Smithie Mission Accomplished

To me it’s funny… you can spend hundreds of thousands of hours, millions of miles, and years of thinking about a goal, but in the end, it comes down to the 39, 11 or 9 hours that you are gritting it out in the inferno…can you get it done when its time to do your marathon swim.

This summer, the gritty “Smith College Marathon Swimming Fempire” was formed. This fempire was created spontaneously: Abby Bergman ’18 was training to swim the world renown Catalina Channel (20.1 miles), Eliza Cummings ’17 was training to swim the rare Plymouth to Provincetown swim (19.1 miles) and I, Paige Christie ‘15 was training to swim the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim (120 miles). The order would take place as such: myself, “the Veteran”, going first with the 8 Bridges swim from June to July, Abby “the Open Water Enthusiast,” going second at the end of July, and Eliza, “The Shark Whisperer” going third in August. Abby and Eliza were both going for their first marathon swim, and I was testing my rebound abilities after my English Channel Swim in 2014. In addition, the three of us were serving as either support swimmer or mentor for each other’s swim. A chain of sisterly support.

The three of us celebrated in each other’s successes and were the sounding board for many of the uncertainties that come with marathon swimming. A month before my swim, a vintage plane went down in the Hudson, a week before Abby’s swim there was a massive sewage spill in the beaches just south of where her swim would finish, and Eliza’s swim had many shark sightings prior. You need a supportive network of strong-minded individuals to help get the best version of self out of each other. No doubt, the success that snowballed from each other’s training and marathon swims propelled each of us forward.

Now that the three of us have dried off from our respective swims I was able to ask some questions:

Why did you pick your specific swim?

Abby: I have wanted to cross the 20-mile Catalina Channel ever since I was 12 years old and read Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox. Reading about other people working hard to achieve their goals inspired me to put in the effort to reach my goals. I will be swimming the English Channel in 2017 and I thought it would be a way to test myself by completing another portion of the Triple Crown, prior.

Eliza: I picked the 19.1-mile P2P because I wanted to do a marathon swim that was a comparable sort of distance to one of the Triple Crown swims but was more financially viable. I was looking primarily at the east coast for possible swims and David Barra (famed open water swimmer) actually was the one who recommended the P2P to me. It was the right distance and the kind of channel challenge that I wanted to undertake. Before my attempt only 7 people in the world had successfully completed the swim so I was also drawn to the P2P because it was a fresh, exciting challenge.

Paige: I live by the philosophy, if you going to do something, you might as well do it right and go for the highest standard…raise the bar. My first swim, the English Channel was and is considered the “Everest” of marathon swimming. After having done that, I thought, “lets go for the longest, most challenging swim out there and put myself to the maximum test.” Regardless of the outcome I wanted to leave the water having learned something about limits, support, and life.  Fast forward a year and I found myself becoming the 6th person to ever swim 8 Bridges, the longest marathon swim in the world, in one of the most historic rivers in the history of our nation.

Do you feel your time at Smith has prepared you for this kind of a challenge…a challenge that is beyond the Smith lecture halls and Dalton Pool?

Abby: Swimming with Coach Kim Bierwert has taught me that anything can be accomplished through hard work and passion. I really appreciate his belief in me and his support of my goals.

Eliza: I would not be the swimmer I am today without the guidance of Coach Kim and the support of the Smith College Swim & Dive team. As an incoming first year I was one of the weakest swimmers on the team but three years later I was able to accomplish something I never would have imagined being possible. The passion, hard work, and dedication of the athletes and coaches at Smith pushed me to become the swimmer I am today.

Paige: The Smith network is unmatched. The support I felt from Smithies past present and future was a huge motivator that symbolically poured the gasoline over the flame of my determination. To top it off, I had the support and wisdom from my 4-years under the guidance of Coach Bierwert, “the mastermind,” who is the epitome of a dedicated and inspiring coach.

What was the most challenging part of your swim?

Abby: There were two parts of my Catalina Crossing that were particularly difficult. At about 3 hours in I started to really feel the mental strain of swimming alone in the dark in the middle of the ocean. I started to think, how am I going to do this for 8 more hours, but I convinced myself to keep swimming. The other hard part came when I could see the shore but it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. By that point, my shoulders were aching but I knew I was so close to shore so I kept swimming.

