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Profiling Gail Rice

Many open water victories

Bill Bell | March 7, 2002

Although she wouldn't admit it at first, Gail Rice was born to swim. She loves the open water plus the challenge of competition, and has developed into one of the most formidable and successful open water swimmers in the world. Gail Rice never intended to become one of America's premier open water swimmers. Indeed, the 45-year-old Miami Shores, Fla., resident, mother of two and full-time nurse-practitioner at the Florida International University in Student Health Services, thought training in a pool, doing laps and getting yelled at by some coach on deck was...well, booorrring.

Even though she had been a pretty good high school swimmer at Pine Crest Academy in the Sunshine State several decades earlier, the thought of getting back into the water—let alone competing at the Masters level—was the farthest thing from her mind. "I enjoyed swimming in high school (as a breaststroker and IM-er), but that was a long time ago," Rice said recently. "I was a runner, a marathoner, and that's what I liked to do. I had run the New York Marathon and the Miami Marathon, and I had pretty good success in that sport. Swimming—especially Masters swimming—was not on my agenda." But the fickle finger of fate intervened in the form of a couple of stress fractures that rendered her hors de combat as far as the roads were concerned. "I wanted to get back into training and run, but it was just too painful. My doctors and my coach both suggested that recuperating in the water would be beneficial, so I figured I'd try it. My first workout I went about 2,000 yards—and I loved it. It was wonderful to be back in the pool again after so many years. Swimming just felt so natural, and it was so stress-free that I decided, this is for me."

Never Lets Go

When Gail Rice tackles something, she never lets go. From that humble beginning more than a decade ago with Coach John Turnipseed and his North Miami Swim Team (where her 17-year-old son Michael now trains), Rice has developed into one of the world's most formidable and successful open water swimmers. She now represents the Gold Coast Masters team and, although primarily an open water specialist, she holds GCM records for 40-44 women in the 1650-yard free, 200 breast, 200 fly and 400 IM (short course). In 1999, on her first try, she conquered the famed 21-plus-mile English Channel, that dangerous stretch of water between Dover and the coast of France, the ne plus ultra of open water swims. Her time was the fastest Channel crossing of the year and the second fastest ever for a woman (8 hours, 12 minutes). A year earlier, she became the first woman to complete the 24-mile Tampa Bay Swim in a course-record 8 hours, 34 minutes, 24 seconds—then the fastest time ever. Interestingly, the former record holder for the Tampa Bay Swim was Gail's friend and the swim's current race director, Ron Collins, who was the first person to complete it. His time was nine hours, 52 minutes.

