The Fairer Sex’s Best Marathon Open Water Swims of 2013.
This summer, a lot of media attention has been soaked up by a single open water swim. I’m not going to name it because I don’t want to give it yet more press, but you no doubt heard about it. The controversy that followed may appear unseemly to outsiders, but for those of us within the sport of marathon swimming, some very valid, sport-solidifying questions are being asked, and this is a necessary growing pain for the sport as a whole.
In the meanwhile, while everyone else was paying attention to that other swim, most people probably didn’t hear about some of the swims and amazing female athletes listed below. And that’s too bad, because these women are worth our awareness and attention. These ladies did not get tons of press—some not even a whisper in their local paper for their feats—but make no mistake: Lack of coverage does not equate to lack of stature. These are towering swims that deserve some serious celebration, and what better place to do that than within the supportive and encouraging Athleta Chi community?
This list only features the ladies; not because we don’t appreciate the men and their accomplishments this summer (I’m looking at you Craig Lenning, Darren Miller, Fergal Somerville, Mo Siegel, etc.) But in honor of Power to the She, I’m listing just the ladies. And these ladies aren’t just American; there are several stellar swimmers from around the world listed. They are in no particular order, and their placement on the list does not correlate with any sort of ranking imposed by me or any other individual. With how different most of these swims and the women who completed them are, it would be nearly impossible to say any one achievement was more impressive than the rest. They are all worthy of deep respect.
And I should also note that not every swim listed here is an example of a “successful” swim in the sense that the end goal was met. I learned this summer with my own aborted crossing of the North Channel that great achievements can be made without that triumphant striding (or wide-gaited stagger) ashore that we all covet. The sheer grit and strength displayed by some of these ladies in the face of swims that some might dub “failures” is awe-inspiring and the fact that they didn’t reach the intended finish point has no bearing on how impressive their feats are.
With that, I give you my incomplete attempt at honoring the best swimmin’ women of 2013!
Let’s start with a joyful swim that really embodies the ethos of the sport for me. That would be Bethany Bosch’s ecstatic 25-mile crossing of Lake Memphremagog that spans from northern Vermont into Canada. Bethany, 29, hails from Wallingford, Vermont, and she has wanted to swim the length of that lake for some time. She got her chance during In Search of Memphre III, the third annual running of a 25-mile international swim I helped found in 2011. Memphre is the lake creature that’s said to inhabit these waters and the aim of the swim—held each year on the anniversary of the weekend of 9/11—is to not only look for Memphre (there’s been three documented encounters over the past three years and possibly more that haven’t been mentioned!) as well as improving relations with our Canadian friends and reopening the watery border. The swim launches at midnight from a nondescript, concrete boat ramp in Newport, Vermont, and progresses all the way to the other end in Magog, Quebec. (When I finished this brutal swim in 2011 after nearly 18 hours submerged in heavy headwinds, I was startled to hear French being spoken around the edge of the lake.) What made Bethany’s swim so incredible was not just the tough conditions—chilly water, big wind, and a very long distance—but the sheer joy with which she completed the swim. I’ve never seen anyone finish a swim with such a broad and beautiful smile. She nailed it, she knew it, and it was pure bliss for her to walk up on the other shore. It was so life-affirming to be able to watch her complete that swim, and even though I’d not met her in person before that event, I’m now one of Bethany’s biggest fans. (So is Vermont Public Radio!)
That very same lake and weekend also produced one of the most astounding feats of endurance the sport has ever seen when 31-year-old Conifer, Colorado, resident Sarah Thomas strode into the water at noon on Friday to begin an historic 50-mile double crossing of Lake Memphremagog. She faced a stiff headwind from Magog down to Newport, and what should have been a straightforward, 12-hour crossing dragged past the 15-hour mark. Undeterred, she paused for six minutes on that concrete boat ramp, reapplying sunblock (though it was about two in the morning, the sun would be back up and blazing in a handful of hours) and snacked on some baby carrots before she bravely waded back into the cool water and started the long slog back to Magog. This unflinching 30-hour adventure was one of the most jaw-droppingly awesome feats of perseverance I’ve ever seen, and not just on Sarah’s part. Her fiancé Ryan had thrown out his back a couple days before the swim but still spent more than 30 hours half frozen in a 16-foot aluminum boat being tossed around unmercifully by a frisky Memphre. What’s even more astonishing about Sarah and this swim is that the relative newcomer to marathon swimming completed this first-ever double crossing a mere six weeks after an historic, also first-ever, 44-mile double-crossing of Lake Tahoe. The lady is a daring double-crosser in the most remarkable sense of the term!
