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Ironman triathlete gets bitten by fish, confirms all my fears about open-water swimming

How would you like to see this thing attached to your leg? Yeah, nah, me either.

How would you like to see this thing attached to your leg? Yeah, nah, me either.
Image: AP

Back in my high school days, I’d come home after swim practice, finish whatever work I needed to get done for school, and before any of the teams I followed started playing, I’d plop down on the couch to watch River Monsters. You remember that show? It ran for nine seasons on Animal Planet. In the show, an English fisherman and extreme angler named Jeremy Wade would travel around the world in search of the most dangerous predatory freshwater fish. Every episode followed the same formula: Wade investigates a mystery revolving around a missing person or bite victim in a local river, asks around for information regarding the incident, and then catches the fish. It was fantastic, and the fish he caught were straight up nightmare fuel.

Tell me that’s not the most frightening thing you’ve seen today.

I don’t know if exposure to that show is what led to my irrational fear of fish, but it most certainly played a role. I’m a pretty strong swimmer. I’ve participated in several mile long swims in the Pacific Ocean and charity swims in the Great Lakes. However, every time I get in the water, I’m always fearful of the fish that could be right underneath me. I’ve never been bitten by a fish. I should have no reason to worry about it. But then I see stories like this:

And suddenly all my fears feel warranted.

Matt Gervais, a 39-year-old triathlete, was bitten on the hand by a predatory muskie in Lake St. Clair in Ontario last Friday. While training for an upcoming event, Gervais said he felt “sharp” and “burning” pain as he locked eyes with the fish underwater. Gervais was taken to the hospital where he received 13 stitches. He would go on to say that while he enjoys swimming in Lake St. Clair, it will be “tough to get back in the lake” after what happened on Friday. He’d been swimming in open water for decades, and one painful incident like this has already struck fear into him. That just goes to show how impactful interactions with dangerous fish can be.

I understand that the attack was likely a result of the fish mistaking Gervais for more common prey. However rare they might be, attacks are still a possibility. And the fish that attacked Gervais was just a muskellunge (usually growing to about three feet long — the largest ever was 6 feet). Imagine if it was a gar, sea lamprey, or worst case scenario, a bull shark. That interaction Gervais had would’ve gone way worse.

I went swimming in a lake just a few days ago only to find out a few hours later that alligators had been seen less than a quarter mile from where I was. That terrified me. I usually move past that fear after a few weeks, but it’s always in the back of my head every time I jump in the water. Every time I turn my head to take a breath, I worry that when I look back down, I’ll be looking a pike, gar, or gator straight in the eyes. Most lakes have murky water. Visibility is five feet at most. They could be much closer than you think.

I’m not trying to instill fear in anyone wishing to swim in oceans or lakes. I want to make it abundantly clear that these attacks are rare, like Bigfoot-sightings rare. As I’ve said, I’ve done dozens of open water swims throughout my life and never had an issue. I know many more people who have also participated in several lake and ocean swims who’ve never so much as seen a fish beneath them. It’s unlikely that anyone would experience an attack at any point in their life. But it’s still a possibility, and that’s what scares me.

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