Conquering the Channel

"I think having swum the Channel—that's the swim I am most proud of," Rice notes. "It's such a famous competition known worldwide, so universally recognized." What's even more remarkable is how well she adapted to the cold clime on her initial try, after having trained in the tropical waters off sunny Miami and in the North Miami heated pool. "I think having come from such different conditions...for me to have gone out and swum in that really cold Channel water with just my suit, goggles and cap...I can't believe I was that crazy!" Rice says that swimming for such long periods of time never bores her. "You don't have time, literally, to do anything but keep swimming ahead, pushing forward. All your thoughts are on trying to go with the current, keeping a steady pace and thinking, when's my next feeding?" Nutrition "breaks" in open water swims occur about every half hour, and they're not catered affairs either. "The crew in the boat gives you some nutrition bar, maybe a banana or something, a high-protein, high-carbo drink and that's it. Back you go. On the Channel swim, at first I could see a few other competitors, but pretty soon I was by myself except for one other swimmer. It was a very strange experience, but again, my focus was on getting to France. I really didn't care about what anyone else was doing. I'm very narrow-minded in that respect, and I don't let my thoughts wander. I just keep plugging away." One of Rice's closest friends ("partner in crime," according to one wag) and toughest competitors is Christena Pazos, a talented open water swimmer in her own right, who crewed for her friendly foe on the Channel swim. "There was no set day for Gail's swim, as the decision to go is based primarily on the weather," Pazos wrote in a diary she kept of the adventure. "Every morning Gail would walk down to the beach from a quaint bed and breakfast where she was staying for some cold-water training, and every evening we waited to hear the news from Reggie, the head captain. The weather was bad and the forecast worse, and on Thursday, our seventh day in Dover, we were worried that with our return flight on Sunday morning, Gail might miss her chance even to try. But at 5:30 that evening, right after the weather report, Gail got the go' for Friday morning. At 6 a.m. Friday, the bullhorn sounded from Gail's boat, and she set off with the smiling White Cliffs of Dover as her backdrop. After all the worries about the weather, conditions turned out to be ideal with a tame force-2 chop and sunny skies. Gail swam as fast as she could—her trademark style and also to prevent herself from getting cold—stopping for only 20-second, warm fluid feedings. Throughout the whole day, the boat of a young Mexican boy, Javier Gutierrez, who was making his second attempt, cruised almost parallel to Gail's, and for a swim that typically does not see neck-and-neck races, the competition and companionship helped push both swimmers to their best. "Over the next hours, the White Cliffs slowly grew smaller as the coast of France grew larger, and just after 2 p.m., Gail stood on the rocks of Cape Gris Nez, France with her fists in the air in celebration. Her time of 8 hours 12 minutes was the fastest crossing of the season by only four minutes (Javier's time). Early that evening, we gathered together with all of our new friends to share the joy of Gail's crossing and share the sorrow of the Mexican team's great loss—a Mexican woman had died in her attempt to conquer the Channel. From the crow's nest, from which I've watched many of Gail's past accomplishments, the Channel experience stands alone at the top," Pazos wrote.

"The Next Great Thing"

Rice says that while she is, indeed, proud of having conquered the Channel, she has no plans to make a repeat crossing. "No, once was quite enough," she muses. "Also, having done it once, I want to experience that feeling I got by making that type of swim in a different environment. The diversity of a new competition is what I look forward to...the sense that I have completed a swim that I have never done before...‘The Next Great Thing,' if you will." Toward that end, Rice is training for the famed Long Beach-Catalina 26-mile swim this summer off the coast of Southern California, where climatic conditions will be similar to what she experienced in the Channel. "I've never swum in the Pacific, and from what everyone tells me, the water is in the 60s there even in the summertime, so it should be an enervating experience. Right now, I don't have any particular goal time in mind. But I'm sure by race day I'll be itching to try and break some record or another. That's just my competitive nature." However, prior to the Catalina swim, Rice is gearing up for another Tampa Bay competition, where she once held the overall course record. "I think she'd like to have the overall record back. She says she owns Tampa Bay," says Pazos.

Sanibel Island Swim

The year before Rice mastered the English Channel, she became the first person to complete the swim around Sanibel Island, which is located off the west coast of Florida. The inaugural Sanibel Island Swim was a 22-mile "jaunt" in 60-degree water with very treacherous currents. Her time was 9 hours, 27 minutes. When Rice swam Sanibel for the first time four years ago, the venture went "swimmingly" until about five hours into her swim. At that point, she entered Blind Pass, the mile-long shallow divide between Sanibel and Captiva. For more than an hour, her crew directed her in zigzags and circles in order to find some knee-deep waters that she could swim through. When she finally passed into the Gulf of Mexico for the final eight-mile stretch run, a three-foot wave crashed into her crew's kayak, sending the remaining warm fluids she was consuming overboard! During the final three hours, the wind picked up as the sun disappeared into the horizon. To combat the cold, Rice began churning her arms through the water even faster than her normal 90 strokes-per-minute pace. Her every muscle quivered so much that when a small fish swam into her suit, she thought its flailing was her muscles shaking, and so the fish stayed with her to the end. Nine hours, 27 minutes from the start, bearing a lovely shade of blue from the cold, Rice emerged from the water at exactly the same point where she began—becoming the first person to swim around Sanibel.

