental approach. She broke down that almost 15-hour swim into manageable segments. Being the eternal optimist she was, she stopped the negative self-talk of “I could never do that” and switched it to one of “But, what if I can?”
The whale needed to migrate from the cold water to warmer to ensure food access and survival. It was a do or die situation. It took longer because of a slower pace, but with resilience and persistence, it made it to the warmer waters and breeding grounds. Jeannie Zappe had “unfinished business” and chose to listen to her heart. This resilient 55-year-old woman has completed the Triple Crown of open water swimming, The English Channel, The Catalina Channel, and swimming around the Island of Manhattan. She learned that kicking is more a mechanism to keep the hips and feet up in the water. Lowering the head, she said, produces the same effect without expending all that energy with moving the large muscles of the legs. With daily discipline of swimming wherever she is and practicing a different technique, she silenced that inner voice of doubt and reinforced the “What if I can?”
Prior to this past week, I would have speculated that a whale who had lost its entire tail would have failed to complete a spring migratory journey. I would have also argued with great certainty, that a distance swimmer would use their strong leg muscles to successfully complete the challenge of crossing the English Channel.
I would have been wrong in both cases.
Life is full of challenges. It is more of a roller coaster journey than a straight flat road. Some of the challenges are out of our control while some are self-imposed. My takeaway this week is to be open to creative problem solving in managing those challenges. Whether it is leaning to one side or just not kicking, long journeys can be accomplished.