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September 30, 2019

More than 125 swimmers competed in the USMS Marathon-Distance Open Water Nationals in Knoxville, Tenn., in September

The 2019 U.S. Masters Swimming Marathon-Distance Open Water National Championship drew 134 competitors to the Tennessee River in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sept. 22. Three of the participants wrote about their experiences.

Marc McAfee

I was told there would be a current.

That’s all I could think of as I swam my leg of the USMS Marathon-Distance Open Water Nationals relay. Which should give you a good sense of my talent level as a swimmer.

I have the body of Michael Phelps—had he decided to pursue a career as a bank teller instead of an Olympian.

But as I looked around before the start, I saw that while this is a race, it isn’t just about racing. Sure, there were some folks taking it as seriously as you possibly could. Like that marvelous physical specimen doing endless lunges back and forth in front of the captive audience assembled to wait for the bus. Or the competitors who spent the riverboat cruise the night prior relentlessly quizzing the race organizers over the proper rules governing official Masters competitions.

But then there were the rest of us. Some who were just trying to finish. Others who were trying to see if they could swim a little farther a little faster than they ever had. And maybe a few who were challenging themselves to ward off the aging process. Perhaps one or two swimmers just showing off for their significant others.

For me, it was a family affair. A chance to watch my 70-year-old dad swim faster than most can at half his age. A chance to finally join a race my brother organizes and see my cousin move his arms like the Road Runner moves his legs.

Well, I didn’t get to see that last one, because I started around the time he was motoring past the bridges, but maybe next time.

Lacking speed, I had time to enjoy the views.

I saw the bridges from the kayak, the bluffs from the water. Seeing my arm against the clear blue sky with a trail of water droplets arced across it as I went in for another pull was magnificent.

Making my way down the river, I thought about what this race means beyond the finishing times. I think it says something about what people can do in groups large and small. When a city such as Knoxville decides it wants a clean river to be proud of and a group of swimmers decides one day, “Hey it’s clean now, why not go for a swim?”

From there it eventually became a local race and now a national championship. And that means a group of 100-plus swimmers, kayakers, spectators, and volunteers all got to spend the morning enjoying themselves and each other.

In an age where so much is fractured and broken, it’s a soothing treatment for all that ails us.

And we all came away with something beyond finishers’ awards or T-shirts.

We came away with memories.

My dad swimming like he would have been fine dumping me and doing the whole thing alone. (Or after we switched and I was in the water, when he firmly explained it was MY fault for swimming into HIS kayak—not the other way around.)

My mom snapping pictures with pride like I was still an 8 & under on the summer swim team.

Or that visual of my wife and son’s faces smiling at the finish.

Along with those memories, we came away with accomplishments—both personal and public. Finishing the race. Gaining a new understanding of what we’re capable of doing.

The joy of participation, camaraderie, watching people do incredible things you know you can’t do—but showing yourself you can do more than you thought you could.

It was a perfect day—and a visual and emotional overload.

In short, it was just a marvelous way to spend such a beautiful Sunday morning.

Renee Leslie

If the riverboat motor was running, you sure couldn’t hear it over the excitement of 148 swimmers shouting hellos to one another, with a flurry of questions, as the queue snaked around the bottom deck. Where you are from? Is this your first marathon? Nearly congratulating each other for our impending achievement. Hugging old friends, trying to remember the new ones.

But let's step back.

May, last year, I woke from anesthesia expecting to take a few weeks off swimming before I started training for that year’s Bridges to Bluffs relay. No, I didn't only have a bone spur, but also a shredded rotator cuff. My doctor told my husband that I would have a “little longer recovery.” I quickly researched rotator cuff tears and at the post-operation appointment, my doctor handed me a six-page, double-sided document outlining my therapy. I shuffled through to the end: “By week 24 [six months!] resume normal activity.”

But doesn't he know I am an open water swimmer? We don't do NORMAL!

Fast forward six months.

I repeat this surgery on the other shoulder, because well why not fix them both? Thankfully, it was “not torn enough to repair,” just clean up the joint.

Immediately I signed up for USMS Marathon-Distance Open Water Nationals. The event was full, but thankfully I got on the waiting list and then the race directors opened more slots. I was in!

When safe to do so, I was back in the pool. Since we live in the country, our small pool is 45 minutes away, and my team, coach, and swim family is the USMS online workouts with Coach Mark Stori. Thanks to Mark, I started swimming faster since college. There were good weeks and what the therapist call setbacks. But I got to push through the pain and race weekend is finally here.

I am equally excited and scared, knowing re-tearing rotator cuffs happen. Is this race “my return” to the sport I love?

The riverboat is in place as the national anthem ends. I’m wondering if I am the only one clearing my goggles with joy-filled tears.

The race begins as we jump off the boat one by one, slowest to fastest. My pilot found me as I pounded my way to the first bridge. I felt great, my shoulders loosen up. The water felt cool and clear! My watch beeped every kilometer. Passing the fifth bridge, the river narrows and those “fast people” worm their way around me. But I am loving this race. Usually with mass starts in a few strokes your completion is within arm’s lengths. This race I was around fast swimmers throughout the swim. I felt energized! I thought, "I can do this all day!"

