Seven open water swimmers have achieved success in the vaunted three-event series
For Masters swimmers looking to swim long distances in open water, a bevy of races, events, and challenges exist. One of the top challenges—which has gained in popularity in recent years—is the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. The series comprises three major solo swims: the 21-mile English Channel, the 20-mile Catalina Channel, and the 28.5-mile swim around Manhattan Island
The Triple Crown was first completed in 1987 by British Channel swimming legend Alison Streeter. To date, just 265 swimmers worldwide, including 123 Americans, have completed the series of three swims that’s hailed as a pinnacle achievement in open water swimming. Among that short list are seven USMS members who completed it in 2021.
Colorado Masters Swimmer member John Batchelder, 40, swam in high school but took several years away from the sport as a young adult as work pressure took a toll on his fitness. Finally, about eight years ago, when his company offered a “Biggest Loser”-style competition, Batchelder decided he wanted to win it. He joined a Masters group and swam every single day, winning the contest easily. That return to the pool rekindled a love of butterfly that has since seen him winging around the world, figuratively and literally.
On June 28, 2021, Batchelder became only the fourth person in history to complete a solo crossing of the English Channel swimming it all butterfly. His success offered sweet redemption after a failed attempt in 2018. It also sealed his place as the 244th swimmer in history to complete the Triple Crown. But there’s another distinction that makes his success even more impressive: Batchelder is the only swimmer on this list—and believed to be the first in history—to complete all three of the Triple Crown swims using only butterfly.
He built up to the challenge over time, starting with a local open water swim in Horsetooth Reservoir. Slowly, the 10K distances he was completing gave way to longer and longer events, and, he says, “getting hooked up with the other swimmers here,” such as English Channel four-way finisher Sarah Thomas “definitely encouraged me to go in that direction.”
Batchelder says that the 20 Bridges swim around Manhattan Island was the easiest of the three events “because when you’re my speed, you can time the tide changes and those rivers flow around really fast.” In 2021, he proved his point by swimming two times consecutively around the island, the so-called 40 Bridges swim hosted by NYOW. He says his Catalina Channel swim in July 2018 was the hardest “because I got so seasick.”
But why swim any marathon swim using butterfly, which is generally regarded as the most tiring of the competitive swimming strokes? “The simplest answer is because I can do it,” Batchelder says. He’s always had a knack for it and has never had any shoulder injuries from all the butterfly. “It just came naturally to me.”
Novaquatics Masters member Jen Schumacher, 36, first attempted to swim the English Channel in 2012. Though she’s a terrific open water swimmer, and fast in both the pool and open water, she didn’t finish that day. “I was pretty burned out when I attempted it in 2012,” she says, “and I felt like that was one of many problems.” She returned to pool swimming and focused on racing more in Masters meets.
But the sports psychologist who works with athlete-cadets as the assistant director of the performance psychology program at West Point says that she likes to finish things, so the unfinished business in the channel stayed with her. Originally from California, Schumacher moved east in 2019 to take the West Point job and connected with open water swimmer John Hughes, who was training to take on the English Channel. The pieces came together for Schumacher to train for, and this time successfully complete, the English Channel.
Schumacher had been deeply involved with Masters Swimming in California for years and had been aware that people sometimes swam to or from Catalina Island, a dark smudge visible on the horizon on clear days. Eventually, she found herself drawn into open water, too, and connected with several veteran open water swimmers who supported and encouraged her to train for longer goals. In 2009, she successfully completed the Catalina Channel swim and followed it up with another Catalina crossing the following year going the opposite direction and the swim around Manhattan Island.
Schumacher had booked a slot to swim the English Channel in 2020, and did another loop around Manhattan. But disaster stuck, as she tore her shoulder labrum during that swim. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that further forced the issue of needing to delay her attempt. Though training for another year was a daunting prospect, Schumacher hoped better health, improved training options, and less difficulty with traveling would all stack up to success in the channel.
The decision paid off: On Aug. 2, 2021, she completed the English Channel in 11 hours, 5 minutes. “All the training and the setbacks prepared me more for the swim than any sort of physical program that I could have done,” she says.
If you think waiting nearly a decade to finish the Triple Crown sounds like a long time, consider Martin McMahon’s recent accomplishment. On Aug. 10, 2021, the 59-year-old Connecticut Masters member claimed the record for the longest turnaround time to complete all three swims of the Triple Crown when, 36 years after his English Channel swim, he successfully swam the Catalina Channel.
