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Arms of Steel: Swimmers Go for the Long Haul

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A woman jumps in the waters of Antarctica, without wetsuit, surrounded by glaciers, and goes for a mile swim. A legion of swimmers tackles the twenty-one mile strip of cold, frothy waters that separates two countries, greased with lube and nothing else. Another man swims over three thousand miles in piranha infested waters, drinking a bottle of wine during the day to stay “a little drunk.” Who are these insane people? 


Marathon swimmers, a highly ambitious and slightly nutty group of athletes, are those who tackle long distances in open waters and continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Although “marathon” swimming is defined by the International Swimming Federation as a distance of ten kilometers (6.2 miles), many consider long distance, open-water swimming to be anything as short as a few miles in a lake or an ocean to as long as thousand-mile solo journeys in treacherous rivers—and everything in between. 


Long Distance, Long Time Coming
Though swimming has been a popular sport for as long as humans have been around water, distance swimming is a relative newcomer. Matthew Web made the first successful crossing of the English Channel (twenty-one miles) in 1875, but few followed suit. In wasn’t until years later that others began to attempt the swim in earnest. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to cross the channel and numerous other adventure swims helped put cold water and long distances on the map, including the Catalina Channel crossing (twenty-one miles), the Gibraltar Strait crossing (about ten miles), and long distance swims in the Great Lakes. 


Yet it was still seen as a relatively niche sport until the late 1990s and early 2000s. With the rise of adventure sports and competitive swimming, numerous open-water mile, two-mile, and long-distance races sprung up for the recreational athlete, while more serious swimmers began pushing the limits of endurance and extremes. In 1987, Lynne Cox became the first person to swim across the 2.7 mile Bering Strait in 40-degree Fahrenheit water (without a wetsuit) and in 2002 became the first person to swim 1.2 miles in Antarctica. Double and triple English Channel swims are remarkable but not unheard of, and international long distance swims are held throughout the year, with 10K swims being the norm for these competitive, well-attended events. 


The rise in distance swimming resulted in the International Olympic Committee adding the 10K marathon swim as a 2008 medal event. 




Rules of the Cold
Swimming in open water is much different—and harder—than pool swimming. Many of the marathon swims sanctioned by the International Swimming Federation mandate that wetsuits can’t be worn, even though water temperatures sometimes dip to the fifties and below. Wetsuits help buoy a swimmer and improve times, so they’re seen as a crutch. Many races require a sleeveless suit and no neoprene caps, though in cold waters swimmers sometimes wear silicon earplugs and two normal caps. (More casual races allow wetsuits, though times are usually annotated to note whether a wetsuit was worn or not.) Most swimmers apply a hefty layer of Vaseline or grease to help protect them from the cold. Not surprisingly, many of these distances swimmers don’t look like the lithe, lean athletes that participate in other distance events like marathons; people who routinely swim in cold waters without wetsuits tends toward a bulky build, with their own layer of adipose protection. Unlike other more traditional athletic fields, women have been pioneers in distance swimming, holding and breaking records, and initiating swims in difficult and treacherous bodies of water.  


Although distance and water temperatures are some of the obstacles facing swimmers in oceans, lakes, and rivers, other obstacles abound. In open waters, swimmers must contend with warm water and heat, currents and tides, jellyfish and other aquatic wildlife, rapidly changing weather, and pollution. Martin Strel, a Slovenian who swam the entire 3,274 miles of the Amazon river, averaging around ten hours of swimming during his fifty-mile days (and also averaging about a bottle of wine a day while swimming) was bitten (through his wetsuit) by a piranha and had to cover his face while swimming as he was getting second degree burns from the intense sun. 


What’s Wrong with Pools?
One might wonder why these swimmers don’t just stick to the pool. But open water swimming is a different type of sport. Although many of these swimmers do it for a personal challenge—as well as for pure fun—the sense of freedom that comes from surviving in tough waters is heady. Oftentimes these swims are also to raise awareness of greater issue—water pollution (clearly experienced first hand), climate change, peace, and protecting our oceans.


Although I’m a regular swimmer and have done some mile-length swims in open waters, I can’t imagine doing some of the long and cold swims that these athletes have. The English Channel, Cook’s Strait, the Amazon, while I’m sure all beautiful and challenging, are better seen from a boat. But whenever I do put on my bathing suit and head to a pool or lake, I wonder just how far I could go.

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