If the swim you want to do has never been done before, how do you go about becoming the first?
In marathon swimming, “firsts” (swims that have never been done) are a special sort of revered achievement. Just look to Matthew Webb, whose story crossing the English Channel launched marathon swimming.
Because there’s so much to consider when undertaking a swim that’s never been done, including when and where to start and finish, whether currents and tides will permit a swimmer to go from point A to point B, and whether sea life or other local hazards will allow safe passage, there’s a certain cachet that comes with being able to claim a first crossing of a waterway.
In July 2019, Geneva Lake in southeastern Wisconsin became the site of just such a historic event. That day, Wisconsin Masters Aquatic Club member Melodee (Nugent) Liegl completed the first known double crossing of the lake. The 15.1-mile marathon swim took 8 hours, 19 minutes, and 22 seconds, but there was much more that went into planning and executing the swim than just several hours of steady freestyle.
If you’re interested in claiming your own first and becoming a pioneer pacesetter, here are some tips for setting yourself up for success.
Pick a place. Liegl, who joined Masters Swimming in 1996 and soon fell in love with open water swimming, had plenty of options to consider. She eventually settled on Geneva Lake because she had swum there several times before. “There are so many events out there to do, and they cost a lot of money,” she says. “I figured I can use the lake that’s a half-hour from my house and do the same thing.” A nearby waterway you’re familiar with might be the perfect choice.
Do some research. Once you’ve identified some waterways, establish whether there’ve been other swims. In Liegl’s case, she had swum 3- and 6-mile events offered regularly in Geneva Lake and was able to confirm with locals and via media searches that there was no documented record of another swimmer having completed a double crossing of the whole lake.
Determine whether there’s an organization that can help. You should also check whether there’s a swimming association that supports swims in that waterway. Such organizations have been cropping up in recent years as open water swimming gains in popularity, and they can take a lot of the guesswork out of planning your swim. They also preserve the history of swims and can likely tell you whether a particular waterway is open for a first crossing. If no such organization exists, you can still organize your swim and document it via the Marathon Swimmers Federation, which offers resources to support swimmers in waterways with no local governing body. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of MSF’s Core Team.)
Build a support team. No stranger to swimming, Liegl, 54, has served USMS extensively over the years and currently serves as the Wisconsin LMSC fitness chair. Although she had built up plenty of open water experience over the years, the Geneva Lake double crossing was her first solo swim event. “I was new to doing my own thing and having it documented, and it was harder than I thought,” she says. The biggest challenge she had was finding a boat and pilot to support her. “I know a couple people on the lake, but finding people to commit to crew for it” meant some tricky coordination of work and vacation schedules,” she says. In other words, be forewarned that finding the right support and working out the logistics of having a boat ready on the right day, a crew member or two to feed you, and an observer to document the swim often requires a lot of communication.
Set a date. Be sure to check with local waterway users about tide and current concerns. This is another thing that an organizational body can help with, but if one doesn’t exist, reach out to other local water users, such as boaters and fisherman, and ask their advice for when a swimmer might be able to make it across. Local governmental or academic institutions may also have an environmental scientist or similar expert on staff who can help you understand the particulars of the waterway and your planned route.
Train. Amid those logistics, you also must remember to train. For Liegl, that was the easy part. “I’m super, super lucky,” she says. “I have access to lakes galore by me, and I can put in the distance, almost 10,000 yards every day in the lake or pool.” For the rest of us, cramming in enough training might be a bit more challenging. But before you undertake a marathon swim first, be sure you can make the training commitment and have a solid plan.
- Open Water