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by Joan Niesen

January 20, 2022

Dave Sanderson returned for a successful open water swim in the Hudson River, site of where his plane crashed 13 years ago

In the months and years since Jan. 15, 2009, Dave Sanderson did everything he could to overcome the mental trauma of that cold, wet day. The North Carolina native had been in New York for a meeting and was booked on an evening flight back to Charlotte. But when he finished work early, he hopped in a car to LaGuardia Airport, hoping to get on an earlier plane.

An agent was able to book him a seat on US Airways Flight 1549, which took off at 3:25 p.m. Sanderson was thrilled at the prospect of getting home to his family a bit earlier—and then, within moments of takeoff, the plane collided with a flock of birds. The jet thudded and banged, and soon its captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was telling passengers to brace for impact. Sanderson, along with 149 other passengers and five crew members, were about to wind up in the Hudson River.

Sanderson was sitting toward the front of the plane, and as passengers began to evacuate, he figured he’d hightail it off—onto the inflatable raft, onto the wing, wherever. That thought was fleeting, though; all it took was a glance behind him for Sanderson to realize he should stay behind and help. As the plane took on water, he lent a hand to passengers as they scrambled through the aircraft’s door. He was the last person off the plane, and 13 years later, he’s adamant: That day changed his life.

As a result of that crash, called the Miracle on the Hudson, he found a calling: to share his journey with anyone who’d listen. He began a side career in public speaking, averaging more than 80 engagements a year and helping other survivors of trauma move on. But as he toured the country and drew huge audiences to his message, Sanderson realized he hadn’t quite resolved his feelings about one phase of that fateful day: the seven or so minutes he spent in the Hudson River, dressed in layers of winter clothing, battling a strong current as he swam toward a ferry sent to rescue passengers.

Sanderson credits adrenaline for powering him to safety; he’d never taken to the water, even as a child in Red Cross–sponsored swimming lessons. “I was taught to swim basically to stay above water,” he says now, laughing. In high school, he swam in exactly one competitive race, and as an adult, he never gave swimming more than a passing thought—until that day on the wing of the plane when the cabin began taking water and he knew the only thing to do was dive in.

Still, Sanderson made it to the boat just fine, if a bit in shock. And for about a decade, that was that: He’d swam in the Hudson, under duress. Swimming was once again something he did sparingly, to relax, little more than splashing around for fun.

Then Sanderson traveled to New Jersey for a business meeting last April and saw a friend, Suzanne Lesko, a former captain in the U.S. Navy whom he’d met during one of his many speaking engagements to various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Lesko had been a swimmer in high school, and she told Sanderson she was planning to participate in the annual Navy SEAL Hudson River Swim and Run that August. The race raises money for homeless veterans, and in 2021, it would also pay special honor to the victims of 9/11. Lesko asked Sanderson if he’d like to join her, and Sanderson, not a man to say no, agreed.

Problem was, Sanderson wasn’t in swimming shape—or anything close to it. He worked out on land, sure, but he’d never completed a distance swim, much less one in open water. Now, he was tasked with getting in good enough shape to make it more than 3 miles in a strong current, from Liberty State Park in New Jersey to the Statue of Liberty, then onward to Ellis Island and finally Battery Park in Lower Manhattan. Lesko knew her friend would need a rigorous training plan, and fast, so she pointed him in the direction of a former Navy SEAL, Stephen Brown, who goes by the nickname “Scuba.”

Brown, a member of the Mecklenburg Swim Association Masters workout group in Charlotte, invited Sanderson to meet him at a local pool. Patty Waldron, one of the program’s coaches, joined them. She’d learned of Sanderson’s plan and was considering taking on his training, but she needed to meet him and gauge how willing of a student he’d be. After all, Sanderson had just four months to learn to swim competitively.

“I’m very particular about realistic timelines,” Waldron says. “I don’t like people with deadlines. Initially, I have no idea of their learning curve, how coordinated they are. Learning to swim is like learning to have the perfect golf swing, but you might drown if you’re not careful.”

That day, Sanderson showed up in swim trunks, swam one length, and finished winded and beet red. “My eyeballs must’ve gotten very big,” Waldron recalls, but even so, she agreed to take on the challenge. Something about Sanderson’s commitment, his willingness to sign on for early-morning workouts five days a week, gave her a glimmer of hope. The two got to work.

Waldron referred to Sanderson as “the project,” and she was upfront about the magnitude of what he was undertaking. She told him that most people needed a year to achieve what he hoped to do in one summer, and she instituted aggressive goals. His first big test would come at the end of June, she announced; if he couldn’t successfully swim 2 miles, the project was off. “I’m not going to send someone to a sword fight with a Swiss army knife,” she says.

