Swimmers are my Underdogs
I've always had a thing for underdogs. When I was growing up, I'd always root for the worst team in the league. When I found out that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had never been to a Super Bowl I professed my allegiance to them and cheered them on all through adolescence. There was a naivety in my idolization of the underdog--a belief (misplaced although it was in the case of professional football) that they possessed a purer motivation for playing the game and that their grit and determination was based not on the desire for fame and fortune, but on a simple love of challenge. These were my heroes.
I don't watch football anymore. These days, ultra-endurance swimmers are my underdogs of choice. But how can an entire class of athletes be underdogs, you might ask?
You see running, biking, and triathlon get all the love from an endurance sport standpoint. All three have massive participation and their high profile events are televised and get folks excited. They've got superstars who have become more or less household names--Lance Armstrong, Dean Karnazes, Paula Newby-Fraser and who enjoy lucrative endorsement deals as professional athletes. Even the mid or back of the pack athletes in the top races of these disciplines earn mad props from the general fitness community and solid street cred. Not so for endurance swimmers though!
Sure, swimming is an Olympic sport that gets attention every four years and sure there is plenty of participation at the shorter distances, but proper distance swimming events--races that would offer a comparable challenge to ultramarathons, 100 mile cross country mountain bike races, or ironman triathlons, are relatively unheard of even in the open water swimming community itself. When epic swims do occur (channel crossings for example), they are seen more analogously to ascents of a mountain and even then those accomplishing the greatest success in these endeavours--Diana Nyad for example, who swam around Manhattan in 1975--are far from household names, at least until their achievements are surrounded with controversy. Swimming as an ultra-endurance sport, if it exists at all, is very much in it's infancy. The infinitesimally small group of people that participate in this type of swimming event are unknown and uncelebrated, and rather unconventional too.
I fell in love with the endurance swimming not through my own participation in the sport, but after my involvement behind the scenes in an event called END-WET, an epic down-river race in North Dakota of all places. The event was initially conceived as a paddle race, but one of the event directors, Robert, oved open water swimming and wasn't actually a paddler. In a preliminary meeting he commented that he wouldn't mind trying to swim the 27-long mile course down the slow moving Red River. Fascinated with the idea, we placed the event on a few open water calendars and attracted 12 swimmers from around the country. As I witnessed these men and women struggle for anywhere from 9 to 14 hours (one of them incredibly swam the entire event butterfly!) of continuous swimming, battling dehydration, cramps, fatigue, and the mental demons that come with the territory of long endurance races, I couldn't help but wonder--" who are these people?!"
I remember being in awe of these folks--clearly incredible athletes--the ultramarathoners of the swimming world. But unlike their land-based counterparts, these folks were not celebrated. These folks weren't even understood. What was more fascinating, many of them didn't even look like athletes at all by normal standards.
Conventional wisdom has taught me certain lessons about how to pick out top contenders at a start line by looking for the leanest athletes with high full calves, teardrop quads, and striated, sinewy musculatures. But in my hasty judgement I reckoned that half the lot that first year looked like they'd struggle to walk up a flight of stairs with their big round bodies and not exactly sinewy looking arms and legs. I'd never have pegged them as potential front runners (let alone finishers!) in any event that demanded serious fitness. Happily, I learned the limits of conventional wisdom and a bit of humility as I watched every participant go the distance.
Particularly illuminating was the performance by the second place finisher who had been one of the gals that I'd unconsciously judged based on appearance--she put up a good fight for the top spot against heavy hitter Darren Miller, a more well known open water swimmer aiming for the coveted "Ocean's Seven" crown (which he has since achieved). She wasn't able to hold Miller off in the final few miles after she briefly took the lead from him, but she was able to finish miles ahead of all lean 'fit looking' uber-athletes that I'd was sure were going to form the podium. Regardless of what she looked like, there was no question that she was incredibly fit.
My feelings towards endurance swimming were reinforced over the next few years as we held the event again and then lengthened it to 36 miles, making it the longest swim race in North America. That second year the podium spots were all held by women--distance swimming of this duration didn't seem to be a sport where gender mattered. The next year the top spot was captured by an ex-collegiate swimmer turned enduro-phile who had never raced a distance over 1000 meters (apparently no one told him he should pace himself and so he didn't).
I particularly loved race morning when I got to stand knee deep in the river and look over the field of 40 odd athletes, always a mixed bag of body types and ages. This was a collection of people that seemingly could have been picked at random from the check-out lines at Walmart--all waiting to tackle one of the hardest swim events in the world. There was no fanfare, no big sponsors lining up to promote or film the event, no potential endorsement deals for the winners or even prize money at all. This rag tag bunch had dedicated their time and energy for months or years towards perfecting their craft and tirelessly trained in pools and freezing lakes in order to travel up to North Dakota and suffer for hours simply to challenge themselves.
Maybe one day swimming will take its place proudly among biking, running, and triathlon in the world of ultra endurance sports and be celebrated as a crucible of human athletic achievement. Maybe one day the athletes standing knee deep in that river (or waiting for the gun at some as yet un-conceived biggest and baddest swim race in the world) will be celebrities, and every one of the participants lauded as inspiring champions. And that may well be the day that I lose interest in the sport.
Until then however, I will continue to have a special affinity for the rare swimming events that truly test one's mettle--those of a calibre where most of those on the start line are bombarded by the butterflies in their stomach with the noiseless whisper "can I do this?" They are there for no other reason than to answer the question. They are my underdogs. These are my heroes.
Andy Magness served as co-director of END-WET for three years, from 2012-2014. He is currently living in New Zealand, planning what he promises is going to be the most epic and exciting swim race of all time. He is the author of UltraMental, an e-book about training for ultra-endurance events on a few hours a week.