The One that Got Away

Like Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea," there was one swim that got away from Rice—one that conquered her, not the other way around. It was the summer of 1997, and the goal was to swim from Bimini to Florida in the Hawaiian Tropic 55-miler. Nothing to it, right? Nice calm seas, warm water, a veritable "piece of cake." Hardly. Battalions of biting jellyfish that made her nauseous, dizzy and swollen from the stings were to be her undoing. After 14 hours, 57 minutes, she was pulled from the water. "We could see the coast of Florida from the boat, but Gail simply could not move her legs, could not swim another stroke," Pazos remembers. "She was really in a bad state from those damn jelly fish, constantly biting and stinging her. I couldn't believe she stayed in that long—it was madness. We had to pull her out. She was bloated like a cabbage-patch doll." Rice concedes it was a good thing her crew called a halt to the swim when they did but vows, like MacArthur, to return. "Yes, that's one swim I'd like to try again some day. I'm not a quitter, and that stretch of water hasn't seen the last of me yet."

Swimming in Circles

Twice she's swum the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island marathon, winning once in 1995 and finishing runner-up the following year. "That was a fun competition," she continues. "And that swim exemplifies the uniqueness of the sport of open water swimming. Where else can you swim around an island, especially Manhattan?" In the fall of 1996, after her Manhattan marathon swim, Rice and noted open water swimmer Randy Nutt became the first competitors ever to swim around Miami Beach—21 miles in all. Rice, then 39, completed the distance in 8:09 a month after conquering the Big Apple. "Just a walk in the park," Pazos laughs. Upon completion of that Swim Around Miami, Rice was energized enough to drive to Hollywood, Fla., nearby for the championship Nike Ocean Mile Series. She won her age group race there and also the overall age group series title as well. Australian Grant Hackett, who set the current world record in the 1500 meter free at last summer's World Championships in Fukuoka, then a week later broke the world record in the short course 1500 free, obviously has nothing on Rice. "The short mile races are training races for me because they're short," Rice says. "I feel like I am just getting warmed up when I get to the finish. I like the long ones because I get into the rhythm and just go." "The Miami swim was tougher than Manhattan because the wind was blowing very strong and blowing into our faces the majority of the time. We swallowed a lot of water on that one," Nutt explains. There's one person who got the best of Rice once—her then 15-year-old daughter, Sarah. It was the 1996 Swim Around Key West, and Mom was second to her daughter, who not only won but set a course record, too. "I was thrilled that she beat me and also a little bit surprised. But Sarah was and is an excellent swimmer, as is my son, Michael, so nothing they do really surprises me. They're both extremely competitive in whatever they do and they give me no quarter," she reflects. Interestingly, Sarah has taken after her mom in that she is now a marathoner and intends to run Boston in April. She's a junior at Duke University and an honors student too.

Extraordinarily Competitive

"When Gail first began swimming open water races, her expectations were modest," says Nutt, who has crewed for her in most of her major competitions. "Once she realized how good she could become, she poured her heart and soul into swimming, and the results speak for themselves. Every English Channel swim is different because of the tide, currents and the weather, but I'd say that her crossing ranks right up there among the best of all-time. Penny Dean (who holds the women's world record) was in her late 20s or early 30s when she did it, and Gail was nearly a decade older when she did it." Nutt says Rice swims for the challenge of the competition itself. "There's no money in this sport, although there is a pro marathon swimming circuit. But Gail's not into that. She thrives on `The Next Great Thing,' as she says. She's not just competitive, she's extraordinarily competitive. She's also the nicest person you'd ever want to meet. She'll help you out in the water...there's nothing she wouldn't do for a fellow swimmer if that person needed some assistance. That's just her nature." Pointing out that Rice has only one speed—fast, Nutt says that during her swim across Tampa Bay, she encountered a school of dolphins. "She was going like gang busters and these dolphins began putting on a show—spinning, flipping, leaping in and out of the water. We have it on tape, and I believe they enjoyed seeing somebody swimming as fast as Gail was swimming. It was incredible." Nutt adds that Rice's first attempt at swimming around Key West in 1994 resulted in a win, and "that got her hooked. Since then it's been a whirlwind of amazing successes, and she's been a real inspiration to all who know her." He adds that the real key to Rice's success is her "mental toughness. “You can't beat her down. Outwardly, she's placid and relaxed, but inside that fire burns deeply. She's a tough hombre in the water, and like all great athletes, she doesn't like to lose. Trite to say, but ‘when the going gets tough, Gail gets going.'"