Waldron introduced Sanderson to her invention, “the stick,” which is just that: a short, thin pole swimmers hold out in front of them as they go. It keeps their strokes even and their path straight. She hammered home breathing techniques, which are at the core of her teaching philosophy, and outside of the pool, she and Brown instructed Sanderson to stop lifting weights and to work on flexibility and mobility.

Waldron and Sanderson trained each week on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays in the pool, then on Wednesdays in the open water of nearby Lake Wiley. “I’m like, damn, that’s a big lake,” Sanderson says of his first reaction, when Waldron told him to hop in and swim out into the depths. Each Wednesday, they went a bit farther, until Sanderson could reach an island in the middle of the water, which was 1 mile from shore. A mile there, a mile back, and there it was: Sanderson met his goal of 2 miles, safely and confidently. “My emotion never wavered,” Sanderson says of training, “but there were days where the energy was wavering.”

That day on Lake Wiley, Waldron was certain: Her student was ready. “I have professed that I have taught a rock to swim,” she says with a chuckle. And in July, Brown joined that one-time rock for a full test run in Lake Wiley, a poor substitute for the Hudson River because of its lack of a choppy current but the best option available to them. Sanderson swam more than 3 miles that day, 20 strokes of freestyle and then 20 strokes of backstroke, switching and switching until he made it to shore. He practiced refueling with gel packs in the water. It went off without a hitch.

Then, in early August 2021, Waldron traveled with Sanderson and his family to New York. He had his stick, attached to his suit with a carabiner, and plans to swim the whole race with Lesko. The two met up at Liberty State Park and prepared to go—and then they noticed all the Navy SEALs preparing to jump off a nearby bridge to begin the race. Sanderson and Lesko had expected simply to wade into the river, but after a glance, they knew they should join. That was the first sign the swim wasn’t going to go to plan.

From the ferry that carried swimmers’ friends and family along the course, Waldron watched Sanderson’s progress. She’d underestimated the conditions, and she hoped her protégé had the mettle to keep going. “When I saw the current,” she says, “I was like, man, OK, it's gonna hurt if I had to jump off this thing and go get him.”

Fortunately, Waldron stayed dry, and Sanderson swam on. As he made his way toward the Statue of Liberty, his carabiner broke, and his stick came detached. A New Jersey state trooper in a nearby boat found the device in the current and lobbed it back toward Sanderson, but it drifted away, and he swam off-course to grab it, first with the current, and then against it, huffing as he pressed back to his desired route. By then, he’d lost Lesko, but he figured he’d find her along the way. “Strategy’s gone to hell in a handbasket,” Sanderson recalls.

Eventually, the two reunited, and they plowed ahead. At each landmark, each turn in the path of the swim, competitors were supposed to climb onto a barge and complete 100 push-ups (in honor of the liberties available in the U.S.) and 22 pull-ups (to honor the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day); Sanderson did his best but also knew he should conserve energy for the open water that lay ahead. He saw other swimmers shivering, vomiting, overwhelmed by the elements. And when he reached the final stretch, from Ellis Island into Battery Park, he breathed a sigh of relief. He knew he’d soon reach a current that would carry him to the shore of Manhattan. He was almost there.

But then he noticed a boat heading his way. Race officials informed him that the channel, usually full of commercial traffic, was slated to reopen soon. Sanderson would have to hurry. “There was no doubt this was going to get done,” he says. “No doubt.” But he did accept some help from the boat, which hauled him and Lesko across the channel. From there, they swam to shore.

Sanderson completed the swim in 2:56—though he’s quick to point out that the tow across the channel probably shaved 10 or 15 minutes off his time—and raised nearly $5,000. When he met his family on shore, he was soaked and famished. Though he’d fueled up three times in the water, he hadn’t eaten enough beforehand, and the group rushed to a pizza place.

After the swim, Sanderson took a week off from the water. He jokes that it took that long to “get the smell of the Hudson River out of my nose,” but as soon as it was gone, he was back to 5 a.m. workouts, preparing for another event, this time to fundraise for cancer research. After his summer of training, he’s hooked. He’s in better shape than he’s been in since high school, having dropped from 30% body fat to 19%. And in the pool, he’s still improving, still learning.

“You can use something like swimming to show somebody how they can turn their lives around,” he says. These days, at his speaking events, Sanderson talks about his experience in the water, both his first time in the Hudson and his second, when jumping in was a choice, not a necessity.  A story of mental toughness and perseverance now includes a chapter on physical strength, and just as the crash changed Sanderson’s life, so too did last summer.


  • Human Interest