Conquerors of the Lake: What Does it Take to Swim Erie’s Unpredictable Waters?

2015-08-26T10:22:48+00:00August 26th, 2015|

By Amanda Bates

“You told me it was going to calm down!” Sonya Whitman shouted to her then-fiancé from in between the crests of six-foot green-gray waves. The waters had been relatively tranquil when she started her self-propelled voyage eight hours earlier, but now her shoulders had begun to ache from constantly pulling herself against the current. Somewhere in the middle of Lake Erie, she could feel how far she’d come, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to know how far she had left to go.

“I know, but you’re not going to quit now,” replied Brad, her fiancé. He had anticipated this upsurge a few hours earlier and had told her not to worry, it would pass eventually. The lake, of course, had other ideas. The kayakers flanking her on either side kept directing her to the right, or westward, in an attempt to compensate for however far the waves were nudging her east.

Whitman put her head back down, and envisioned the Pennsylvania shore. She was somewhere along a 24.3-mile route from Long Point, Ontario, to Freeport Beach, just east of Erie, Pennsylvania.

across the lake map

Across Lake Erie — Long Point, Ontario to Freeport Beach, Pennsylvania

Like many marathon swimmers, Whitman had swum competitively for most of her life. She attended Gannon University on an athletic scholarship and set several records during her tenure there; ironically, she was a sprinter. She continued to work out at the pool after college to stay in shape, and competed in several triathlons.

She began training for the lake swim in the fall of 2006, after watching her college friend’s husband, Josh Heynes, complete it a few months earlier. Although she was a lifelong athlete, preparing for a feat of this nature was an entirely different beast. At the peak of her training, she was in the pool for a few hours each day before and after her full-time job. She worked with a nutritionist to develop a strategy to keep her energized, but not weighed down, during the course of her 14-hour crossing. She attended sessions with a sports psychologist who helped her mentally prepare for the challenge.

While a victory over the lake requires unfathomable levels of physical fitness and mental fortitude, it’s the preparation beforehand that requires the most sacrifice. Marathon swimming requires training beyond the scope of an average swim practice. Katie Ledecky, the current world record-holder of the women’s 800- and 1500-meter freestyles, puts in an average of 11 miles a day in the pool between two practices. This is on the very high end for competitive “pool” swimmers, and it still amounts to less than half the distance of the standard Lake Erie crossing.

[blocktext align=”left”]While a victory over the lake requires unfathomable levels of physical fitness and mental fortitude, it’s the preparation beforehand that requires the most sacrifice.[/blocktext]Most Clevelanders can probably infer that the conditions in the lake are far less hospitable – and far more unpredictable – than the conditions inside any natatorium. Whitman recalls that at one point during her swim, she looked up from the murky depths to see an enormous freighter. Due to the waves, and perhaps a bit of mental exhaustion, she didn’t realize the ship was only 20 feet from her and her convoy.

“We came very, very close to it, and I really had no idea. Fortunately we didn’t cross paths,” says Whitman, as if her life was never in jeopardy.

It all paid off; Whitman reached Erie’s southern shore late in the evening on August 6, 2007, in what was then a record time for women: 14 hours and 9 minutes. After a full day among the waves, her legs balked at the prospect of holding her upright on dry land. Her fiancé, who had paddled next to her in a kayak for nearly the entire swim, carried Whitman across the floodlit beach to a crowd of their friends and family.

Whitman has no plans to attempt other marathon swims. She’s content knowing she can tell her children and grandchildren she successfully conquered the lake.

“Everyone asked why, and it’s a really hard thing to pinpoint, but I just felt like I was going to miss out on this big opportunity if I didn’t do it.”

* * *

Josh Heynes got his start in open-water swimming while he was a collegiate athlete at the University of Pittsburgh; a coach persuaded him to sign up for a race in the Florida Keys. However, he had lived near Lake Erie’s shores for nearly all of his life, and it was this body of water that called to him. In August 2005, he looked on as 23-year-old Sara McClure finished her swim at Freeport, the first person to do so in ten years. His wife, Jamie, turned to him and said, “You’re doing that next year, aren’t you?” Damn right, was Heynes’s reply.

JoshHeynes2Since then, Heynes’s name has become synonymous with Lake Erie long-distance swimming. He set the record for fastest crossing in 2006, which was bested by Randy McElwain in 2009.

“A few years later another guy supposedly broke my record,” says Heynes, somewhat agitated. “There was no observer for the swim. They weren’t looking at a stopwatch, they were looking at their cell phones. They weren’t even sure what time they started the swim.”