Then the river slowed and slowed and slowed. I am pretty sure it started flowing the other way. My shoulders were fine, but I started to drag. I plead and looked at my pilot. He knew I was bonking; he gave an encouraging smile and said, "You look great!"

I then thought of Sarah Thomas. Even though I never met her, by 8 kilometers in, I was on a first-name basis. I am sure I wasn't the only one channeling her spirit in this race. Sarah did 54 hours when she crossed the English Channel four times. I can do 4. Heck, on her final crossing she sprinted TWICE for an hour each.

When was that watch going to beep again?! Now as “fast people” passed, I took it personally. Grumble, grumble. It finally beeped!

The pilot pointed at the bright orange finish bobbing in the distance. As a fellow swimmer said at Swim the Suck, the last 400 miles are always the toughest.

The finish was here. A “fast person” out-tapped me, but kindly turned with congratulations. My friends at the finish, hollering and waving. I did it. I felt great. I am back.

I finished 79th of 134th and could not be prouder. I love this sport. I love the athletes, who are always helpful, encouraging, and gracious. I am so happy and grateful that we have this sport, and especially people like Jack McAfee and Blaik Ogle who put on the event for love of the sport. I can't wait for next season and to see my new and old friends again.

Leann Rossi

Like most competitive swimmers, I grew up in swimming pools, following a black centerline from one end to infinity. In 1975, I started my swim journey at 5 with an age-group team, the NSS Turtles in Danville, Ill. I attended high school at Carl Sandburg in Orland Park, Ill., and college at Northern Illinois University.

As an age-group swimmer, I remember vividly walking around the deck at swim meets with stained fingers from dipping into my Jello box. I drank Kool-Aid instead of electrolyte drinks and strawberry rope licorice instead of protein bars. My hair was dry like a straw and a standard green hue from chlorine. My parents would take me and my siblings to practice daily and competitions all over the world.

Looking back, I have probably clocked a million hours, a few hundred thousand miles, endless flip turns, and countless competitions. Soon after college, everything swimming stopped and life happened. I turned in my swimsuits for work suits and left the familiar routine of being on deck for the chaotic concrete jungle.

Five, 10, and then 15 years had passed, and I had picked up some pretty bad habits along the way. After two near-death overdoses, I sought treatment and found my way into recovery. I had to learn how to live all over again. A friend asked me what did I miss most during those years, and without missing a beat, I said swimming. She encouraged me to join the local USMS swim team at Georgia Tech and in 2009 I became an Atlanta Rainbow Trout.

After nearly two decades, I can honestly say swimming has saved my life. In 2011 I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, and as soon as my stiches healed, I was back in the water. In 2015 some of my teammates were heading to a lake to train for upcoming open water competitions and they invited me to join in. I was pretty adamant, but I gave it a try and after a few panic attacks I started to enjoy the freedom of an endless swim. I didn't dare sign up for an open water competition, though, because I am a diehard pool sprinter. But I wanted to be supportive and I kept asking them when and where the next lake swim would be. In 2017 my teammates Sara Edwards and Valerie Teany signed up for the inaugural Bridges to Bluffs open water 10K swim and Swim the Suck 10-mile swim, both in the Tennessee River. I quickly became embedded in a new extended family of marathon swimmers and I was in awe, but I was still afraid to cross over and chose piloting my teammates as they pushed their athletic abilities in ways that I never could image. After I saw the incredible fellowship that surrounded me and my teammates on the Tennessee River that day, I knew that I was going to have to at least try.

I signed up for Bridges to Bluffs 2018, but due to an illness, I had to wait until 2019. In the meantime, I continued my pool training for my sprint season November to May and then began my endurance training June through September. This seemed like a great plan. The K.O.W.S (Knoxville Open Water Swimmers) are a pretty amazing group and they put together two 5K preview swims prior to the 10K Nationals competition. This helped me fully prepare for their event and gave me the confidence that I needed.

Did I mention that I was a pool sprinter? Yep, I just want to swim 50s or 100s and be one and done. You can’t do that with a 6.2-mile race. There are logistics. You have a pilot/kayaker who gives you fluids and nutrition every 30 minutes, so you don't “bonk” and dehydrate during the race. Your pilot is your eyes on the river, so you are supposed to keep him or her in sight and let him or her guide you to the finish. There are all these rules and a pilot but somehow I still managed to run into a metal buoy in a river the width of two football fields. Oh well, it is “Progress not perfection” and always “One day at a time” for this swimmer.

Needless to say, come race day, I jumped off that riverboat. Yes, I walked a plank to start, not off of a block. There were no flags, no walls, and no black line in sight. Just a line of pilots in kayaks or on stand-up paddleboards guiding their swimmers downriver in the endless pool of freedom. It was glorious.

I guess I broadened my horizons this past year. I finished my first 10K USMS marathon swim at 53 years old. I am forever grateful to the K.O.W.S. and my swim sisters because I am now an open water swimmer and pool sprinter.


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