Eliza: The first three hours of my swim were really tough because it was pitch black at the beginning and I didn’t realize that due to the position of the safety boat I was inhaling fumes. The fumes made me really sick. Once the sun rose and I figured out what was happening I had my kayaker reposition us away from the fumes. Quitting or getting out was never an option but the beginning was definitely tough.

Paige: There is nothing easy about swimming seven, 15-20 mile marathon swims for 7 consecutive days. The muscle breakdown, logistical preparations, emphasis on recovery, sunburn, and exhaustion that occur when one swims for 39 hours can be overwhelming…. and that’s not even talking about the courses, weather, winds and currents! Without my support system of my family, knowledge and positivity from my kayaker, alert and intelligent race directors, and the synergy from the other swimmers, this wouldn’t have been possible.

What advice would you give a future OW swimmer?

Abby: Don’t let doubts (your own or other people’s) get in the way of achieving your dreams.

Eliza: Do it! Open water swimming is not for the faint of heart but it is a challenging, rewarding, and exhilarating experience. It is incredible what you can accomplish when you dedicate yourself to a goal. The human body is resilient and it’s really your mind that you have to get on board, but once you have the mental toughness, you can do anything.

Paige: You know yourself best. Make sure you are clear on the “why” before you get started. That “why” will help power you through your most vulnerable times.

How did it feel to be a part of the “marathon swimming fempire”?

Abby: The support of other Smithies during my training was invaluable. To be able to talk to Paige and Eliza daily helped me to get through all the ups and downs of marathon training.

Eliza: The best part was the support, love, and empowerment you get when you are part of a team of strong women! Even though marathon swimming is an “individual sport” it takes a team and environment of positivity and guidance to pull off any of these swims, and that’s what Paige and Abby gave to me everyday. Overall, I am so proud of the nine individual swims, and the three records we accomplished as a marathon swimming fempire this summer.

Paige: Abby and Eliza reminded me of how exciting it can be to plan and train for a marathon swim. In life, it’s always more fun to be able to share in success with others. I am grateful they allowed me to be a part of their journeys and narratives. It further proved to me that Smithies run the world.

“Smith College educates women of promise for lives of distinction.” 

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The Third Smithie in the 2016 Marathon Swimming FEMPIRE starts Sunday!

With the Catalina Channel checked off for Abby Bergman (making her “officially” a marathon swimmer and crazy person), and the seven stages of the beautifully grueling 8 Bridges checked (for me, Paige)… we now have the third mama in our 2016 Marathon Swimming Fempire, Smith teammate, Eliza Cummings, going for her first marathon swim: Plymouth to Provincetown challenge this Sunday 8/7! I am so excited to watch her take on this challenge, and have been so amazed by her determination and outlook this entire process. Abby and I feel blessed to have Eliza as part of the marathon swimming trifecta this summer, and we know she will not disappoint this weekend.

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Eliza (top), Meri, Claire, and I before 2015 NEWMAC final relay 

With any marathon swim, the commitment that you need to make preparations, find funding, stay true to your training on a daily basis, keep a close eye on nutrition, as well as make sure you have a solid crew you can trust, is a huge job. And we haven’t even begun talking the task of getting in the water and swimming …

Eliza’s commitment to her swim was evident. She started training after the college season was over while at Smith, and while managing the rigorous academic load that Smith touts. Eliza maintained a positive outlook on training, as well as inspired those around her to push their limits. She was nominated and elected to be Co-Captain of the 2016-2017 Smith Swimming and Diving Season, which I am so excited and proud of. This speaks to her leadership, drive, and ability to make everyone feel welcomed.

Eliza is a natural student on any endeavor she takes on. During the P2P training process,  she asked me thoughtful questions, and always considered multiple outcomes and prepared for them. As a friend/mentor, it is greatly reassuring when you get the honor of working with someone like Eliza, because you know she takes her job seriously, and that the success mentality is there. I live by the mantra, champions always do more, and no doubt has Eliza become a champion during this training and will when she completes her swim.

I am so proud of what Eliza has set her mind to do. Her hard work, mental focus, “stay calm and positive” demeanor, and feisty spirit is, creates a formula for great success. This success will not only be in the water, but in life. I have no doubts Eliza will do big things. I am just excited to have had the opportunity to swim with her, and cheer her on!!!!!!!

