The electric-orange swim caps of Emma Carlton, Tiana Varang and Yanran Le approached the shore of Lake Padden in unison.
Carlton, 13, was out in front, with the two behind her, and the sight of the rocky shore and five yellow traffic cones was a welcomed one. It meant she had finished the Aly Fell 5K Open Water Swim competition.
"I saw the ground, and I just kept swimming until my hands were touching it," Carlton said. "I pushed myself up and I ran in."
While Carlton finished second overall in the 5K, coming behind Angie Bakula, a coach for the Bellingham Bay Swim Team (BBST), Carlton was the first of the BBST swimmers to arrive at the finish line Saturday, Aug. 17, at Lake Padden. Bakula came in with a time of 1 hour, 36.09 minutes, with Carlton behind her in 1:41.37. Varang and Le were eight and nine seconds behind Carlton, respectively.
Most BBST swimmers, like Carlton, entered the Aly Fell with very little experience swimming in open water. In an attempt to familiarize them with the differences between open water and pool swimming, BBST coach Sean Muncie held practice at Lake Padden three times throughout the week, an experience Carlton relied on throughout the 5K competition.
"At first, it was really nerve-racking," she said. "Once we got into the middle of the lake, I started to like it. I got my mind off of what was underneath me."
The imagination is a powerful thing, especially since many of the swimmers have grown so used to being able to see the bottom of the pool at the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center, where most of their practices are held. At Lake Padden, nobody could see what swam beneath them.
"The first day of practice I was thinking the entire time what was beneath me," Carlton said. "Then that started to go away, and now I am used to it. It's only green, and you don't see any fish, which is good."
While many of the swimmers got their first taste of competitive open water swimming, for Muncie and BBST, the Aly Fell is just the start to something much grander in scope.
Muncie, who was hired a year ago, arrived in Bellingham and saw an area rife with potential for open water swimming.
"I was surprised nobody has taken advantage of these opportunities," he said in referring to lakes perfect for such events. "Why aren't we doing open water swims?"
The gears in his mind started turning, working toward something much larger in scale than what the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center can provide: a national, Olympic-qualifying event.
Lake Padden measures out almost perfectly 5K, and a 10K course is what is needed for Olympic qualifying. Imaging an Olympic qualifying event at Lake Padden isn't hard, Muncie said, due to the near perfect length and calm waters.
"We can turn this into a qualifying event," Muncie said of the Aly Fell. "It would be nice to get (the Aly Fell) on a national schedule."
This year was merely a trial run for all of those who participated. It was not only the swimmers' first time competing in open water, but it was Muncie's first time coordinating such an event.
But he did liken it to becoming potentially what the Bellingham Bay Marathon has become.
"The marathon started small, and now it is up to 3,500 runners," he said. "It's extremely accomplished. ... We could start attracting that high-caliber of athlete."
That's years away, he said, with Saturday functioning as mere baby steps in the larger picture.
Chris Scruggs, 27, won the 2.5K race with a time of 42:40, a nice accomplishment for a man who's in Bellingham for a friend's wedding.
"It was fairly windy at the beginning of the race, so it was pretty hard going out into the waves," he said. "It was fairly challenging conditions."
Michael Parmgren took home the win in the 800.
Contact Alex Bigelow at email@example.com or call 360-715-2238.