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Biography / Open Water

Paving the Way in Open Water

Swimming in the Land of 10,000 Lakes

Laura Jones | March 28, 2011

If Tina Neill could re-design the world, everyone would be comfortable around open water. Instead, she volunteers her time and incredible energy to make Minnesota, her current corner of the world, a better place for all swimmers and particularly those who love, or want to learn to love, the open water. Neill does not restrict her generosity to Masters swimmers, although they are her first love; we caught up with Neill in between her stints as a volunteer timer at the Men’s NCAAs.

Neill, 45, swims for Minnesota Masters but grew up in California. She was an All-American at UC Davis before heading to Minnesota for a coaching job at Macalester College. When she arrived sixteen years ago, Neill called the chair of the Minnesota LMSC and learned there was a need for more Masters teams. So she started one at Macalester College and tried to bring some of the California zeal to Minnesota. Instead of just missing the huge swimming scene on the west coast, she decided to dedicate a large portion of her time to creating one in the middle of the country, despite a climate that freezes any open water for much of the year.

Neill has held multiple positions in the Minnesota LMSC and currently is the Safety and Sanctions and Long Distance chair; she was also the former chair and is heavily involved with promoting and running open water events in the region. In 2010, U.S. Masters Swimming honored Neill with a Dorothy Donnelly Service Award. She is a very accomplished yet humble long-distance swimmer herself with two English Channel swims under her belt, one of which was a world record backstroke crossing, and four Catalina Channel crossings among many other adventurous and record setting swims in the United States and abroad.

People in “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” started to notice her and open water swimming after a 21-mile solo swim across Lake Mille Lacs in 1999 that Neill did on “kind of a whim. People talked to me after that, and it grew from there – both my swimming and my volunteering.”

Thanks to her growing reputation, Neill was able to start a one and two mile swim in Lake Harriet eleven years ago. The swims are usually held in June and are arranged so a swimmer can do both if they choose. “It was a struggle at the time to find a lake that would let me hold the swim,” says Neill. So her volunteering required some political lobbying skills and the patience to educate authorities about open water swimming. But the growth of open water swimming worldwide has started to open people’s eyes, and Neill thinks it will get even easier to add more swims.

Of course right now, the lakes are still frozen. But soon, Neill will be back in them and encouraging others to do the same. “We’ve gotten more open water swims going which is great with all our lakes. I’d just like to encourage more people to volunteer to put them on.”

Her advice to other volunteers and Long Distance chairs is to remember that “things take a while.” Also, she adds, the race director is responsible for swimmer safety and with the growth of the sport, some less experienced swimmers may be biting off more than they can chew, making an experienced race director even more important.

Neill attended the Open Water Swimming Safety Conference, jointly hosted by USMS and Pacific Masters in San Francisco, and found that a valuable experience. That’s one thing that makes a great volunteer—the desire to learn and share what you have learned.

With good humor and a can-do spirit, Neill has made a world of difference in Minnesota swimming in a relatively short period of time. Now she is looking for the next place to do the same.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Laura Jones

Laura S. Jones, a lawyer by training, has written about sports, health, and science for a variety of publications since 2001. She's also the author of a short story collection, "Breaking and Entering," published in 2011. Jones is an avid, although not speedy, open water swimmer and particularly enjoys 5K and 10K ocean swims with her much faster husband, Rob. She'll occasionally humble herself with a 400IM or 500 free in a pool meet, and a triathlon or two.

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