Love you Eliza! GO BIG AND DIG DEEP. What you feel you need, you already possess.

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Eliza and I always keeping it real

 

 

 

Catalina Abby aka #CatalinAbby

My friend, Smith College teammate, and “self appointed sister”, Abby Bergman’s Catalina Channel attempt is this Sunday, July 24th overnight to July 25th. I have had the great pleasure of working with her there past few months as she has been preparing, training, and (soon to be) attempting this great feat.

11781773_10152969256150976_3043710916417440375_n.jpgWhen I asked Abby about how she feels pre-swim, she said she’s “ready and excited.” Abby says she’s ready because “I put in all the grueling training and I trust in my abilities.” She mentioned that she’s most excited to be able to take a moment while swimming Catalina, and realize the enormity of what she is doing, and simultaneously excited to complete the swim and have a moment to think, its over. (Spoiler alert from Paige…. it’s never truly over🙂 )

 

I can honestly say Abby was an absolute pleasure to help mentor and be a support swimmer for. When I would offer her things to consider and plan, Abby would reply back with her multiple considerations and plans of action about the given topic…. basically a dream swimmer to work with. The number one lessons she feels she learned about herself during all this training is “to stay relaxed and approach any endeavor with confidence…in doing so, it will always work out”. In addition she learned that “approaching a goal without a specific outcome can actually help you focus. When I think, ‘I can do this, I will perform well and try to rank high,’ I end up performing my best.”

How does Abby feel about being newly labeled “ a marathon swimmer?” She says, “It’s all about the mindset. It feels good to get to be officially recognized after all this training…and hey, now I get to be part of this super secret club of crazy people.” I couldn’t agree more. She’s also incredibly grateful to her support crew, whom she say’s “I couldn’t do the swim without.”

Over these months I’ve seen that Abby does something every day to make herself better. This is hugely important not only in marathon swimming, but in life. She always thinks of all sides of an issue, and has a great sense of self. When combining these qualities with her workhorse work ethic, she is a force to be reckoned with, and one that will not disappoint this weekend.

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Fascial Stretch Therapy: A Recovery Technique!

During my training for 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim (120-mile Marathon Swim over 7 days), I incorporated Fascial Stretch Therapy (FST) into my recovery techniques. I was able to work with both Judy Malcolm before the event, and Meaghan Murphy (who recommended the practice to me) during the event. I had never done FST prior to this, but rather was familiar with other therapies like massage and gentle individual stretching. I wanted to demo FST pre-swim, to see how my body would react to it. Judy was very thorough in her explanations of what she was doing, and created a very relaxing environment. Everything she did, she made sure to check in with me and make sure it was something I found beneficial, not painful or “tweaky.” It was important to try FST pre-swim because it gave me a sense of how effective it would be for me during the actual event.

When doing an event that requires a heavy load of taxing mileage on the body via swimming, FST is incredibly useful. During my rest day after stage four of eight bridges, Meaghan came and worked with me using her expertise in both swimming and biomechanics to perform an FST session that was very effective in keeping me loose as well is ready to go for the next day. After stage four, I was experiencing some pain in the bicep and pec areas from the repetitive motion that is the swimming stroke. When you swim 7 marathon swims over one week eventually something will have an ache or pain. When I met with Meaghan she evaluated what areas were causing problems and created an effective FST session that allowed me to loosen the other muscles around the areas that had pain, which as a result relaxed and loosened the areas of concern, and allowed them to heal and rest. Meaghan never directly stretched the area of pain which was a relief to me because that would obviously be an uncomfortable experience which may further promote the problem.

Later that evening I noticed the pain lessening by at least 30-40% and then again In the morning even more so. The next day I was cautious when I entered the water, however I felt much stronger, and less tense/clenched than any of the stages before. I could apply more pressure during the grab portion of my stroke which I wasn’t able to do before. This was so important because that stage lasted 8 hours, and It would have been miserable if I had been experiencing the problems from the stages before.