Mind over Matter

Rice sees no end to her competitive ventures, "as long as I stay healthy. People ask how I can stay in the water for so long, and I give 'em that standard Satchel Paige line: "It's a question of mind over matter: ‘if you don't mind, it don't matter.' Swimming just really agrees with me, and I'll never go back to running, except maybe across the parking lot to my car to hurry up and get to practice." She averages about 65K weekly in the pool and swims in the lane next to her son, a promising age grouper who swims middle distance and butterfly and is a junior in high school. "Once some years ago, a kid was bullying Michael and saying things like, ‘My dad can beat up your dad.' Michael responded: ‘Oh yeah? Well, my mom can beat up your dad,'" Nutt recalls with a laugh. Rice sums up her philosophy of sport in the following way: "Even if you think it's going to be horrible, you can always do a little bit more. And I always look forward to afterward (what happens after a race is completed). The pain—my neck, back, shoulders—it always goes away after a while, and I feel great again." Her husband, Bob, is an avid cycler, but is also his wife's biggest booster. "Without his support, I couldn't do what I've done. My whole family has been extremely supportive, and they're my biggest fans. Like they say, ‘The family that swims together stays together.'" For variety, Rice once swam around Key West doing butterfly—her favorite stroke. "I wouldn't recommend that for anyone else, but it worked for me." After a night of revelry New Year's Eve, Rice and Pazos set out that morning to swim from Miami to London and race the Concorde from New York. "Oh, stop exaggerating," Pazos says. "They gave us a 10-minute head start." "Right, and they made it back in time for dinner," Nutt adds.

Bill Bell is a swimming statistician and reporter for SWIM magazine's web site, swiminfo.com.

Swim magazine Mar-Apr 2002

Gail Rice Swims English Channel in Second Fastest Female Time Ever

Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, 8/21/99

Veteran open water swimmer Gail Rice, 43, of Miami Shores Fla., successfully crossed the English Channel. Rice came close to breaking the women's world record in 8 hours and 11 minutes, second fastest time ever. She is the second South Florida woman to complete the swim from Dover, England to the coast of France in 60-degree water.

 

Rice Sets Tampa Bay Course Record

Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, 11/8/98

Gail Rice, 42, of Miami Shores, became the first woman to successfully complete the 24-mile Tampa Bay Swim. Rice completed the open water swim in a course record eight hours, 34 minutes and 24 seconds. The old record of 9:52 was held by Ron Collins of Clearwater. The swim from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to Whiskey Joe's Restaurant on Rocky Point was certified by the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Her support crew included Randy Nutt of Coral Springs, Christina Pazos of Miami and Ron.

by Sharon Robb

 

Channeling from the Crow's Nest

by Christena Pazos

On the day we arrived in Dover, England, we rushed to the pebbled beach so that Gail could get in some last minute cold water acclimatization. Gail Rice, 43, had flown from the 90 degree waters of South Florida to the 60 degree waters of the English Channel, bringing along a crew consisting of Michael, her 14 year old son, Joe Hutto, an experienced channel swimming friend, and me, a friend and experienced ale drinker. Gail was there to "do the Channel", but instead, over the next 10 days, we all had the extraordinary privilege of "living the Channel Experience".

The Channel swim of 21+ miles from England to France is the world's most recognized marathon swim and with good reason, it is widely considered the most prestigious. The Channel presents an array of challenges, from the distance and the cold water, to the crazy, unpredictable weather patterns and currents that can break the strongest, most prepared swimmers. It is a worthy goal for athletes from everywhere and it is that shared goal that allowed us, not just Gail, but her whole crew, to join this unique international community. We met other swimmers and support crews from different parts of the U.S., from Australia, Japan, India and Mexico. Some swimmers, like Gail, were also making their first attempt and others a second or third attempt; some were crossing with a relay and one was attempting a double crossing.

