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by Rich Axtell

December 31, 2010

Many Minutemen Masters swam around Key West in 2010

It was just about 2 a.m. and I’d only logged about two hours of sleep when I nearly jumped out of bed at the crack and flash of lightning. Booming roars and a Hollywood-esque light show would continue into the predawn hours. As I struggled for a few more minutes of sleep with countless logistics running through my head, I hoped my swimmers had gotten the recommended good night’s sleep. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, the wake-up call came and it was a quick morning routine and then off to meet 13 wide-eyed swimmers and the support crew for our pre-race meeting.

Night still covered the island as we met on the front steps of our hotel. Moments like this are special – the only thing that separates you from months of hard work and countless sacrifices. Standing there before my team, I could feel anticipation steaming off of each swimmer. We reviewed some logistics and had a private team talk. It was now time to execute our team game plan.

The plan was simple: get 13 swimmers (four solo swimmers and three, three-person relay teams) around the island of Key West efficiently and safely. Anything less and we would fall short of our team goal. After we broke our huddle the swimmers returned to their rooms to gather race-day gear. I boarded a van with our support crew to rendezvous with our relay support boats over at the marina. Swimmers would board two other vans 45 minutes later that would bring them to the start/finish venue where they would check in and kayakers would be waiting for our solo swimmers.

There are two things that I’ve come to expect as a coach: 1) superior effort from the athletes and 2) the unexpected. We’d already had an all-galactic effort in our training and it was now time for Mr. Murphy to make his appearance. At the marina, one of our three boats and captain was waiting for us. Our other two boats arrived 15 minutes later. One backed right into a slip, the other sputtered and stalled. We were four nautical miles away from a beach full of Minuteman swimmers that were undoubtedly peering up the island waiting for their boats to come in. As I carefully chose four-letter words under my breath, the disabled vessel finally came to life … and then stalled again. Finally, after more fiddling with a “new” four-stroke engine, we were finally underway.

Once we arrived at the beach, we idled just offshore and waited for the race director to give the OK for our non-starting relay athletes to swim out. Those swimming the first leg remained on the beach with our solo swimmers for the start. We waited for what seemed like an eternity for the starting swimmers to take their positions just outside of the beach’s swim area. Another short lifetime would pass as the swimmers were treading water. Then finally, the starting gun.

It was not easy to choose which of the support boats to board. I wanted to be with all of my swimmers all of the time. We had a few family members and friends round out our southernmost posse and they were given the opportunity to ride. I chose the boat that still needed support. So, there I was aboard a boat with two pasty white swimmers, a boat captain who would later point out a jail on the island that he spent a weekend in, and one swimmer that was somewhere the pack that made its way towards the Southernmost Point marker before turning the corner to push along Ft. Zachary Taylor. The start of a race like this is always nerve racking for the support boat. We desperately wanted to be reunited with our swimmer in the water so a) she knew we were there and b) to start guiding her the best we could on an efficient route that would keep her going from point to point around the island.

Once the large pack of swimmers started to separate, we pulled up beside ours. After we pushed passed the Fort we cruised past an old Navy warship and into Key West Harbor. The captain matter-of-factly pointed out that a large bull shark spends a lot of time in the marina and that a large eel lives at the bottom of a piling. I immediately told the swimmers aboard the boat that the captain was only kidding and quietly asked the captain to stop kidding around or to start lying about what may or may not be in the waters surrounding the island. After Key West Harbor and just before Fleming channel, four miles was up and our next swimmer tagged in.

This stretch was nice with a quick current that helped us gain a lot of water efficiently. Once through Fleming we pushed through a mooring field of tired-looking live-aboard boats. The field was calm and composed mostly of sailing vessels, many of which looked like they had reached their final resting place. Sighting on this side of the island, the shallow backcountry, became a challenge, as the course was not very well marked. Our boat was forced to stay over in the channel between the navigational markers. Without a boat by the swimmer’s side, sighting difficulties were further compounded, often ending with our swimmer in knee-deep water. Despite the challenge, we pushed on to our relay switch point at mile marker 8.

