The Chicago Swedish Fish Masters member tackles big open water swims and triathlons
Heidi Musser is fearless in the water. Though she’s been blind since birth, the Chicago native has racked up an impressive list of big open water swims and triathlons: Big Shoulders and Swim Across America in Lake Michigan, Escape from Alcatraz in San Francisco, and the Coeur d’Alene Ironman in Northern Idaho.
During triathlons, she rides a tandem bike and runs tethered to her guide but swims freely, her partner within earshot to keep her pointed in the right direction. “I’m sometimes frightened while biking or running, but not while swimming,” she says. “I started swimming practically before I could walk.”
But she nearly missed out on swimming.
Musser was 2 years old when her mother enrolled her in a swimming program at a YMCA. She was the only blind student in the class, an experience that would become common throughout her life. Because of her blindness, she was often isolated from her sighted classmates while in school, and kept from participating in sports and physical education. “My teachers told me to sit in a chair and we will hire someone to read to you about health and physical fitness,” Musser says, incredulously. For years she swam on her own, without the aid of coaches or the camaraderie of teammates.
Undaunted, Musser completed her schooling at home and eventually enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University, from which she graduated in 1996. While there she rediscovered her love of swimming and became a regular at the university’s natatorium. A lifeguard with whom she developed a close bond helped her improve her technique and venture into uncharted waters. One year after graduating from college, Musser completed her first open water swim: the Chicago Park District’s 26th Annual 2-Mile Fun Swim in Lake Michigan. She was the event’s first participant with a disability.
After college, Musser began a career teaching piano and continued to aim for ever-loftier athletic goals. In 1999, she became the first blind woman to compete in the Triathlon World Championships in Montreal, using the same swim, bike, and run courses as sighted athletes, an accomplishment for which she earned a special gold medal.
Triathlons, however, are largely solitary endeavors, and Musser yearned to be part of a team. In 2017, Musser met Billy Cordero, head coach of Chicago Swedish Fish Masters, based at Swedish Covenant Hospital’s Galter LifeCenter on Chicago’s North Side. The Swedish Fish started as a fitness class at the Galter LifeCenter but quickly grew into a full-fledged U.S. Masters Swimming club. Cordero describes the club as “a group of oddballs,” most of whom had never swum competitively before joining the group. Cordero noticed Musser while she was swimming the 1500 in a meet, and, impressed by her stamina and story, he encouraged her to give the Swedish Fish a try.
“Our pool only has four lanes and space is at a premium,” says Grant Sutton, one of Musser’s coaches. “We knew right away that Musser would have to circle swim, which was something she’d never done before. Given the opportunity and some patience, she picked it up pretty easily.” After a year and a half with the club, Musser’s become so well integrated into her lane that she regularly pushes her lanemates to swim harder than usual. “Heidi likes big yardage, and she’s whipped her lane into shape,” Sutton says.
Sutton and Cordero both maintain that Musser embodies the core mission of the Swedish Fish, which is that all swimmers, no matter their background or limitations, can find a place on a Masters club. “Having Heidi on the team has forced me to realize how often I rely on visual cues while coaching,” Sutton says. “I’ve had to develop new ways of explaining things.” Sutton says he’s learned not to be bashful about grabbing Musser’s hands and moving them into the correct position. Cordero says that Musser has helped other members of the Swedish Fish take on new challenges in their own swimming. Last year, Musser inspired one teammate to try the 100-yard butterfly in a meet for the first time.
When I mention to Cordero that some swimmers fear the open water, he says, “Heidi’s a reminder of the ways sight can often serve as an inhibitor. When a sighted person looks over a big lake like Lake Michigan, it’s easy to feel afraid. But Heidi doesn’t worry about what she can’t see. She’s free to just put her head down and go.”
And go she does. Now 52, Musser continues to enter open water races around Chicago and has become an integral part of the Swedish Fish. In 2018, she placed in the top 10 in the 500- and 1000-yard freestyle events at the ILMSA 2018 Short Course State Championship, swam on several relays, and helped her team take home the second-place trophy. “Not bad for a bunch of oddballs,” Cordero says.
At the end of our conversation, I ask Musser which accomplishment she’s most proud of. Her gold medal at the Triathlon World Championships? Surviving Alcatraz? Finishing an Ironman?
Musser thinks for a second and says, “I’m most proud to be a Swedish Fish.”
- Human Interest