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by Elaine K Howley

April 27, 2016

Swimming to Save Lives

How far would you be willing to swim so that others might learn?

What’s a weekend worth in the quest to make sure every adult in the United States is water-safe? That’s the question two teams recently asked themselves in setting out to swim for change. And their goals are audacious in both distance and the financial commitment they’ve made to support U.S. Masters Swimming’s charitable arm, the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation.

Six-Person Lake Erie

The first of two relays to support SSLF is scheduled to take place July 22-24. Over that weekend, six O*H*I*O Masters club members—Ashley Braniecki, C.C. Skoch, Kristen Bergmann, Jay DeFinis, Kevin Kelley, and relay captain Chuck Beatty—plan to swim 36 miles across Lake Erie from Point Pelee, Ontario, to Main Street Beach in Vermillion, Ohio. The team will take hour-long turns and expects to finish the swim in roughly 18 hours, meaning each swimmer is facing about 3 hours total in the water.

Not part of an organized event, the team decided they just wanted to have fun and test their mettle with a long swim this summer. “We have a group that swims in Lake Eerie in the summertime once the water warms up,” Beatty says. “There’s a core group that does training for events like Big Shoulders and we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to get these folks together to do a swim across the lake?’” he says. So they began planning the adventure.

Because the success of the swim depends on the weather, and because Mother Nature always has the last word on these sorts of things, the team has set aside two weekend-long windows to attempt the swim. “We know how Lake Erie can be,” Skoch says. “It doesn’t take much for the water to get super choppy and for big waves to form. Storms roll in really quickly, so we had to have a couple windows for flexibility,” she says. DeFinis adds that algae blooms can also be a problem, and given that Lake Erie didn’t freeze over this year, the chances of a toxic bloom are higher than normal.

In addition to getting great weather, the team anticipates needing a six-person support team that includes a boat pilot, kayakers, and medical personnel.

Amidst all their planning and plotting, the group—all of whom became friends through O*H*I*O Masters workouts—decided the swim should also be a fundraiser for one cause or another. It didn’t take long to settle on naming SSLF as the beneficiary.

DeFinis, who’s the Vice Chair of the Lake Erie LMSC and also serves at the national level on the USMS Investment Committee, was well aware of SSLF and suggested it as an option. “It’s a great organization, and I think all of us can vouch for how swimming has affected our lives for the positive. Fundraising for SSLF would be a great way to promote swimming and USMS and our passions.”

The team has set an aggressive goal of $10,000 and are seeking sponsors to help defray the cost of the swim and to make donations to SSLF. 

As the warmer weather arrives, look for this intrepid group to leave the confines of the pool for more training in the lake.

Three-Person Lake George

As summer begins to slip away, another tough trio of swimmers will be tackling a big challenge in support of SSLF. On September 17, Susan Kirk, Jen Bauman, and Kimberly Plewa will attempt to swim the 32-mile length of Lake George in upstate New York as part of a brand-new USMS-sanctioned race, the Lake George Marathon Swim. There, they’ll be joined in the water by 13 solo swimmers and 13 other relay teams hailing from all over the country.

But the threesome didn’t start out as such; originally Kirk was planning to do the swim as part of a two-person relay, but her partner had to bow out. Realizing that “it’s always more fun to have a friend in the boat with you,” Plewa says, she and Bauman invited Kirk to join them. And the team was set.

If you’re keeping track, each swimmer will be covering nearly 11 miles over the course of the swim in 1-hour sessions, but “the distance itself isn’t a concern for any of us,” Kirk says; all three are accomplished open water swimmers who’ve spent a lot of time swimming in various seas and lakes. However, launching the swim at 5 p.m. into the coming darkness of night is the one part of the journey that has them double checking their packing lists. “Because it’s in September, the nights can be cool and staying warm enough while we’re not swimming is going to be our biggest concern,” Kirk says.

The three women—who all hail from New Jersey and have dubbed themselves the “Jersey Girls”—have long been involved with USMS. Kirk is the chair of the New Jersey LMSC and has been a member for 28 years. Bauman, a 10-year member, is also on the board of the LMSC and Plewa has been a USMS member for more than 12 years. Because of this deep involvement, choosing the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation as the beneficiary of their swim was a no-brainer. “USMS is a huge part of our lives, and recognizing the tragic, unnecessary drownings that happen year in and year out, we want to help the cause that helps more adults be safe in the water,” Kirk says. “We’re just all very passionate and wanting to make sure that everyone can learn how to swim.”

Plewa agrees that the statistics—that 8–10 people in the U.S. drown every day—are “crazy” and enough to spur her and her team to action. “We wanted to find a way to give back to our sport and give adults opportunities to swim because it has such lifelong benefits.”

Look for these three women to continue swimming in the pool and adding more open water training along the Jersey Shore as the summer rolls in. They’ll also be hopping into Lake Hoptacong, the largest freshwater lake in New Jersey, for lots of training this summer. And Plewa and Kirk have already ticked off their first milestone in training—completing a 6-hour qualifying swim in early April in Sarasota, Fla. Undeterred by the weather cancelation of the annual 7-mile Swim Around Lido Key on April 2, Plewa and Kirk set out by themselves (while towing SaferSwimmer buoys with water and feeds stashed inside) for a jaunt around the island the next day. It was still quite windy, and the swim took longer than expected. But their hard work helped them check off another box on their way to being ready for race day.

For these two groups of determined swimmers, dozens of miles are just the beginning of how far they’re willing to go to help other adults learn to swim. How far would you go?

If you’d like to support either of these teams in their SSLF fundraising efforts, you can donate online. Please note the name of the team you’re supporting in the “Organization” form field.