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.”