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Friday, June 17, 2011
Women make a splash in Manhattan Island Marathon Swim

By Elaine K. Howley

Consider this: 28.5 miles is a long way to go by foot or bike. Swimming that distance in the three cold, swift, traffic-packed rivers surrounding Manhattan provides a whole new level of challenge.

Yet, people really do swim around the island and have been doing so for years. This weekend, top amateur swimmers will dive into the mid-60-degree water (sans wetsuits!) to face a tide-assisted counterclockwise circumnavigation of the Big Apple.

Instead of the usual buoys that mark open-water courses, famous landmarks like Yankee Stadium, the Brooklyn Bridge and the United Nations headquarters building keep swimmers on track as they progress through the East, Harlem and Hudson rivers.

The June 18 race, known as the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, or MIMS, will welcome a record 35 individual swimmers when it pushes off from South Cove, near the World Trade Center site.

The race's popularity is surging as open-water swimming enjoys "a second renaissance," said Morty Berger, founder of NYC Swim, the organization that hosts the iconic MIMS and a series of shorter events. "As more people are doing triathlons, other open-water swims [and] finding sports other than running, these events become more accessible. They need to find a 'bucket list event' to do. So they seek out a destination event to help them set goals. A lot of people really have a love affair with New York City."

The fastest swimmers will need nearly seven hours to complete the course, which has a long, storied history.

In 1915, Robert W. Dowling Jr. completed the first recorded swim around the island. In 1921, Amelia Gade completed the journey in 15 hours, 57 minutes. Marathon-open water swimming enjoyed its heyday in the roaring '20s, and by 1930, the MIMS record had been lowered to 8:35.

But the Great Depression and increasing awareness of water pollution caused the swim to lose its luster; by the 1950s, MIMS had all but disappeared. In 1975, Diana Nyad renewed interest with a record-setting 7:57 swim. Building on Nyad's swim, Drury Gallagher resurrected the annual event in 1982 and ushered in the modern era of MIMS.

Berger took control in 1992 and has used it and races like one around the Statue of Liberty and the 17.5-mile Ederle Swim (the historically accurate route between Sandy Hook, N.J., and Manhattan swam by Gertrude Ederle on her way to becoming the first woman to cross the English Channel) to reintroduce New Yorkers -- and swimmers from well beyond the five boroughs -- to the water that surrounds them.

MIMS has long favored women. The current record of 5:45 was set in 1995 by Shelley Taylor-Smith, one of Australia's most decorated open-water swimmers. In September 2009, Liz Fry of Westport, Conn., became the first woman to reverse circumnavigate the island, doing so six hours faster than the only man to have ever done it. Fry's swim took 11:41:05 -- and dogged determination.

This year's event could be won by a woman as well. Erica Rose, 28, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, is a former FINA World Cup champion. Though retired from the professional circuit, she hasn't lost much speed. She faces stiff competition, however, from three-time winner John van Wisse, 38, of Beaumaris, Australia, and Oliver Wilkinson, 35, of Melbourne, Australia.

"Erica is a steady swimmer, but John has so much experience on the course, and this course really favors that experience," Berger said.

For more information about the swim and this year's competitors visit the NYC Swim website.