Hard-Core Open-Water Swimmers Race Around Manhattan
Posted online: Wednesday, 26 June 2002
|Not even race instructions warning swimmers of areas with "whirlpool-like conditions hazardous to even small boats" and a dangerous passage through an area named "Hell’s Gate" could deter 21 restless swimmers from entering New York’s East River on Sunday, June 23 to begin the 21st annual Manhattan Island marathon swim. |
Nearly eight hours later, Emily Watts, 34, a mother of two from Millers, Md., emerged the winner of the 28.5-mile swim in seven hours and 46 minutes, beating out the field of 13 other solo participants and seven relay teams.
Ron Collins, 40, from Clearwater, Fla., finished a close second in 8:00.26. The course record, set in 1995 by Shelly Taylor Smith, remains untouched at 5:45:25.
Heat and humidity prevailed at the 6:30 a.m. start, as the racers jumped off a platform at Battery Park into the calm 68-degree water and began stroking toward the Brooklyn Bridge.
For the next eight to 14 hours, numerous friends, family and curious spectators watched the swimmers make their way around the island. The course consisted of a counter-clockwise route around Manhattan, going up the East and Harlem Rivers, around the tip of Manhattan and down the Hudson River to the finish at Battery Park.
Boats and kayaks staffed with six-person support teams were responsible for supplying nourishment and guiding each swimmer under and around the numerous bridges and obstacles. Course literature warned of dangerous currents capable of sweeping swimmers into the sewage disposal plant, protruding piers, prison barges and floating planes taking off and landing during the swim.
"But these racers are extremely experienced in open water and aren’t easily deterred," says veteran marathon swimmer Scott Zornig, from Orange County, Calif., whose training included 125,000 yards a month and a 26-mile swim from Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California, to Long Beach, south of Los Angeles.
Hours after emerging from the swim, Zornig, who finished fifth, e-mailed friends saying that "hands down, this swim is the hardest I have ever done. I actually decided to give up the sport several times during the race."
He attributes the lack of salt water for giving him less buoyancy and a higher than expected finish time.
The swim attracted athletes from seven states, spanning in ages from 20 to 54 years old and from varying occupations. Participants included Rachel Luch, 20, a student at M.I.T.; Thomas Schwartz, a 42 year-old Florida eye doctor; and Terry Laughlin, 51, the founder of the Total Immersion swimming camps.
The screening process for racers included a 14-page questionnaire that required a swim resume, a written essay stating their reason for wanting to compete, completion of a four-hour swim and a physical exam.
Some simply wanted to finish a marathon swim; others want an extreme way to celebrate turning 40. Still others say their driving force was from the heart.
A relay team from Holy Cross College swam in memory of seven graduates who perished in the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center, as did the Asphalt Green Fish Gang relay team, who swam in honor of two New York City swimmers who also were lost in the attack.
Zornig swam to raise money for cancer research at the City of Hope, a hospital he credits with saving his wife’s life.
The marathon swim was first attempted in 1981 by a New York entrepreneur and investment banker named Drury Gallagher, a former All-American swimmer at Fordham University. His motive was to bring a lasting memorial to his son, Drury Gallagher, Jr., who died in 1980 in an accident, and to promote the sport of swimming.
Today, the event has become a fixture on New York’s summer calendar. The race has brought attention to the city’s successful efforts to clean up New York-area waterways. Swim organizers also have donated over $100,000 to help New York City neighborhoods establish Learn to Swim programs for children in the inner city.