Debbie Dawson has swum with dolphins and in the dark and in water so cold that her body once went numb for the last half-mile of a race. In one open-water race, she encountered a marlin she thought was a shark. Sometimes her blood rushes to her core to the point in which she can't breathe. Or she'll reach her arm into the water and come up with her hand covered in seaweed.
Those are the memories she has forged in years of swimming in the open water, and they're the ones she recalls most from her three-decade-plus career.
"It's kind of like this thing that I do that keeps me sane," she said.
So last Sunday, when she competed in the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim for the third time, the water wasn't going to give her any surprises.
Still, Dawson, a Baltimore resident who turned 48 on Wednesday, never expected to win. That honor, she figured, would go to one of the young stars in the field. The oldest woman who had ever won, she would later learn, was 34. The oldest man was 39. She expected to finish among the top 10 women.
The annual fundraising event is an open water challenge in which 650 athletes — in yellow and green swim caps — swim 4.4 miles under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, from Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis to a small beach on Kent Island.
One hour, 36 minutes and 52 seconds after starting, Dawson was the first woman to finish the 4.4-mile race across the Chesapeake Bay, beating two 20-year-olds who finished second and third. Race director Chuck Nabit awaited her at the finish and told her of her accomplishment.
Nabit has known Dawson and her husband for years. They used to live in the same neighborhood in Guilford, and their kids still go to the same school. The day before the race, two of Dawson's four children and Nabit's two kids played in the same piano recital. After Nabit told Dawson she finished first, she launched into compliments of Nabit's children.
"You won the race!" Nabit repeated to Dawson, who couldn't believe it.
"I was shocked and elated," Nabit said Friday. "She's just a wonderful person."
Dawson first swam the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim in 2002 at age 34. Back then, her list of encounters in the open water was much shorter. She wasn't prepared for the dead fish and jellyfish she found under the Bay Bridge. Still, her goal was to finish among the top 10 women, and she did, at 1:41:21.
"If you're a swimmer, it's one of those accomplishments — you have to at least say, 'I've swum across the Bay,'" Dawson said. "It's one of those milestones."
Since then, a host of events have diverted her swimming career. That year, she didn't feel well leading up to the race and then swallowed a lot of water during the swim, making her hesitant about returning. Raising four children limited her training, so she opted for the one-mile swim rather than the 4.4-miler in the following years.
Swimmers cross the bay in the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim from Sandy Point Park to Kent Island.
By 2012, she had started training again and decided to give the 4.4 miles another try. This time, she improved, finishing fourth among women and 15th overall in 1:38:28.
With more races under her belt, she was more prepared for everything the Chesapeake threw at her. When she came up to breathe and instead inhaled a mouthful of water, she persisted.
"I just said, 'OK, I'll breathe on the next one,'" Dawson recalls. "I think a lot of what goes into the race is experience. You never know what the conditions will be. You just have to adapt. If the waves are rough, you can't fight them. You just have to relax. I think a lot of swimmers that don't have open-water experience, they get frustrated."
After the 2012 race, though, Dawson again faced a slew of setbacks — namely, thoracic outlet syndrome, a shoulder impingement and a neck injury from falling off a horse.
She didn't make it back to the race until this year, after the open water lured her again.
"There's so much excitement that you can't predict," Dawson said. "You have to be strong in many other ways. You can't just be a strong swimmer."
Dawson is stronger now than she was when she first started, able to withstand the cold and the darkness and the wildlife and whatever else. She left Friday for the U.S. Masters Swimming two-mile national championships in Indianapolis, and she's planning to swim five miles in the St. Croix Coral Reef Swim in November.
She doesn't know what she'll encounter there, either, but she's confident she'll be able to handle that too.