During the last decade, I have had the privilege of training and competing with some of the world's greatest swimmers. Although I have won many races and lost perhaps more, I was all too happy to boast that never, in my entire career, was I ever beaten by a girl.
All that changed at the second annual RCP Tiburon Mile, a brand new race on the open-water circuit that draws some of the world's best swimmers for its beautiful setting and the challenging conditions of the San Francisco Bay. And oh yes, let's not forget, the $5,000 jackpot for first place.
Headlining the event was Brooke Bennett, the Olympic gold medalist from the 2000 and 1996 Olympic Games who had arrived fresh off a plane from Sydney. Bennett, a pool specialist in the 800- and 400-meter swims who has only done a handful of ocean-water races, came in as the defending champion for elite women.
At last year's race, I had beaten her by a full 10 seconds; a good distance by swimming standards but nonetheless dangerously close and impressive ... for a girl. She had stuck to the lead pack of elite swimmers like glue, and finished an impressive sixth place overall. I had finished fourth, thankfully ahead of Brooke. Phew.
This was my chance to prove last year was no fluke. Beating her once was not enough, I said to myself. I wanted to prove that I could still hold her off, especially in an Olympic year, when her training and conditioning were probably at an all-time peak. Besides, I reasoned, she's a girl!
I had a good feeling about this race; I had warmed up an hour before at a nearby pool and wouldn't you know, Brooke was in the next lane over, loosening up as well. She finished before me ("Hah! She's slacking off," I thought, "I'll have more yardage under my belt come race time an hour from now!") so I kept swimming, then got out and got ready to take the boat over to the start at Angel Island.
The beginning of the race is always tense; swimmers jockey for position along the shore while gingerly putting their toes in the 60-degree water in an attempt to acclimate. Personally, I don't bother; I dive in and allow my body to get used to feeling numb (it's like an ice cream headache from head to toe). That way the shock of starting the race is less intense.
Suddenly the gun went off and it might as well have been a cattle call; swimmers of every shape and size clamoring over one another and elbowing each other in the face to get out in front of the pack.
I swam to the far right in an effort to establish the straightest line toward our final destination, while an elite pack of men swerved to the left and hugged the shoreline. Good, I thought, I have open water to myself.
As I broke away from the churning waters behind me I started in toward the elite pack, which had gained some ground on me. I cut to the left and fell in behind them, feeling a few other hands knocking at my feet. I kicked harder. Lurching forward on a few waves, I found myself between a wetsuit-division maverick and whoa! Brooke Bennett.
This was not supposed to happen. The mishmash of people behind us was supposed to be my firewall against the mighty Brooke! I figured this novice open-water swimmer would try to rely on her pool technique and get pummeled into shark bait, Olympic gold or not. But obviously she had the good sense to get out in front.
So now I was stuck next to her with my fragile ego as the only thing that might push me to victory over this 20-year-old Wonder Woman.
With all due respect to Miss Bennett, I had found myself in a similar situation 10 years ago as a swimmer at Stanford, pitted against my training partner Janet Evans. For three years, our college coaches deposited us into an outside lane together four times a week, giving us workouts that were challenging enough on their own without having to wage a daily battle of the sexes between us.
For Janet, it was the only way she could train with someone faster than she was (ah, the drawbacks of being a world-record holder), while for me, it was motivating to be, yes, chased by a girl whose swimming endurance happened to be unparalleled. Until now.
As we approached the foreground of the Golden Gate Bridge I noticed Brooke's arm turnover was incredibly fast. I could tell, because with every breath I was face to face with part of her elbow. I tried sprinting, managing to get half a body-length in front of her until she would catch the right wave and pull up alongside me again.
The mental challenge of being in a neck-and-neck race in open water is sometimes more nerve-wracking and toughening than it is in pool competition. With the elements thrown in, you can win or lose a race based on the right wave, the right current, the proper navigation.
You don't always have to be the fastest swimmer. This can be frustrating. Especially if you're a guy who thinks he's pretty darn good and Brooke Bennett is next to you, seemingly out for a Saturday stroll.
"I came here for the fun of the race," she told the media after she finished.
I don't mean to brag, but I have won 18 open-water races this year and was coming off a victory at the prestigious 70th annual La Jolla Rough Water Swim in San Diego.
While I don't know Brooke's open-water street smarts, I am well aware of her mental and physical competence in the pool. It was becoming very apparent in the ocean now, as well. I was unable to shake her, and I figured at the very least I would stay with her until the end, pray to the open water gods to give me a burst of energy (or a well-placed wave), and see if I could save my pride up the finish line ramp.
The orange buoy marking the finish came into view, and I put my head down and sprinted as best I could. Brooke was right there, arms spinning just as fast ... OK, maybe faster.
Closer and closer we came to the finish, and I realized the press boat was getting this all on film. The entire swimming community would be watching Brooke finish this race, and wondering who the guy was right behind her. I couldn't help but think: "At least I'll get coverage!"
I gave it my all, but I guess Brooke did, too. She outswam and outran me up the finish ramp. She had beaten me. Janet Evans had never done that. Brooke made it seem routine. I looked over at her and realized with relief that at least she was breathing hard. If I was ready to die from lack of oxygen, then she was merely close to passing out.
Brooke may have beaten me, but she pushed me just as well: I realized happily that my fifth-place finish in the overall elite division was not too shabby given the company I was in. The winner, Ryk Neethling, was member of the South African Olympic team.
With less than 10 seconds separating the winner from the sixth-place finisher, the RCP Tiburon Mile continues to uphold its 2-year-old tradition of being the most competitive and tight field of open-water swimmers ever assembled.
And although I'm still getting used to the thought of being beaten by a girl, it's OK with me. For Brooke Bennett is no ordinary girl. She's a wonder woman.
We are 1 for 1. Can't wait until next year's tiebreaker.
Alex Kostich was an All-American swimmer at Stanford and is an open-water masters swimming champion.