The switch point was right at the mouth of the dreaded Cow Key Channel. On a good day the tide would be going out and a swimmer could work half as hard for twice the reward. On a bad day, the Atlantic is forcing its way through the tiny channel into the Gulf of Mexico. As our final relay swimmer lathered on some more sunscreen in the pilothouse, a swimmer on the bow of the boat next to us pulled himself back quickly just before he took the plunge for his leg of the race. He yelled back “that was a big, big, something!” I saw it too and did my best to pretend I saw nothing.

When our outgoing swimmer emerged from the pilothouse, we called our in-water swimmer back to the boat and the exchange was made. Fortunately the swimmer from the nearby boat was already in and that made this coach feel a bit more comfortable for my swimmers. Odds are that whoever makes the first splash will attract whatever may be swimming around and play the role of diversion.

Fortunately on this day, Cow Key Channel worked with us. The tide was still going out to sea when we got there. Once through the channel, the longest and hardest stretch of the race stood before our anchor swimmer like an endless pool. The water got super-shallow and over zealous lifeguards insisted we stay close to shore to avoid Jet Ski tours and charter boats that were screaming in all directions. This added more mileage and kept us in the thick of the current’s tug. Despite it all, our anchorman forged on towards a pier that seemed to take two steps back for every two strokes he took. A big orange buoy just off shore and in waist-deep water marked the finish. With about 200 meters to go my cell phone started ringing with news that two of our solo swimmers had landed a while ago and one was nearly finished coming in just behind us. We already had one relay finish at this point and another just minutes behind our boat. As soon as our guy hit the finish buoy the other relay mates jumped into the water to swim over and enjoy the sweet taste of a goal reached.

The boat captain took me back to look for our two remaining solo swimmers. One was too close to shore to pull up beside. The other was just down the beach pressing along on the last hard miles. Seeing her was amazing. This meant we were just about two nautical miles from reaching our team goal of 13 swimmers around Key West. My boat then scurried back to the marina where I would square up with our three boat captains and then take a taxi back to the start/finish venue.

Once I arrived I saw 12 of our 13 swimmers littered on a public beach bandstand. Some flat on their back, some slouched in chairs, others leaning against a railing with perma-grins. There was a lot of emotion starting to pour out of some of the athletes and I did my best to avoid letting any bursting out of me. We kept a watchful eye on the corner of the pier, waiting to see if our final swimmer would round it. And then, it happened. There she was with her faithful kayaker still by her side. We all ran out into the water to greet her at the finish.

This was it. This is what it was all about. Seven hours and 11 minutes after the gun went off we had accomplished something few teams can realize. To mark the team accomplishment, one of the support kayakers had made his way out on the pier to light off fireworks to celebrate our team finish. On this day, there were no game day collapses, no cramp too big to overcome, no injuries, no soreness that would get the best of us, no moments of self doubt too great to overcome, no challenge left unmet. Today was our day. We stood in the water and hugged and looked at each other in the eyes, just as we had done before the sun came up that morning. From now until forever, these swimmers will be able to look each other in the eyes and understand something incredible without ever having to say a word.

Our journey and effort was truly epic. We had fundraisers & team meetings, we stayed an hour late after each practice to get more volume in, we trained in open water in April just outside of Boston in the cold, we gave up parts of weekends to fit long open water swims in, we swam in the driving rain, we spent time away from our loved ones and work to do something we never had never done before. We did these things for months. To accomplish what these 13 swimmers did takes an amazing amount of sacrifice. We were fortunate to have an amazing support network that included friends, family, spouses, significant others, and employers to help us along the way.

Minuteman Masters’ Key West 2010 Team: Solo: Drew McMorrow, Matt Mulrooney, Karen Fair, Shannon Blake. Relay 1: Chris Veenstra, Christine Nichols, Mark Devlin. Relay 2: Ulrike Kjellberg, Caileen Burns, Frank Daponte. Relay 3: Libby Scott, Denise Veenstra, & Abbey Scott. Full race results are available at


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