Adult-onset swimmer to 12-time Ironman and water lover - becoming the Black Mermaid
Snake and Pig-sponsored swimmer Leslie Booker grew up splashing in pools in Detroit. It wasn’t until her 40s that she learned to distance swim and fell head over heels in love with it. We caught up with the Black Mermaid near her home in Central Texas, and asked her about her rapid transformation from non-swimmer to Ironman finisher, her 10 mile swim strategy, and her upcoming attempts at Ultraman and an English Channel crossing.
This interview transcript has been edited for brevity.
Can you think back to some of your earliest memories of swimming? Tell me about swimming in your family.
Well, no one swims. I thought I learnt how to swim in the water when I was a kid. My dad put me in a pool with little floaties on. Since I was a kid, I’ve never been afraid of water but I've never really been a swimmer either. We didn't have pools in my schools in Detroit, so that was never a sport that you would take up really. Basically, I just grew up playing in the water like most kids.
Are you still the only one in your family who swims?
Yes. No one swims. One of my aunts was terrified of water, and I used to always tell her “You need to learn to swim.” She loved to travel. She loved to go to beaches and islands and everything. But she was terrified of water. My mom actually started taking swim lessons, but she stopped when her sister, my aunt got sick. My kids know how to swim. They're definitely good swimmers.
What motivated you to learn to swim for distance?
I started to think about doing a triathlon with a bunch of women friends of mine – there were five or six of us, and it was going to be our first triathlon.
My husband and I took our kids to our community pool about six months before the tri was going to happen. We were getting in the pool and I said, "okay, I guess I'll start training for this triathlon". My husband looked at me, he goes, “what are you doing?”
I responded, “What do you mean?” He said “That's not swimming!” I said, "I'm swimming. What are you talking about?" He goes, "Leslie, first of all, your head should be in the water". And I said, “I’m not putting my head in the water! How am I supposed to breathe?” True story!
Now mind you, I had already signed up for this triathlon. He then said, “You need to sign up for swimming lessons! I don't know what you think you're doing, but you're not swimming!”
Sure enough, I went ahead and got a swim coach and I realized then that he was right. I did not know how to swim properly. So, I took lessons, and it was a struggle. She told me how to swim the proper way, meaning putting your head in water, turn and breathe.
I could not swim the length of the training pool without stopping. I was exhausted and out of shape and everything. I was a little concerned, obviously, but determined to figure it out. So, I just continued to swim and worked my way up to 25 yards, and I did masters for a little bit at the YMCA.
So you did your first triathlon that next spring after learning to swim. What came next?
I had my first tri in March 2012 - it was a pool swim. I was completely terrified [beforehand, but] it was really cool! Once I got out of the water, I was so excited. I was fine with the other parts.
My next sprint tri was a 750m open water swim, so that was a big deal because it was open water. It was longer than I had done before, and I made it through that. Ever since then I’ve just been going. It was a struggle at first, yes, but now [the swim is] my favorite part of the tri. I love to swim.
It was a struggle at first, yes, but now [the swim is] my favorite part of the tri. I love to swim.
How long was it before you attempted your first Ironman?
That same year [that I did my first tri] I got really bold and said, I can do an Ironman. Yes! My first year! I did an Olympic [and then] a half, and then an Ironman in November in Cozumel.
Yeah, that was an epic fail.
[During Ironman Cozumel I was] swimming in the ocean, and it was the most beautiful swim I'd ever been in. The water is crystal clear. I love seeing the sea life - jellyfish, just beautiful, colorful fish. They have scuba divers in there taking photographs of you. It's just a really cool experience.
I loved it. I really just took in the moment
That ocean swim -- I wasn't afraid at all. The water was warm, so I had no wetsuit. I loved it. I really just took in the moment – “This is my place”. And I was proud of myself.
[After the] last turn, everything just seemed to take longer than I had planned. When I got to the swim exit, I looked up and then I realized, there aren’t many of us out here, and what's going on. (I did not wear my tri watch.) I had missed the swim cut off and I had no idea. So, I had to go get my bike. I couldn't finish the race. I went back to the hotel. My poor family had been out there looking for me, waiting for me. They were super worried. That year they had an unusual current in the water. After that last turn, my husband said, you could see everybody just stopped.
On one hand I was happy that I did the swim because I finished the distance, just not in time. [The next spring I finished] Ironman Texas. Then, later that [second] year I went back to Cozumel. And since then I've done IM Cozumel five or six times.
[After this interview, Leslie finished her 12th Ironman by completing IM Cozumel yet again, this time in pink Snake and Pig goggles.]
Has there ever been a swim that you didn’t finish?
I signed up to do a half once in New Orleans and it was very rough water that year. I actually pulled myself out.
People were surprised and asked, “Why would you do that? You have experience.” And I said, "Because I respect Mother Nature. I respect water."
And could I have finished? Probably. But it was very dangerous. A lot of swimmers in the water at the time were panicked. I remember hearing a woman freaking out: “I have kids, I have kids! I need to pull myself out!”
I definitely believe that you have to assess every situation. If you’re a decent swimmer or you have experience, it doesn’t mean you should do it regardless of the conditions. The current was really strong. It was just very chaotic [the way the course was laid out]. I don't regret that at all. It's just a race.
I know you have done a couple 10k (6.2 mile) swims here in Austin. Is that the only really long swimming you’ve done?