McMahon hadn’t originally intended to wait so long, but life intervened. “I swam the channel in 1985 and did Manhattan in 1989,” he says. “I actually found a packet from the Catalina Channel swimming association that I had sent away for in 1990, so I was thinking about doing. But then I found out my wife was pregnant, and life got crazy from there.”
Family and work duties called, and McMahon left marathon swimming behind but not forever. In 2009, at age 46, McMahon waded back into long-distance waters with an 8-hour, 21-minute Swim Across the Sound event in Connecticut. From there, he decided it was time to attempt the Catalina Channel in 2012. But bad weather aborted the effort. “Even the observer got sick on the boat ride over to the island,” he recalls.
A lot has changed in the sport of marathon swimming since McMahon made his channel swim in 1985, most notably in how information about these events has become much easier to access. “I swam the (English) Channel pre-Internet,” he explains. Today, a simple Google search returns thousands of pages of information about everything from how to train to what to eat. But back then, McMahon says he sent $20 to Penny Lee Dean in California and got a “15-page mimeographed and stapled package she had typed up on how to swim the channel. That was it for any kind of written material. And of course everything went via snail mail. All communications with England took weeks.”
What hasn’t changed is the enormity of the challenge that these three swims represent, and the passion needed to pursue them, especially after so many years. “I just really love the sport. That’s why I have the longevity I have, I guess,” he says. “I’ve taken some steps away from it from time to time, and I don’t think that’s the end of the world, either. But my wife claims that my tombstone will say ‘Martin McMahon, swimmer’ first and then second it’ll say ‘husband and father.’”
For Bob Burrow, 58, a member of Oregon Masters, the journey toward the Triple Crown started when he met some marathon swimmers at a Masters workout at MIT where he’d been swimming.
Burrow was no stranger to open water; he’d grown up in Southern California and first learned to swim from legendary marathon swimmer Greta Andersen. He started swimming in open water while living in San Francisco as a young professional. A move to Connecticut in 2000 led him to make friends with some folks who swam regularly in open water, and a subsequent move to Boston in 2005 placed him on that pool deck at MIT, where he trained for years with Coach Bill Paine. The more he heard about the Triple Crown from his teammates, the more he started wondering if he had what it took to tackle some of those big swims too.
In 2014, he signed up to take part in an English Channel relay in support of Swim Across America. “And that just wasn’t enough,” he says. “It was very cool, but I wasn’t able to test my mettle enough. So that’s what got me thinking about doing a solo across the English Channel.”
Burrow booked a slot and got across in fine fashion in 2017. Soon thereafter during a business trip to New York, he got to thinking that swimming around Manhattan might be a neat way to see the sights. So in 2019, he successfully completed that swim.
“And then the third one, I kind of laugh about it because I feel like I just kind of got backed into having to do this last one,” he says. But that swim did bring him full circle in many ways, having lived in Palos Verdes, where the swim concludes, as a child. “I went to a Cub Scout camp at Doctor’s Cove on Catalina Island as kid,” he says. “That’s where my swim started.”
Across all his swims, Burrow says there’s been a feeling of a “confluence of luck. I’ve been lucky to meet the people I have along the journey.” Indeed, his story also includes a nice illustration of the open water swimming community and how many connections exist within it. Burrow was escorted by Jen Schumacher’s mother Barb, who often kayaks to support swimmers crossing the Catalina Channel. “Barb gave me warm oatmeal,” right when he needed it most, Burrow recalls. “She was fabulous.”
Santa Clara Swim Club Masters member Ken Mignosa, 58, says he learned to swim when he was a kid because his parents bought a house with a pool “and they thought it was essential that I learn to swim.” He swam competitively through middle school and picked up water polo in high school.
In 2000, Mignosa found his way back to Masters Swimming and became heavily involved with the Santa Clara Masters Swim Club. Around 2016, Mignosa began venturing beyond the pool and started swimming in San Francisco Bay. Before long, he was hooked on open water. “It had just never occurred to me to swim in the bay,” he says, “but I went and swam for hours on end and I really enjoyed it and I felt better because of it.”
One thing led to another, and in July 2017, he completed a 21.2-mile swim the length of Lake Tahoe. A swim across the Catalina Channel followed that same September. Mignosa had found his stride in marathon open water swimming. “I liked longer swims,” he says simply.
Soon, he decided to pursue the Triple Crown because, he says, “the collection of swims was interesting to me. I’ve spent a little time around Catalina, and I’ve always been curious about swimming the [English] Channel and the Manhattan swim.”