There was no set day for Gail's swim, as the decision to go is based primarily on the weather. So every morning, Gail walked down from Bill and Audrey's quaint bed and breakfast to the beach for cold water training and every evening we waited to hear news from Reggie, the boat captain. The weather was bad and the forecast worse and on Thursday, our seventh day in Dover, we were worried that with our return flight on Sunday morning, Gail might miss her chance to even try. But at 6:30 that evening, right after the weather report, Gail got the "Go" for Friday morning. Also swimming the next morning were two of our new friends from Mexico; Javier, a young swimmer making his second attempt, and Fausta, a 41 year old woman who had spent the last week in the room next to us at the bed and breakfast.

At five a.m. the next morning, we hugged Fausta and her trainer, Nora, at the dock. We wished each other luck, took some pictures and hopped on the boat to head for the starting point at Shakespeare Beach. Then at 6 a.m., August 20, the bullhorn sounded from Gail's boat and she set off with the smiling White Cliffs of Dover as her backdrop. After all the worries about the weather, conditions turned out to be ideal with a tame force 2 chop and sunny skies. Gail swam as fast as she could to prevent from getting cold, stopping only for 20 second warm fluid feedings. Throughout the whole day, Javier's boat cruised almost parallel to Gail's and for a swim that typically does not see neck and neck races, the competition and companionship helped push both swimmers to their best.

Meanwhile, although nobody knew until later, far behind Gail and Javier, something had gone terribly wrong with Fausta and she was pulled from the water after losing consciousness. Despite every effort by her crew and rescue teams, Fausta lost her life that day while trying to reach her dream.

Over the next hours the White Cliffs slowly grew smaller as the coast of France slowly grew larger and at just after two p.m., Gail stood on the rocks of Cape Gris Nez, France, with her fists in the air in celebration. Her time of 8 hours 12 minutes was the fastest crossing of the season by only four minutes (Javier's time). Early that evening we gathered together with all of our new friends to share the joy of Gail's and Javier's great personal accomplishments and share the sorrow of the Mexican team's great loss. From the crow's nest from which I've watched many of Gail's past accomplishments, this one, the Channel Experience, stands alone at the top.

 

 

The Biggest Bluefish to Ever Come Ashore in Sanibel

from the Dixie Zone News, April-June 1998, by Christena Pazos

At 9:42 a.m. on January 10, 1998, Miami's Gail Rice, Gold Coast Masters, splashed into the 66 degree waters on the southeast side of Sanibel and began swimming the 22 miles around the island. The 41 year old mother of two tackled this swim, as she does all her marathon swims, armed only with her suit, cap and goggles. She only paused long enough every half hour to smile and take some warm fluids from her three man crew kayaking at her side. Five hours into her swim, she entered Blind Pass, the mile long shallow divide between Sanibel and Captiva. For over an hour, her crew directed her in zigzags and circles in order to find knee deep waters she could swim through. When she finally passed into the Gulf of Mexico for her final eight mile stretch, a three foot wave hit the kayaks sending the remaining warm fluids overboard. During the final three hours, the wind picked up as the sun disappeared into the horizon and to combat the cold, Gail churned her arms through the water even faster. Her every muscle quivered so much that when a small fish sneaked into her suit, she thought it's flailing was her muscles shaking and so the fish stayed with her to the end. Nine hours and 37 minutes after she'd begun, Gail Rice, in a lovely shade of blue, swam ashore exactly where she'd started and became the first person ever to swim around Sanibel Island. (Last summer, Gail swam 44 of the projected 70 miles in her Bahamas-to-Florida attempt before being defeated, after 14 hours and 53 minutes, by battalions of biting jellyfish that made her nauseous, dizzy and swollen from the stings. She said she will be back. She won the 1995 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, finished second in 1996, and last year, at age 40, became the first person to swim around Miami Beach—21 miles.