Unwilling to let his record go, especially under such ambiguous circumstances, Heynes completed the swim again in 2011. He willed himself across the same 24.3-mile route in 11 hours and 16 minutes, which still stands as the fastest time for the course. The fastest time for women, set by Melanie Nickou of Waterford, Pennsylvania, in 2011, is 13 hours and 35 minutes.

In addition to reigning as King of the Lake, Heynes also wanted to standardize and streamline the process for those courageous, aquatically-inclined souls attempting the swim. Following his second crossing, he worked with the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) to set up a sanctioned organization, the Lake Erie Open Water Swimming Association (LEOWSA) to act as the governing body and primary resource for these souls.

“Prior to 2012, it was kind of like re-creating the wheel. Every swimmer had to figure out their crew, their boats, their equipment. We are trying to help people out and provide most of that stuff for them, including a proper swim master who knows the rules and will work together with the swimmer and their coach,” says Heynes.

[blocktext align=”right”]While nearly 2,000 successful English Channel swims are on the official record, only a few dozen people can claim they’ve conquered Erie.[/blocktext]While nearly 2,000 successful English Channel swims are on the official record, only a few dozen people can claim they’ve conquered Erie. It’s a tight-knit community. Bob North was one of the two men responsible for plotting the standard 24.3-mile course from Long Point to Freeport Beach, about fifteen miles east of Erie. It was North who helped Heynes train and plan for his first swim, and he still makes a point to be there when swimmers hit the Pennsylvania shore.

According to Heynes, safety is LEOWSA’s main priority, along with ensuring the swimmer adheres to WOWSA’s regulations and coordinating all the minute details that go into attempting the swim. This includes ensuring the athlete is in good health and is adhering to a proper training schedule, but it also involves securing boats, equipment, and a sanctioned swim master and reliable boat pilot; familiarizing a swimmer and their team with LEOWSA regulations; and communicating with the necessary third parties – meaning coaches, the medical director, the crossing guard, and border patrol, since swimmers pass through national borders. It’s a complicated event, and Heynes offers a kind of one-stop shop for a potential crosser who’s interested in minimizing the chance of something getting overlooked.

So what exactly constitutes a sanctioned marathon swim? WOWSA defines it as a nonstop, open-water swim of at least ten kilometers, or just over six miles, that is achieved without artificial assistance of any kind. “Nonstop” may seem like an obvious stipulation, but after hours in the water the temptation to grab onto an escort kayak – even just for a moment – becomes increasingly appealing. Food and water must be carefully extended from the boat into the athlete’s hands, without providing any type of support. Many use homemade “feeding poles” with cup holders attached on one end. Annaleise Carr, who completed a multi-stage swim across the lake in the summer of 2013, had her crew pass her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches via a lacrosse stick. “Artificial assistance” is essentially any item or substance that enhances the swimmer’s chance of completing the swim beyond their natural ability and fortitude. This includes wetsuits, which are used by many competitive triathletes to retain heat in cold waters and to increase buoyancy. No flippers. No snorkels. No pacing aids or heart rate monitors.

JoshHeynes1The swim master, also given the omniscient title of the ”observer,” is basically the showrunner for a given crossing. As a LEOWSA representative, the swim master’s responsibility is to ensure the swimmer is mentally, physically, and logistically prepared to attempt the 24-mile journey. They can cancel a swim if weather conditions are unsafe, or even beforehand, if they believe the athlete’s health or fitness isn’t up to par.

Swimmers can only tentatively set a date for their crossing; much of their fate depends on the weather. Generally, July and early August offer the most opportunities; the water is warmest – on average, 73 degrees – and relatively tranquil. According to LEOWSA’s regulations, a swim cannot take place if lightning or thunderstorms are predicted within 24 hours after its start and within 50 miles of the lake’s shore. Water temperature must be at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. For comparison, most pools are kept at a temperature between 75 and 85 degrees. Waves should not be more than 2 feet high, trough to crest. In other words, a tall order to ask for across a historically unpredictable patch of water.

Heynes’ efforts have brought more attention and regard for the Lake Erie swim from members of the open-water community. He’s undoubtedly the event’s biggest advocate, devoting his time to helping other seriously motivated individuals conquer the crossing. He’s looking ahead to securing sponsorships for LEOWSA that will help cover the cost of renting the boats, purchasing the high-tech SPOT GPS units, and possibly even paying some of a swimmer’s crew.

