Everyone who grows up in Southern California knows how to get out of a riptide, but just knowing what to do isn’t enough to save you. A spontaneous decision to go paddleboarding with friends led to me narrowly escaping with my life. The strong winds and white caps warned us, but we didn’t listen. Before I knew it, a huge wave in the cold, choppy water swept our boards away. My first brain-frazzled instinct wasn’t to swim parallel to the shore like everyone always says to do, but to stay put treading water. Panic and fear set in when I realized that even though I was not that far out, the dropoff combined with the riptide made it impossible to get back to shore. I was stuck and getting tired. Breathless and losing strength, my body struggled to keep my head above water. The waves kept coming, but they didn’t push me any closer to shore. I took in more saltwater with each wave and had to manage swallowing salt water and not drowning at the same time. My body was losing the battle, but my mind refused to accept defeat. I questioned how many more waves I could survive, but I knew the next one would not be the last. I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel when the lifeguard swam out to save us. Once on shore, I collapsed in the sand gasping for air. I had survived.
I did not recognize it at the time, but the survival mindset has kept me from quitting many other parts of life. For example, perseverance has impacted my performance in sports as well as my artwork. When I started cross country my freshman year of high school, I was told that the sport was almost completely mental. I learned what this meant as I began running races. There were hills, rough terrain, and runners in my way. My legs would get heavy, adrenaline would kick in, and sometimes I couldn’t feel my body. It wasn’t only about finishing the race, but beating my time. I would push myself to sprint to the next tree, pass the guy ahead of me, or just get over the next hill. It was a mental exercise and quitting wasn’t an option. As a photographer specializing in surrealism, editing minute details is my favorite part. However, editing pictures to this extent can be tedious, repetitive, and never-ending to the point where it feels like the photo could swallow me up. I have edited tiny glares and reflections into the early hours of the morning with my eyes barely able to focus, all because not doing so would mean an incomplete end to a project. Again, even when my body says to quit, just like the day I almost drowned, my mind refuses to accept defeat.
Reflecting on these events has shown me the force I have within me. I have an appreciation for the process, and it has opened my eyes to the lessons that I can learn. This gives me strength for what the future holds. So far, the events of the past year have felt like a solo marathon, with no cheering crowds, no training, with poor nutrition, and a nightmare that hasn’t ended. As I try balancing schoolwork, the fear of losing my family home, friends who might not even remember me, and the trivial, yet significant, loss of all senior perks, I can remind myself that I am a survivor who will not be taken down by COVID, a riptide, or any other challenge life throws at me.