 

Rice goes distance with Sanibel swim

from the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, January 16, 1998, by Sharon Robb

Gale Rice, one of the nation's top open water swimmers, completed the first 22 mile swim around Sanibel Island. Rice, 41, of Miami Shores, finished a solo attempt in 9 hours and 37 minutes despite 60-degree water temperature and treacherous currents. The race, held Saturday, was the first long distance, open-water swim since Rice was pulled out of the ocean close to the end of her Hawaiian Tropic Bimini to Florida 55-Miler because of severe jellyfish stings.

Rice, the 1995 Manhattan Island Marathon (28.5 miles) swim champion, is the first to successfully complete the Double Swim around Key West (25 miles) and Swim Around Miami Beach (21 miles).

Rice finished in time to drive to Hollywood for the championship Nike Ocean Mile Series-ender and won her age-group race and overall age-group series title. "The short mile races are training races to me because they are short," Rice said. "I feel like I am just getting warmed up when I get to the finish. I like the long ones because I get into a rhythm and just go."

 

First Ever Solo Swims Around Miami Beach

from the Miami Herald, Sept. 24, 1996

A pair of South Florida distance swimmers recently attempted and completed what had never been done. Gail Rice and Randy Nutt swam around Miami Beach—21 miles in all (on Sept. 16). Gail, 39 years old, completed the distance in 8:09. Just four weeks earlier both completed the 28.5 mile Manhattan Island swim. Nutt said the Miami swim was tougher than the longer Manhattan swim. "We swallowed a lot of salt water", said Nutt. "The wind was very strong and blowing into our faces the majority of the time." Gail has an even more challenging swim on tap: a 30-miler in the Caribbean.

 

Gail Wins Swim Around Manhattan

August 10, 1996: by Sharon Robb, published in the "Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel"

Defending champion Gail Rice, 39, of Miami Shores was the first woman finisher and second overall in the 15th Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Rice finished the 28.5 mile course in 7:27.45. Rice was one of only two women in the field.

 

Sarah Rice Beats Her Mom Around Key West

from the Fall-Winter 1996 Victor Catalogue

In the 1996 Swim Around Key West, Gail Rice took second to her 15 year old daughter, Sarah. Sarah Rice was the first place woman and set a new course record. Mother and daughter train together logging 65,000 yards per week.

 

Gail Rice Wins Swim Around Key West

March, 1995: by Randy Nutt, published in the Florida Gold Coast LMSC News

Gail Rice is a spectacular newcomer to Gold Coast Masters swimming. She won the 18th Annual Swim Around Key West in July, 1994 and came in third in the 1995 USMS One Hour Postal Swim Championships in January. She is a former All-American at Pine Crest where she specialized in the breaststroke and IM events. Gail retired from swimming and devoted about 10 years to long distance running. After several running related injuries including two stress fractures, she started swimming again just about two years ago. She has been in top form ever since, winning her age group in four consecutive open water swims, the Miami Mile (first female), the Delray Ocean Mile (second female), the Ft. Lauderdale Ocean Mile (third overall), and the Boca Ocean Mile.

Gail is a nurse practitioner at FIU and is married to Bob. They have two children, Sarah (13) and Michael (10). Both youngsters are excellent age group swimmers. Sarah is also easy to recognize as she is usually right behind Gail in open water events. Sarah and Gail both feel she won't be behind for long, however. Gail is an inspiration in the way she balances family, career and swimming. What's left for this super-mom to accomplish? Plenty! Gail was only about a minute off the course record around Key West. With some tactical improvements, she feels she has an excellent shot at this record. She'll also swim the 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island later this summer.

Gail will swim for the Gold Coast Masters Swim Team in USMS Short Course Nationals in Ft. Lauderdale in May. In case you're wondering if she can swim in a nine lane pool and do flip turns, be assured that she beat David Owens, Randy Nutt, and Ed Ames in the One Hour Swim for Distance and was only 100 yards behind Robert Strauss. Randy was her lane partner and he has new humility after being lapped four times while she swam 5,025 yards.

Gail S. Rice lives in Miami Shores, Fla., and swims for Gold Coast Masters.

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