How I took my terror of the ocean and turned it into a great workout

Oct 14, 2015 at 10:22 a.m. ET
Image: Sasha Brown-Worsham

When I was a little girl, I loved the ocean. Loved it. I was fanatic about it. I couldn't get enough tumbling into the waves, jumping them, running from the surf. But as I grew, the ocean became my enemy.

Maybe it is because I have seen Jaws one too many times. Or maybe it's because after children I started having more fears in general. I once went skydiving. I barely even like to fly now. But somehow along the way, the ocean and I lost our friendship.

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We live within a half hour of the closest beach and spend a lot of time there. I watch my children play in the surf and dip my toes in occasionally, but getting in? No way. Never. So when I was offered the opportunity to go surfing with Swatch as part of a surfing competition in San Clemente, California, I decided I had to do it. Even though it meant flying across the country and leaving my three kids for a weekend.

Soon after I booked the trip with Swatch, I spent a weekend in the Hamptons at my aunt's house. The surf was particularly strong and as my children built sandcastles and my aunt and I chatted, a man drowned in front of us. The lifeguard pulled him out, but by the time they did, he was already gone. Terrifying. Sobering. But also: That's the power of the ocean. That is what it can do.

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But the truth is, being scared of the ocean wasn't helping anyone. My children asked me all the time: "Mommy can you get in, too?" I watch as my husband holds their hands, wading deeper and deeper until my heart pounds. But they laugh and squeal and love every second. And I miss it all. Because I am on the shore. I run. I do yoga. I am extremely fit. And yet, I rarely swim. What is that telling my kids?

This trip would help me face all that.

By the time I had made it through LAX and was standing in front of surf instructors, I was shaking. There was no way I was going to make it in that water. It wasn't just the ocean, either. I was older than most of the other women in our group. What was I doing there? Thirty-something suburban mom of three in a bikini trying to learn how to surf among 20-something women? It seemed crazy. And yet, there I was.

I wasn't the only one afraid, either.

I was paired with a woman who was equally petrified of the ocean and together, we grabbed our boards and swam out so far we couldn't see the ground. I bobbed on the board, holding it so tight, my knuckles turned white. "Is this right?" I asked my instructor, a man who had been surfing since he was 6 who was now 19. The waves were second nature to him.

"Relax," he told me. But all I could do was imagine sharks circling beneath us. I thought of the man who drowned in front of us. I thought of my kids.

"I can't," I told him.

But he didn't hear me because a wave came. "Paddle, paddle!" he shouted. And so I paddled. Just the way he'd taught me on the shore. I caught the wave. I tried to pop up. I landed with a thud on my hip in the sand. Then we did again.

"Paddle," he shouted, but before I could, the wave crashed over my head and dragged me down. I surprised myself. I wasn't afraid. I got back up, laughing.

Let's do it again.

In the hours we surfed, I forgot all about sharks. And octopi. And all of the myriad of sea creatures and rogue waves that I worried were conspiring against me. I thought about balance and core strength and keeping the leash on the right foot. The waves crashed over me again and again, but I remembered myself at 8 and dove into them. I allowed myself to be brave and to focus all my energy on what I was trying to learn and less on my fears.

By the time we were done, I was water and salt logged. I was exhausted. And I was sore. So sore. I hadn't even noticed.

The next day, it was more of the same. After two days of surfing, I never did get up on the board. In fact, I was really pretty bad at the whole thing. But I still accomplished my goal. This winter, I am going with my family to Mexico. And I will be there. Wearing my bathing suit. Holding my child's hand. Diving into the waves with her. Because I can.

I faced my fears and got a whole lot more than just a workout.

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