Mignosa was originally booked to complete the English Channel in 2020, but as for so many other would-be crossers, he had to cancel because of the pandemic. He was able to secure a slot in June 2021 when the water would be cold but manageable for the San Franciscan used to coping with frigid water.
“To some extent, the swim is the easy part,” he says of the challenges of working though the logistics of training and getting to England that were made “five times harder because of the pandemic.” Mignosa had to quarantine for eight days when he arrived in England and spent an additional $500 on COVID-19 tests during that period to ensure he was safe and well. He worried he would decondition in the time he was in lockdown. “You know, there’s a taper and then there’s not swimming at all,” he says.
But he needn’t have worried. He managed a largely uneventful crossing in just over 14 hours. Mignosa has big plans for future long swims, with some creative adventures planned around the Santa Barbara Channel Islands and other cold water locations. Look for him to keep going longer and longer, for the love of swimming.
The youngest swimmer on this list is 19-year-old Angel More. The seventh-youngest swimmer to complete the series ever, the Bay Area native finished the first swim she completed in the series, the Catalina Channel, at the tender age of 15 in 2018. More was just 18 when she completed the English Channel on Sept. 15, 2021.
Though More has only recently become eligible to be a Masters swimmer, she’s been enjoying the water since she was a baby in Mommy and Me classes. She swam competitively as a kid and in high school. She turned her attention to open water in 2014 at age 11, starting with the Alcatraz swim. “It was just really enjoyable,” she says. “I like how different it is from pool swimming. It’s almost like a different sport.”
And More quickly ramped up to longer and tougher events, racking up various long-distance and marathon swims in the Bay Area. The draw was simple, she says. “I like swimming for a really long time. I don’t consider myself very fast, but I know I can just do it forever. So the longer the swims were, the more I enjoyed them.”
More says she spent about a month in London prior to her swim this summer, in part because of coronavirus protocols and to settle in to new surroundings. She got to “kind of pretend to be a local and do what the locals would. I swam every day in Hyde Park” in the Serpentine, she says.
Her channel crossing was choppy and the weather was gray—more-or-less exactly what she was expecting. “But being from San Francisco, I was used to the water being super choppy,” she says. To stay motivated while she swam, she kept reminding herself how good it would feel when she finished. “When I’m swimming, I like to think about the feeling of sand under your feet,” she says. “That’s what keeps me going. And when I did feel the sand under my feet, I was super relieved.”
More is a sophomore attending the University of California, Los Angeles studying environmental science and music industry. The pandemic delayed her arrival on campus, so after a year of remote learning, she’s recently transitioned to life on campus. Look for her to begin making waves with UCLA Bruin Masters in the near future.
Golden Road Aquatics member Kurt Dickson has been a fast swimmer his entire life and has made a name for himself in Masters Swimming circles for being a six-time All-Star, achieving 17 pool All-American honors, and logging more than 400 individual Top Ten achievements over the years.
Dickson has transferred that speed and dedication to open water. He ventured into open water around 2006 and soon completed an Alcatraz swim. Despite the cold, he says, he completed the swim “without a wetsuit and broke the record. And that made me think I was going to do longer stuff, like the English Channel.”
About a decade later, he made good on that idea, booking a slot in the English Channel in August 2017. Though he was mostly interested in doing the English Channel, he signed up for the 20 Bridges swim around Manhattan as part of his training in June 2017. He finished in 7:26:40.
On Aug. 29, 2017, he posted a 10-hour, 23-mintue crossing that earned him the Eurotunnel Award from the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation for the fastest swim of the year. He says the English Channel was probably the toughest of the three for him because coming from Arizona, it was difficult to train for the 61-degree water he dealt with.
Nevertheless, having completed two of the three swims in the Triple Crown series, Dickson decided he’d best scoop up the third, which he’d planned to do in 2020. But the coronavirus had other plans, as the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation that oversees attempts suspended operations last year because of the outbreak. Dickson, who works as an emergency room physician, also ended up losing his job as a consequence of the pandemic. He moved to Kansas in May 2021 to take a new job at about the same time several family members also experienced personal upheaval.
It all added up to a lot, but Dickson fought through and polished off the series of swims with the Catalina Channel on Sept. 8, 2021. His 9:05:32 crossing was the fastest of the year. Added all together, his total time for completion of 26:55:12 is less than 20 minutes off the list of 10 all-time fastest completions for the series. He says “had I not spent at least two hours trying to talk my prostate out of urine (in Catalina), I would likely be high on the top 10 list.”
- Open Water