These six 60-plus-year-old women have finished some of the toughest open water swims in the world
About 15 years ago, as she was approaching her 50th birthday, Christie Ciraulo, of UCLA Bruin Masters, had an idea to build an extraordinary team of swimmers to tackle some of the toughest and most iconic open water swims in the world. But this wouldn’t be just any six-person relay team. This would be a gathering of some of the top female swimmers within U.S. Masters Swimming.
But there was a catch—they had to be 50 years old or older. Ciraulo scoured the rolls of top female finishers of long distance and open water events who were near her age, and found her first member: Tracy Grilli, now 62, of New England Masters.
The next four swimmers came along soon thereafter: Karen Einsidler, now 63, of Sarasota Sharks Masters; Nancy Steadman Martin, now 64, of Garden State Masters; Jenny Cook, now 61, of AGUA Masters; and Lisa Bennett, now 62, of Colorado Masters. Veronica Hibben, now 63, of Novaquatics Masters, took Bennett’s place on the team after the first six swims.
To meet that all 50-plus ideal, the Mermaids would have to wait a little while for everyone to age up before taking on their first big swim. But that gave them plenty of time to plan. Cirualo, now 65, recalls sending out an email to the prospective team members one morning before a workout as they planned their first adventure, and by the time she got home two hours later, “I had like 43 emails back!” she says, still in awe all these years later. The women had gotten very excited and had already begun picking out matching swimsuits and deciding on which color nail polish they would all wear. (Choosing the coordinated team suits and sundry other mermaid-themed gear is one of their favorite aspects of planning each new swim.)
The adventures started with The Olympic Club’s Trans-Tahoe Relay event, a 10-mile all-relay-team race across the width of Lake Tahoe, in 2008. “We didn’t have any idea we’d do a big swim year after year,” Ciraulo says, “but we had such a good time, we decided to do Manhattan next.” That’s the 28.5-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan Island, which they completed with ease in 2009. That’s also about the time that Grilli’s husband, David Grilli, became part of the team as their manager or “mermaid wrangler.” He supports the team with logistics and planning and also usually joins them on the support boat.
In 2010, the Mighty Mermaids crossed the Catalina Channel. From there, they swam 24 miles across Tampa Bay and swam the lengths of Lake Tahoe and Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Their longest swims to date have been the 32.3-mile length of Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho and the 36-mile END-WET race down the Red River in North Dakota. The Mighty Mermaids have done a big swim every year since 2008.
As their swims got longer and more ambitious, another idea took hold. How about the English Channel? Einsidler and Steadman Martin had both completed solo crossings of the 21-mile English Channel, in 1987 and 2004, respectively, but the others had yet to face the so-called Mount Everest of open water swimming. The idea was appealing, but they decided to wait until all six of the swimmers were over age 60—to really hammer home the idea that these strong and very fast women still have a lot of championship-level swimming left in them.
The Mighty Mermaids booked a slot for July 22–30, 2019. British weather being what it is, swimmers are booked on a “tide,” meaning that they usually have several days in which they could swim, depending on conditions. So they waited in Dover, England, for a phone call from the pilot saying it’s time to attempt the swim.
The Mermaids arrived in Dover on July 19 and got the call from their pilot as soon as their tide window opened—they’d start the swim at 2 p.m. on July 22. They boarded the boat and motored toward the starting point for the swim. But as they approached the start, it became clear that conditions were not what had been forecasted, and the decision was made to go back to port and wait a little longer to see if the weather would calm down. The Mermaids had an early dinner, got some rest, and came back to the dock at 1 a.m. on July 23 to try again. They launched at 2:07 a.m., and that restart was well worth it—the wind had died down and the water flattened out; it looks like satin in some of the photos.
Because they had previous experience swimming the Channel, Einsidler and Steadman Martin were the first two swimmers to take their turns—one hour each (in the dark, as it worked out) per the strict rules of Channel swimming. Then Cirualo swam her hour into the first rays of morning. Hibben, Tracy, and finally Cook each took their hour turns in order. No wetsuits are permitted in the Channel, and the water was in the low 60s the day of their swim.
Western society’s perceptions of the abilities of women over a certain age can be harsh, and these pervasive underestimations extended even to the Mermaids’ pilot. Although he’d been forewarned that these women were champion swimmers, he thought they’d need a bigger window of good weather to finish the swim than they did. “I think one of my favorite stories about the swim,” Einsidler says, “is he’s thinking he’s got these 60-year-old women,” they’re going to take longer than they think they will. Tired from having been readying the boat all night, soon after the start, he went below deck to take a nap while his first mate handled the piloting. “He came up about five hours into the swim with a cigarette in hand and his mouth open and says, ‘You ladies are really fast! I can’t believe we’re past halfway already.’ He thought we’d need more than 12 hours,” she says.
Indeed, they didn’t even get through the team rotation twice. The first four swimmers each took a second, one-hour turn, and Grilli—the fifth swimmer of the six—was the last Mermaid to swim. She cruised that final 36 minutes into the French coast and a victorious landing. They’d finished in a stellar 10 hours, 36 minutes—one of the fastest swims all summer in the Channel. Though they don’t know for sure whether there’s ever been a faster 60-and-older, all-female relay, it seems possible that they might rank first on such a list.
“The swim was awesome. We are just so fortunate that we had good conditions,” Grilli says. Though all the women encountered some seaweed and Grilli had to contend with some jellyfish—and found herself wishing for the pool’s guiding black line at one point—these “older” women made the swim look like child’s play, as they have so many other open water races and swim meets over their lengthy swimming careers.
“The really cool part here is that we’re all Masters swimmers who have been competing in Masters for years and we came together 13 years ago to start doing this,” Ciraulo says. Though the women didn’t know each other personally prior to Ciraulo hatching the idea, they’ve since become the best of friends; spending hour after hour on a small boat together in pursuit of a big goal will do that. They’re now a team in every sense—an aquatic family that’s been through ups and downs both in the water and in life. “We’ve been through a lot of shoulder surgeries. The group is really supportive of everybody,” Einsidler says.
So, what’s next for the Mighty Mermaids? They’re not sure yet, but they still have a lengthy list of swims they’d like to tackle. They’ll have a phone conference, better known to this group as a “conch call,” this fall to discuss the plan for next summer. But their message to other swimmers who’ve asked over the years whether they can join their team is simple—there aren’t currently any openings on the Mighty Mermaids, but nothing’s stopping you from forming your own awesome relay. “You can do this, too,” Grilli says. “Anybody can do this.” Just reach out to your network and see who’s willing to commit to going the distance with you.
- Open Water