Unlike massage or static stretching, where you worry about overdoing it and causing even more muscle breakdown and thus need more time for recovery, FST is dynamic, loosens and stretches the muscles in a way that cannot be achieved by doing independent stretching or just through massage. Allowing someone to move your limbs in a way that provides a gentle stretch is both relaxing and important. I was able to let Meaghan take over, and take my mind off having to do something active with my body. Meaghan wasn’t trying to increase my range of motion more than it’s ever been, she was trying to get it back to my personal baseline, which is an important distinction. In my experience, I needed quick recovery to perform back to back at my best. FST was the perfect recovery intervention along with rest and ice. Both Meaghan and Judy are fantastic and I would recommend FST to endurance athletes who are looking to stay loose between events.

Check them out:

Meaghan: http://www.Coachmegswim.com and http://www.stretchtrainachieve.com

Judy: http://www.perfect-fit-pilates.com

 

8 Bridges Recap

 

13524514_10153627458515976_6207367170677372070_n-1I have said before that swimming 8 Bridges was a transformative experience. That’s not a term I use lightly, and I use it because this experience has taught me so much about limits, trust, your support system, and the greatness that can happen when individuals work together to do accomplish goals.

There are a few things about the swim that are important to understand. In order to swim in 8 Bridges, you need a swimming resume, which proves your qualifications based off of your past swims. This swim draws a worldly crowd from elite triple crowners, to iron men and women, to individuals who have pioneered the marathon-swimming world. Each stage can only have a certain number of swimmers in the water at once (for safety and escort reasons), so the race directors want to be sure you are qualified because finishing is the goal. That being said, in order to succeed in any stage during 8 Bridges, you have to be able to make the ebb and flow currents. What this means is that you typically start swimming against the current, make a little headway, and then the current changes and you are swimming with the current. However, there are only so many hours the current is favorable, so if you don’t make enough headway while the current is in your favor, the current changes again and could push you backwards when you are even when you are close to the bridge. At the final mile of a 19.8-mile stage, you best hope the current doesn’t change on you because that would mean even after 8+ hours of extreme effort, you would have to be pulled. In addition the wind factor is crucial. In stages 2 and 5, during the portion of the swim that was supposed to be favorable, the wind was opposing us in the water, which felt as though any favorable conditions were cancelled out due to backwards pushing waves.

When swimming back-to-back marathons, there is an extreme emphasis on recovery. Typically my family and I would leave the hotel around 6am and be back around 4pm. In this window of time between swimming and waking up the next morning, I had to make sure I was rehydrating, eating, icing, stretching, showering, unpacking and re-packing your swim bag, washing out your bottles, re mixing your feeds, and sleeping. After a marathon swim the only thing you want to do from the above is sleep. That being said, this event is a team effort. If it weren’t for my mom locating the routes we would take to the start of each session, helping make dinners, and always staying positive, my dad helping me work through the aches and pains, making sure my head was in the game, and my brother serving as the mixology drink master, comedic relief, weather and wind checker and cheering section scouter, this event would not have been achievable. To me, there is no such thing as self-made. It takes the individuals helping you on your journey to make it successful. My family always goes above and beyond to support each other in whatever each of us sets our minds to and works towards. I am blessed to have grown up in this environment and would never ever take that for granted.

Each day of the swim was rigorous. You are not only doing 1 marathon swim, but 7, in a row. I had prepared in my training for this event to be more than I have ever done, and it met even my toughest expectations. As I said before in my pre-swim blog posts, my goal was simple: get to the bridge each day. There were many external factors I could have been thinking about, but at the end of the day your job is to get in the water, and swim for however long it will take you. When I finished each stage (you have to swim slightly past the bridge, not stop right when you are under it), I felt gratitude for the Hudson River for giving me a challenge, for Margrethe for helping me navigate that challenge and keeping me in the game, for David, Rondi and Captain Greg for keeping the swimmers safe and being their advocate while they were in the water and on the boat, and for my body and mind for allowing me to get through a days work. You have to have a moment to be thankful before moving to the next step.

“A river cuts through a rock not because of its power but because of its persistence.”

Each day required persistence, control and trust. Persistence was found in every stroke regardless of the conditions. Control came from making sure I could temper my 17 years of racing energy. Since it was unclear the exact time you’d be in the water you had to over estimate to prepare. You had to control your mind in order to stay in the present. The present stroke, the present mile, the present stage…because naturally your mind will want to wander into what’s next, which serves no good in the present. Trust was critical in the swimmer-kayaker relationship. Margrethe and I established the trust in each other early on in Stage 2, when the conditions got to the point where not finishing the stage due to currents may have been a reality. I had to trust Margrethe when she said, “keep your head down and get there.” This trust created a force that perpetuated into the following days.