Lake Tahoe saw some serious swimming action this summer when Thomas and swimming partner Craig Lenning completed their tandem solo double-crossings of the high-altitude lake, but it was Jen Dutton’s magical crossing of Lake Tahoe that really caught my attention. At 22-miles long and sitting at 6,225 feet above sea level, any swim across Lake Tahoe is a gasp-inducing event and certainly no joke. Factor in the water temperatures in the mid- to low-60s, a midnight start, and Jen’s past history of severe seasickness on other long swims, and you get a picture of real fortitude and an overwhelming desire to succeed. Jen, 44, who also happens to be my Masters coach in Wayland, Massachusetts, is a long-time marathon swimmer who swims in spite of her proclivity for seasickness, the lasting effect of a traumatic brain injury she sustained in college; her love for the sport is worth more than a little queasiness and lost lunches. I’ve learned so much from her both as a coach and as a fellow marathon swimmer, so I was particularly pleased for Jen when I heard she had a stellar swim on this magical crossing. She’d earned it.
Sometimes the conditions just win, and so was the case during Pat Gallant-Charette’s gutsy near-finish in the North Channel. A few weeks after my own swim in the North Channel fell short of the Scottish shore, 62-year-old Pat Gallant-Charette of Westbrook, Maine, made her attempt. This swim was to be the fifth of her Ocean’s Seven (see below for a description) crossings, and she got a decent enough day with water temperatures reported at a balmy-for-there 59 degrees and sunny, calm conditions. She swam well and strong and I was glued to Twitter and Facebook all day for updates on her progress. I was dismayed when some 14 hours into the swim, her crew noted that the tide was beginning to turn and that Pat was being urged to pick up the pace in order to finish before the current grew too strong and pushed her back towards Northern Ireland. A few hours later, they posted the heartbreaking news that less than a mile from landfall, Pat’s swim was terminated because the tide was making forward progress impossible. I have no doubt that this strong grandmother of three who still works full-time as a nurse while fitting in training and fundraising around her work and family duties will make another, successful attempt at this incredibly difficult waterway. And I know she’ll get there next time; in the meanwhile, that was a hellova swim, all 16 hours and 43 minutes of it, and well worth a round of applause.
Another American woman did streak across the North Channel this summer: 36-year-old Beaverton, Oregon, resident Michelle Macy. And not only did she get from one side to the other, she finished the North Channel on her second attempt and simultaneously became only the third person and first American to successfully complete the Ocean’s Seven. Seven of the world’s toughest channels, the Ocean’s Seven is comprised of solo crossings of the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Tsugaru Strait, the Molokai Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Cook Strait, and the dreaded North Channel. Michelle is one of those swimmers who swims for herself, media coverage be damned. And because she doesn’t seek publicity for her swims, she’s quietly become one of the most impressive marathon swimmers in the world. Her North Channel swim on July 15, 2013, made her the first American woman to complete that swim and the second American. It was also an overall speed record, completed in a mere 9 hours and 34 minutes. Michelle is in rare air when it comes to swimming company. In addition to completing these long swims in short order (she only started marathon swimming in 2006!) she’s also managed to raise some $50,000 for the University of Minnesota’s breast cancer research division in honor of her mother, a breast cancer survivor who passed away from a heart attack six weeks before Macy’s second English Channel swim in 2009.
Also swimming with the specter of cancer is Wendy Trehiou, who popped off a phenomenal two-way English Channel swim on August 20 and 21. The there-and-back international swim took a total of 39 hours and 9 minutes. The first leg took 17 hours and 8 minutes and the return swim took 22 hours and 1 minute. By completing this epic swim, Wendy became only the 26th swimmer to have swum to France only to turn around and swim back to England. Wendy is a breast cancer survivor whose story has inspired many to just keep going. Her never-say-die approach to such an enormous swim certainly speaks volumes about her character and her ability to overcome long odds.
Another notable English Channel double swimmer, Marcy MacDonald, made an unprecedented third double English Channel crossing. That brings her total number of English Channel solo crossings to 14, bumping her just ahead of Peter Jurzynski (who’s crossed 13 times) for the record of most crossings by an American swimmer. The 49-year-old “American Queen of the English Channel,” Marcy MacDonald of Andover, Connecticut, a podiatrist by trade, really found her swimming niche in the English Channel. Though she’s also completed solo swims across Long Island Sound, the Catalina Channel, around Manhattan Island, and in many other of the sport’s iconic waterways, the English Channel just holds some magical sway over Marcy, and she’s answered the call with an amazing 14 crossings. One of these days, I’m certain she’ll get the weather window to make one more turn and get that triple crossing in. A triple has only been done three times and only by one other woman, Allison Streeter, the undisputed Queen of the Channel who has 43 solo crossings under her belt.
In early July, Anna-Carin Nordin of Jättendal, Sweden, conquered the 21-mile North Channel and sealed her place in the annals of open water swimming history as only the second person ever and the first woman to complete the Ocean’s Seven. She completed her seven with the crowning achievement of a solo crossing of the North Channel just a week before Michelle’s swim. There had been something of a race going on in that waterway with three women: Anna-Carin, Michelle Macy, and Penny Palfrey of Australia all vying to be the first female to complete the seven. Anna-Carin’s tide window brought unusually warm weather to the region, and she skipped across in 14 hours 21 minutes. A stellar swim for this 41-year-old open water marathoner who’s also completed an ice swim in addition to an impressive 43.4-kilometer swim from Finland to Sweden among other feats of endurance swimming and cold tolerance.