I've done the Chattanooga Swim the Suck, a 10-miler in the river. It does normally have a current – a fast current to help the swimmers. But the year that I did it was the year the hurricane hit the Carolinas. And so they received, I guess the residual of that. The first mile we were fighting against the current but other than that it was fine.
How do you train for that long of a swim? It takes a really long time to swim that far.
That's true. So, I'd never really swim the entire distance [in training]. For the Swim the Suck I trained probably up to maybe seven miles. I just continue to increase my mileage every week. I've read somewhere that you should try to get the miles that you're going to swim for the event in through the week. So if you're swimming for 10 miles, you should for several weeks swim ten miles for a week - over a week. I can't say that I follow that rule every time, but that's usually what I have in my head. Most of my practice swims were in the pool.
What are the logistics like for a super long swim like that?
My husband was my kayaker for the 10-mile swim. Unfortunately he did not practice, although I told him to. He's not an experienced kayaker. It was not the best of times for this married couple in that river. We laugh about it now, but it was pretty intense at the time. So that would be my advice for anyone – do a lot of distance swims with the kayaker. Make sure your kayaker practices!
[In these long swim races] I use liquid nutrition. Every 20-30 minutes, I will take in some nutrition, and you're not allowed to hold onto the kayak while you are drinking it. So that requires practice. He can just hand it to you, and you tread and drink, and then give it back to the kayaker.
You mentioned you’re preparing for Ultraman in February 2020.
Ultraman is a three-day stage race, and you have to bring your own crew. One of my crew members just texted me this week and said, yeah, we need to make sure we practice on that kayak. She heard about the incident with my husband.
The first day is a Friday, and we do a 10k swim and then a 92 mile bike ride. Then, the second day I’ll bike about 171 miles and then the third day is a double marathon. We have to do each day within 12 hours. It's 300-something miles in total.
But you have something even bigger planned – an English Channel crossing! How did you get involved in that, and how are you preparing?
I spoke with a woman named Loretta Cox who organizes English Channel relays. She's a Triple Crown swimmer (she's done Catalina, Manhattan, and English Channel), and she attempted to put together a three-person team for 2020. However, we weren’t able to make it happen.
So, a slight change of plans: my goal is to swim the English Channel solo when I turn 50, which is two years from now in 2022. The swim is about 21 miles. Starting in 2020, I will work toward that goal by attempting as many cold water swims in different bodies of water as possible, starting with Lake Tahoe in July 2020. I plan to swim the width, which is about 12 miles.
You had a cold water experience this year too, right? At Escape from Alcatraz?
Awww...the swim from Alcatraz! Wonderful experience. Most triathletes racing Escape from Alcatraz are extremely concerned about the swim portion. And I was included in that group.
To wrap my mind around jumping into cold water and swimming over a mile and a half to shore, I signed up for an organized practice swim. Actually, I signed up for a night time practice swim. I did not know what to expect, except cold water, since I’d never swum at night before.
And what’s crazy is when I was in the Uber on my way to swim, I realized I left my wetsuit in the hotel room. I thought to myself, they will have an extra one on the boat. Ha!! What I learned was that true open water swimmers, as opposed to triathlete swimmers, do NOT wear wetsuits. All skins, baby. So, I was tested in a way I was not expecting.
Like the rest of the swimmers, I jumped into the sub 60 degree water sans wetsuit. The moment I felt the water, I found my happy place. I absolutely loved the feel of the cold water. Swimming at night was also very enjoyable, but it took a bit of getting used to, because you really have no idea where you are. Of course we had the assistance of the boat pilot and the lighting it provided, but it was very interesting not able to see what’s in the water.
I jumped into the sub 60 degree water sans wetsuit. The moment I felt the water, I found my happy place. I absolutely loved the feel of the cold water.
Have you reached out to others in the Black community to encourage them to take up swimming? What are some of the barriers you’ve discovered?
I tell people that you should learn how to swim, not just for a hobby - you just never know. I have a buddy, he’s terrified of water, and he has two young boys. I said, listen, you need to learn how to swim not for yourself but so that your boys can enjoy the water. If something happened to them, you can jump in there and help them, you know. You don't want them to be afraid of water.
Swimming is not a priority for a lot of communities. People are familiar with soccer, basketball and baseball, but swimming... I think they just take it for granted, like I did growing up, but not really appreciating the seriousness of it. It’s scary.
What do your friends think about your obsession with swimming?
Even my friends who do triathlons – they think I'm crazy on the swim. For most of them, the swim is just the first part to get over with so they can get to the fun stuff. For me it's the opposite. I love the swim.
So, my black friends call me the Black Mermaid.
It’s my happy place. If I'm upset about work or, you know, when my aunt passed away, I just found myself a lot of times in the water. And then when we go on vacations, I prefer beach vacations - we just spend most of our time in the water.
My goal is to get away from triathlon. I think after Ultraman I'll pretty much be done. Then focus on long distance swimming. I just love to swim. I see it as a long-term thing.
Do YOU love to swim? Do you love telling people about Snake and Pig goggles?
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Amazing article, amazing story, amazing woman! I am attempting my first Ironman in 2022 in Texas. I will let you know how it goes. This read has inspired me even more to complete it. Keep swimming!
Wow, what a Awesome inspirational story ! I can definitely identify with her story and I look forward to following her journey through the English channel.
May God continue to bless you with courage and enthusiasm.