I came for the swim but stayed for the people.

Every day was the same but different. You’d go to the Launch 5, but each day there were new faces I had the pleasure of meeting and sharing the water with. From swimmers who were trying their first marathon swim, to swimmers who have done stages annually, to swimmers who never gave up and finally achieved completion in a stage that they had tried to complete for years, was hands down one of the most inspiring situations I have ever been in. The camaraderie of the event was truly remarkable. Regardless of what had happened the day before, everyone involved was positive, supportive of each other and excited for the day ahead. To be surrounded by so much love for a common denominator made me feel like I had already succeeded, by just meeting and getting to share the experience with everyone. Even in the days after the swim, I have still been able to keep in touch with the swimmers, kayakers, volunteers and directors, who not only care about my well-being as a swimmer, but as a person. That distinction is important.

One of my bucket list goals was to be able to swim by the Statue of Liberty. And yes, I could’ve saved a lot of time by just taking a ferry out and jumping off and swimming for a few minutes, but the journey is where you experience growth.

Doing these swims doesn’t make you a “good” or “bad” person. Swimming is my passion and is something I enjoy doing. I can walk away feeling incredibly blessed to have spent a week dedicated to that passion, regardless of the outcome.

Many thanks to the individuals who made this week very special. David, Rondi and Captain Greg for your relentless efforts, and making the swim safe and successful for all those involved. Margrethe for being the Queen of the Hudson and my (s)hero. Cheryl, for being wonder woman in the flesh and always pushing me to be my best. Jamie, Thomas, Devon, Steve and Cristian, for the “going all the way” spirit and synergy all week. Charlotte for being such an all around exceptional person, friend, and teammate who is irreplaceable in my life. Mr. Samuels and the Samuels’ family for being so authentically supportive and helpful as I navigate the marathon swimming world. Spencer, for helping me navigate the legal world, and showing me that you can do both marathon swim and be a lawyer…huge! The volunteers who always had a smile on their face, especially Roy and his amazing tie dye shirts and ability to make sure that every swimmer got on to the boat and was hydrated and nourished. The incredibly dedicated kayakers who served every role from nutritionist, to motivational speaker, to navigator, to photographer…all the while paddling a kayak! The jet skiers who had halos above their head each and every time they picked us up post-swim, but also navigated the waters and kept the swimmers and other boaters safe. The NYPD for safety escorts. Auntie Amy and Mark for giving me one hell of a surprise!!!!! Jamie for being one of the most inspirational swimmers I have ever met. Tina for always cheering and keeping my mom and brother company. Kyle Kiki, for being my rock always. My Smithies for being the largest force of love this week, and for showing me that you can do anything through your own stories (especially Claire and Katharine who came ready to support!!!).Emily, who gave the best pump up speech. The homemade cookies some angel brought on Launch 5. John and Rondi for sharing the water with me and for the morale boost. My bananas for being kickass always. Addie for being my littlest fan and Smithie. The marathon swimming fempire, Abby and Eliza. Coach Kim Bierwert for opening my eyes to marathon swimming and teaching me that there is always more toothpaste left in the tube. Coach Michael Spring and Crimson Aquatics for making me into the swimmer I am today by pushing my mental capacities for 17 years. Andy Cannon for keeping my body and joints safe and pre-habbed. As well as playing quarterback while taking a holistic approach to planning this swim. Coach Brenda Hogan for taking an 8-year old with dreams seriously. Austin Prep for the prayers, positivity and love. Megan and Judy for the incredible fascial stretch therapy sessions. Miami Fitness and Lifestyle for keeping my cardio workouts bumping! My extended family, neighbors, and kids I have gotten the honor to nanny or teach swim lessons to… the videos, posts, shares, calls, texts, tweets and instagrams have been absolutely more than I could have ever expected. The individuals who were watching that purple dot go down the river…you’re amazing. That is the love and support drives me to do what I do.