“We’re just trying to get more swimmers in the water,” says Heynes. “We already have nine people looking to do the swim next year.”

* * *

Ryan Stevens, of Maumee, Ohio, has twice started the swim from Long Point without LEOWSA sanctioning, in 2013 and 2014. He contacted Heynes and reviewed the 49-page application packet, but in the end chose to forge his own way across the lake. In Heynes’ eyes, he essentially forfeited the legitimacy of his swim in the eyes of the “official” open-water swimming community. But Stevens sees it differently.

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[credit: Kyle Taylor via Flickr (flickr.com/people/kyletaylor/)]

While Stevens swam competitively through his childhood and in college, his health was far from perfect just a few years before his first attempt at the lake crossing. In 2009, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

“For two years I was just basically living on my couch. In March 2011, when I had my colon removed I was down to 120 pounds.” Stevens began to recover after his surgery, and in 2012, he began to wonder what he could do to raise awareness for Crohn’s.

“I thought ‘I’m a swimmer’ and so I wanted to do something with that,” says Stevens. After finding the Lake Erie swim on Google, he contacted Heynes. Stevens balked at the fees – which include a $500 observation/sanction fee in addition to lesser application and membership payments

“I wanted every dollar possible to go to my cause,” says Stevens.

He also wasn’t sure his medical history would pass muster.

“I don’t think, medically, they would have cleared me. They have a qualifying swim, plus the fee. I just seemed like a waste of time to me,” says Stevens, referring to the ten-mile, six-hour trial swim required of any challenger that goes through LEOWSA.

Instead, he recruited Eric Mizuba, an Erie-based chiropractor to coach him through the process. Mizuba completed the swim in 2012, prior to LEOWSA sanctioning.

Many swims are connected with a certain cause; for Heynes’ second swim, he raised $5,000 for the John Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation in Erie. With the money she raised for her 2011 swim, Melanie Nickou was able to help pay for a family’s friends medical bills after a debilitating car accident. The Canadian open-water whiz kid, Annaleise Carr, has donated nearly half a million dollars through her swims across Lake Erie and Lake Ontario to Camp Trillium, an organization that provides programming for kids with cancer and their families.

[credit: Kyle Taylor via Flickr (flickr.com/people/kyletaylor/)]

[credit: Kyle Taylor via Flickr (flickr.com/people/kyletaylor/)]

It was Lake Erie’s fickle temper that cut short both of Stevens’ swims. In 2013, his start time was moved to midnight at the last minute in order to avoid potential storms, and he was thrown off by the darkness and unusually low water temperatures. After six miles, the elements got the better of him.

“I was very nervous that I was going to hit a piece of driftwood, or something, and knock myself unconscious. Usually in swimming, like in yoga, I can find my groove and just kind of zone out. That didn’t happen.”

[blocktext align=”right”]“No one owns the lake.”[/blocktext]For his second attempt, Stevens was hopeful he’d have better weather. He expected southeastern winds from Canada to aid his journey towards Pennsylvania. He ended up battling against 4- to 6-foot waves, but made it 22 miles before his limbs seemed to stop responding. Lake Erie just doesn’t like him, he laments.

It’s possible that LEOWSA may have helped Stevens complete his swim, but at least a dozen athletes – including Heynes – made the swim before the organization was founded. In order for those crossings to secure a place in the official record books, Heynes had to contact each person who claimed to have made the swim, interview their crew, and confirm that all documentation and video footage shows that the feat was completed in the “spirit of marathon swimming.”

Still, no organization can prevent an individual from attempting a lake swim, just as the Cleveland Marathon executives could not stop someone from running through the race course on any given day. Although they might hit some traffic.

“In the end, I don’t care to be entered into someone’s record book,” says Stevens.

“No one owns the lake,” he adds.

Owns might not be the right word. There are those that see Lake Erie as a watery barrier, wondrous yet temperamental. Those that stand on either shore, contemplating what lies on the other side. Then there are the formidable few, the conquerors, who have discovered what lies in between. Whatever their motivations, we cannot doubt their curiosity or their commitment.

___
Amanda Bates is a writer and editor who grew up and still lives on the west side of Cleveland. As a lifelong competitive swimmer, she has completed several open-water races, and daydreams about making it the 24 miles across Lake Erie.

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One Comment

  1. Stephen Wargo September 4, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Hi Amanda,

    I read your article above. Please let me know if I can help in anyway relative to Lake Erie swim crossings. I completed the 24.3 miles Long Pt to North East in 2013.

    Steve

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