Another long-time marathon swimmer who keeps popping up with fun and unusual adventures is Laguna Beach, California’s Lynn Kubasek. Lynn’s indefatigable good attitude marks her out as someone everyone wants to swim with. The 55-year-old swimmer also gives back to the sport as an official observer for Catalina Channel swims. Just an all-around nice person with a smile a mile wide. Lynn had a great, yet somewhat unexpected swim this summer when she swam the 6-mile distance from Santa Cruz Island to Anacapa Island, the first swimmer to complete that crossing going that direction. It was unexpected because she’d started the day hoping to become the first person to circumnavigate Anacapa Island in the Santa Barbara Channel, but the currents had different plans and after about four hours, it became clear the swim wasn’t possible on that day. Rather than give up and go home disappointed, Lynn figured she’d already, rented the boat and had assembled the crew, so why not find another challenge worth completing? In that neck of the woods, there are lots of inter-island and island to mainland swims and records to be tackled, so Lynn picked one. She finished the day with a new world record as the first swimmer to complete that swim when others might have thrown in the towel and gone home empty-handed. Now that’s taking lemons and making some lemonade the hard way right there. (She makes delightful soap as well, by the way!)
In September, Anna Wardley completed a 56-mile circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight in the UK, a daunting journey that had only been done three times prior, the last time in 1984. Her successful, Percy Pig-powered 26-hour and 33-minute loop came just a few weeks after an aborted attempt to swim around the island of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides that she was forced to abandon due to Lion’s Mane jellyfish after some 16 hours in the bitterly cold water off the coast of Scotland. Her ability to shake off the unintended outcome in July to return a few weeks later to smashing success speaks to deep commitment to the sport and to tenacity. You get knocked down, you get back up and try again. Simple as that.
Australian Ceinwen Roberts’ whole stellar season is worth noting here. She started in March with an unprecedented triple-crossing of the Rottnest Channel in Australia, a 59.2-kilometer adventure that she completed in some 19 hours. She closed the season with a lickety-split crossing of the 21-mile wide Catalina Channel in 8 hours 4 minutes, making her the second fastest swimmer to ever swim from Catalina Island to the mainland of Southern California. In between those two shiny bookends came her first place female, fourth overall, finish in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim under particularly difficult conditions. In addition to a previous English Channel swim, Ceinwen, 32, from Perth, Australia, also claimed her Triple Crown this year. Now that’s a year that’s worthy of a ‘good on ya, mate!’
Katie O’Dair and Wendy MacDanolds O’Connor
A little closer to home and on a scale that novice swimmers might be able to relate to a little more readily, my friend Katie O’Dair also finally shed her wetsuit to swim the 8-mile Boston Light Swim as part of a two-person relay. Taking the plunge sans wetsuit was a big step for Katie, one she worked up to slowly and smartly. It can be done with the right approach and attitude. Meanwhile, Wendy MacDanolds O’Connor also swam her first Boston Light—something she’s wanted to do for a very long time—as part of a relay, and surprised herself with how well she felt, even in exceedingly windy conditions that thwarted many of the swimmers, including Wendy’s team. Despite the fact that her team did not complete the swim in the allotted time, Wendy is already thinking about trying the swim solo next year, and I’ve no doubt she’ll do it.
Emily von Jentzen
Last, but certainly not least, on this informal and woefully incomplete list of enviably impressive swims comes Emily von Jentzen’s 24-hour swim in Canyon Ferry Lake, Montana, to raise money for a service dog for Carter Hasslebach, a disabled boy from Helena, Montana. Although 30-year-old Emily, assistant attorney general in the Montana Department of Justice who lives in Kalispell, was aiming to set a record for the longest lake swim (70 miles), she pulled out due to hypothermia at about half that distance. Let’s not forget that’s still 35 miles! A courageous swim for a worthy cause nonetheless, this was Emily’s first ultra-distance nonwetsuit swim. Losing the sausage suit and sticking it out for an entire day (I mean, really, 24 hours of straight swimming? I’ve never done that!) in chilly water definitely warrants big kudos.
Large or small, completed or terminated early, and with a range of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, all these swims and swimmers are worth fêting. It’s been one heck of a year in open water swimming for the “fairer sex.” Expect to hear yet more incredible tales of the women of the waves in 2014 and beyond.
Photo Credit: Sarah Thomas and Bethany Bosch’s photos taken by Erica Sheckler/Kingdom Games Inc.
ELAINE HOWLEY is a former Division I collegiate swimmer and ocean lifeguard who began competing in long-distance open water events in 2006 on a dare; she hasn’t looked back since, and only trains in the pool when the New England weather turns really beastly. A recent convert to the roller coaster that is ice swimming... more »