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by Laura S Jones

December 31, 2011

Vegan swimmer tackles 10K with butterfly stroke

With “clean burning fuel” and a sprinter’s mentality, Becky Fenson swam the recent 10K Little Red Lighthouse Swim in New York’s Hudson River all butterfly. For the second time.

Fenson, 44 and a part of the Virginia LMSC, was a meat eater and sprint freestyler in college at the University of Michigan. She is neither now, although she says she still tackles her races like a sprinter.

“I start out quickly and try to sustain the effort. Go out and hang on; that’s the swimmer I always was. It translated well to open water for me. [And] sprinting is power and strength, and that power and strength also serves me well in open water swimming. But in a million years I never would have guessed I would have become a flyer, much less a distance swimmer.” She became both thanks first to meeting some open water swimmers in New York and then to living in San Francisco where the ocean was right outside her door. She quickly gained an appreciation for the “new challenges posed by swimming in oceans and lakes.”

So, back to the clean burning fuel that sustains her efforts. It is not only meat that is absent from Fenson’s diet; it is all animal products. Out of concern for animal welfare, Fenson became a vegan in the late 1990s. Surprised by the extra energy she had on her new eating plan, she decided to put it to good use and do some open water swims all butterfly.

For someone so tough in the water, Fenson laughs a lot and is gracious and humble. She sounds almost surprised she is able to do so much butterfly. But she keeps breaking barriers, and that gives her the confidence to do more. “If swimming has taught me anything, it is how mental sports are. You realize, ‘of course this can be done,’” she says.

Fenson says there are two limiting factors for her. One is rough water and the other is temperature. “The Hudson was 68 degrees which was perfect. Under 55 degrees is too cold for fly. I’m going to do as many swims as I can fly. Any time I can, I will do it. Distance won’t be the limiting factor.” When she can’t do her open water races butterfly, she is content to do freestyle.

Her training regimen consists of pool swimming during the week and progressively longer forays into the Chesapeake Bay on Saturdays, mostly by herself. In the pool, she does a lot of fly kick on her back and butterfly drills with freestyle mixed in. “Most of my pool swimming is freestyle.”

The switch to distance swimming has surprised her, and made her realize that maybe kids get pegged too young as one type of swimmer. As she explained in an email: “[My] transition from pool swimmer and drop-dead sprinter was a slow, organic (that is, so natural I barely noticed it) one. The jump from a pool to open water was a huge step and after that it all was so natural. One-mile swims in SF Bay with friends became 5-mile races, then 10 miles, and so on. It was all so fun, and the physical and mental challenges so exhilarating, it followed that if one mile was such fun, how great would five miles be? Butterfly was a spontaneous adventure one day that worked out well and added a whole new element of fun—forget racing, now I just want to finish. And, of course, swimming is always about the people: training partners, lane mates, pilots, crew—these are the best friends I've ever had.”

Fenson is married with three rescue dogs “who are like kids” and works for PETA. If it is possible to be both at the same time, Fenson sounds calm and excited about where her swimming will take her. She knows she is lucky that her shoulders are holding up, and she wants to keep doing longer and longer swims. “I’ve never felt stronger. Swimming is [just] a part of my life. It defines me. It is more than a passion.”


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