All the swimmers I had the honor to share the experience with, and who all taught me a little something: Larisa, Susan, Louise, David, Todd, Erica, Kim, Leonard, Javier, Martina, Janine, Mo, Abby, Ali, John, Nicholas, Dongho, Paula, Hugh, Sydne, Capri, Andrew, Lyn, Janet, Phyllis, John, Glenn, Frank, Neil, Kenn, William, Jaimie, Teresa, Charlie, Ellaine, Laura, Kimberly, Ed, Mark, Doug, Martin, Charles, David, Michele, Mark, Ellen and Jeannie. Thank you.

My sponsors: BRL Sports Nutrition for my Tri-Fuel feeds which kept me fueled in the water and feeling stronger than ever, Vermont Peanut Butter for the post-swim fuel aka my PB and J sandwich which started the recovery process is a great way. VoMax for the custom apparel which kept my team looking sharp and warm on the water or in the rain. Knuckleheads apparel for reminding me to live life to the fullest. Grrrl for believing in me and proving that women can do anything regardless of age or size.

Mom, Dad, Cam…..you’re everything.

And if you’ve taken the time to read this whole thing…I applaud you and you likely have the endurance to be a marathon swimmer.🙂

(Some Stage 2 clips to give you a feel for the longer swims. )

To The Race Directors, Rondi and David

I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to the dedicated, passionate, and brilliant race directors, Rondi Davies and David Barra. Both are incredibly decorated marathon swimmers themselves who have created an event that over the last 6 years has raised awareness for the beautiful and swimmable resource we have in the U.S.A spanning over 120 miles, the mighty Hudson River. I can only imagine the obstacles they faced to make this event come to fruition. But in true marathon swimmer fashion, they put their heads down and got it done…. and the success of the event has only grown. 8 Bridges has become the gold standard event in marathon swimming. It is considered the longest and toughest in the world.

Their commitment to the swimmers safety, attention to the logistics and details, ability to read the water, and passion for the sport is incredibly inspiring. I believe an event is only as good as the directors, and they both are the gold standard in my eyes.

When this event was just a figment in my twisted imagination, Rondi and David were so supportive and approachable. As the weeks passed and the event took place, you could see just how invested they are in this event.
I learned after the first full day of swimming, that regardless of my own outcome, I was so blessed and honored to be around such enthusiastic, supportive, and interesting people from the swimmers, to kayakers to dedicated volunteers. I may have came for the swimming, but I definitely stayed for the people. Ronda and David have created this very special and unique environment. In what other event would one feel such positivity and energy throughout 120 miles of swimming?!

This past week was very special to me, and Rondi and David have impacted many peoples lives for the better. So thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Margrethe, Queen of the Hudson

Alongside every swimmer at 8 Bridges, is an incredibly dedicated kayaker. I don’t know how I hit the mega millions jackpot by being assigned to Margrethe, but all I can say is that I couldn’t have done the swim without her. At the top of my list of reasons why I succeeded, is her name. She has a love for the game, and told me on our first chat that she is passionate about making dreams come true. Her ability to read the Hudson River, the currents, shipping channels, and the optimum place to position the swimmer, is nothing short of genius. She is a force of nature.

You get to know a lot about someone by staring at them for 120 miles/39 hours 7 minutes and 11 seconds. Margrethe is one of the very few people that could really read me and understand my mental game. She knew how I was feeling, what to say to get the competitive edge out of me and when to say it, know how to reassure me when it was unclear whether or not we would finish a stage, and could tell every time I was trying to be sneaky and look at the bridge from miles away…. even when I thought she hadn’t seen it.

The reassurance, safety, support and love I felt from Margrethe were the perfect blend, which got me down the river. From the pre-swim hugs and strategy talk, to the post swim handholds under each bridge we conquered. I am just so honored to have been able to share the experience with her and feel so blessed to have her in my life.

Not all heroes wear capes, some wear bright pink hats. Margrethe is a hero to me. She is also Queen of the Hudson.

Together we finished the longest marathon swim in the world, set a record as youngest to swim the 120 miles of the Hudson River, won both 19.8 miles stages (2 and 5) (youngest to win a stage), and became the 6th human to ever swim 8 Bridges, the 120 miles of the Hudson River.

It was the 6th year of the swim, I was the 6th human to ever do it, and back in 2014 was the 6th Smithie to swim the English Channel…coincidence?