What Does It Take to Swim Around Manhattan?

In Issue 64 by Julie Labuszewski

What Does It Take to Swim Around Manhattan?
Photo by Brandon Jacoby on Unsplash.

August 19, 1989 in the East River

My breathing to the right. My breathing to the left. My breathing to the right. My breathing to the left. My escort boat on my right with the official race observer, the boat captain, Coach Foster, and my dad. My dad concerned about his twenty-seven-year-old daughter in a 28 ½-mile, nonstop race around Manhattan Island. My coach reassuring my dad. My mom on a large spectator boat out of my view, listening to the static voices on the Coast Guard radio, hearing about a swimmer in distress, worrying about her daughter in her debut marathon swim. Two kayakers in a tandem kayak on my left. Fifty-two other swimmers from four continents dispersed in the water, half of them returning competitors, five of them world-record holders, and one of them known as the King of the Channel for his thirty-one English Channel crossings.

High School

The girls swim coach at University High School in San Diego has signed me up for the 50-yard butterfly. At fourteen, it’s my first swim meet.

I dive in. Nothing makes sense: the “big kick, little kick,” the simultaneous arm recovery, the awkward head lift to breathe. I accelerate my underwater pull to stay in the race. Suddenly, everything syncs up. The rhythm finds me.

The season ends. A friend of mine swims with a year-round program in Mission Valley. I join her. Three days a week we train with the junior team. When I’m fifteen, the coach tells me I’m ready to swim with the senior team. The next day, I attend their morning practice.

That night after dinner—after my first and only workout with the senior team—my dad tells me I need to focus on my grades. No more swimming. “You’ll be a junior soon and junior year is the most important year for college-bound students.”

I don’t understand. I’ve been training for close to a year, consistently attending practice and the meets; logging my yardage and splits; learning race strategies; setting PRs. And my grades are good, all A’s and B’s.

I do understand to never talk back. I say nothing.

Junior year, I study in the library during lunch period. At home, I study. One afternoon, I bolt over to the bookcase in the family room, grab the first swim trophy I ever won, swing my arm back in arc of anger, and throw the object into the wastebasket. I reach for the second swim trophy and fling it into the trash. I hear a sharp crash when metal strikes metal. I take the last trophy off the shelf, and with a force fueled with shame and rage, slam it down on top of the others. Then I get back to my homework.

By the end of the school year, I raise my GPA from a 3.5 to a 3.8.

College

Freshman year, I go out for the women’s swim team at the University of California, Davis. The workouts are too demanding. My body cannot recover fast enough. After three weeks, I quit.

In the summers, I return to San Diego to teach swim lessons and lifeguard. Before my shift, I lift weights. After my shift, I swim laps. On the weekends, I join a group of ocean swimmers for a long-distance swim.

Junior year, I transfer to the University of California, Santa Barbara. I try out for the women’s swim team and make it. With double workouts—morning and afternoon—my endurance, strength, and speed rapidly improve.

A week before the championships, I feel restless and can’t sleep. When I do fall asleep, I have nightmares and wake up fearful. There’s a darkness around me I can’t comprehend. Perhaps the pressure is too much. After another unsettling night, I ride my bike to the pool to talk to my coach before morning practice.

“I’m quitting the team,” I say.

“You can’t quit now,” she says. “We’re too far into the season.”

I stay on.

Our team travels to Las Vegas for the Independent Conference Championships. I swim my fastest time for the 100-yard fly, 1:04. I climb out of the pool and check in with my coach. She’s beaming, thrilled with the points I scored for the team. I’m pleased, too. I hit my goal time.

The darkness lifts. I sleep soundly and peacefully.

Kate

In the water, we’re the same speed. Out of the water—at 5-feet, 8-inches—Kate is three inches taller than me. Her pool-soaked dark hair dries straight; mine curls. We’re at our favorite diner in Chelsea on 23rd street in New York City. It’s 1988. After an evening workout with the Red Tide masters swim team, our appetites are bigger than Central Park.

Kate is thirty-one and training full-time to swim the English Channel. She has lived in the city for five years.

I’m twenty-six and working as a junior copywriter at Lintas: New York, a large advertising firm in midtown Manhattan, a job I landed after graduating from Parsons School of Design. Launching my career has given me a new independence. I now have the freedom to explore my limits as an athlete.

Kate and I met two years ago at a stroke technique clinic for swimmers. I asked her about her swimming. She told me she grew up swimming on the coast of Maine. I asked her about her work. She told me she worked as a famine relief worker in Ethiopia, has a master’s in social work from Columbia University, a degree in psychology from Colgate, is getting over a breakup, and it hasn’t been easy.

My curiosity, her veracity. My friendliness, her forthrightness. Our friendship, a gift.

Our meal arrives: a big salad, bread and butter, spaghetti with meat sauce, and dessert.

“I’m thinking about doing the Manhattan Swim,” I say.

Kate has completed it three times. The 28 ½-mile swim around the island starts at the Battery, heads up the East River, continues on through the Harlem River, heads down the Hudson River, and ends at the Battery. The next race—the Eighth Annual Manhattan Island Marathon Swim—is scheduled for August 19, 1989. The organizers have chosen this date because the predicted tides and currents will likely assist the swimmers. If I sign up, it would be a year-long commitment of long-distance training, open water swimming, and cold-water acclimation.

“You can do it, Juls,” says Kate. “I believe in you.”

The Water's Edge

My office is on the 36th floor at One Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, a block from the East River. I walk to the water’s edge on my lunch break: the sounds of the city behind me, the power of a river straight in front of me.

I imagine myself swimming in the river. For a fleeting moment, I see it. Then it’s gone.

I stay grounded, take notice. I study the movement of the water, survey the currents, and identify the turbulence. There’s a force in this water I’m not familiar with . . . it’s unpredictable.

Support

“Who's going to be on your boat?” says Kate.

We’re back at the diner.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” I say.

Each swimmer in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim must have an escort boat with a boat captain, an official race observer, and a small support crew.

“Ask Foster,” she says. “He’s taken other swimmers around the island. He knows the currents.” Foster coaches our masters swim team. He’s an architect, a calm and patient man.  “And get a kayaker. That’ll really help. Who else? Who do you want on your boat?”

I’d like Kate to be on my boat, but she’ll be in England with her coach preparing for the Channel crossing. “I’m not really sure,” I say.

“You need a support crew.”

I’m at a loss.

“Maybe my parents?” I’m close to my parents. We talk often, but they’ve never been involved with my swimming.

“Have you asked them?”

“No.”

“Juls, you need to ask for what you need.”

The Ask

It’s Thursday, June 8, 1989. I walk into my office and find a letter on my desk—the one I typed up two days ago and sent through interoffice mail to my creative director.

In the letter, I ask the company to sponsor me for my upcoming race. I offer to brand my boat, crew, swimsuit, and swim cap with the company logo. I list the opportunities for press and media coverage. I give a brief history of the race.

I write, “The first swim around Manhattan was completed in 1915. There were a few solo swims circling the island until 1982 when the First Annual Manhattan Island Marathon Swim was held. Since then, only 103 swimmers have completed the swim, making it one of the most challenging swimming races in the world.”

I notice the letter has been stamped “Received,” initialed, and approved. Approved? My company with its big brands, big creatives, and big ideas said yes to my request?

I see the downward motion of a hand stamping the letter, an action with enough generosity to cause a vibration that blasts through thirty-six layers of steel and concrete and shoots deep into the granite rock that keeps Manhattan afloat. That slight shift it creates in the dense rock below me creates a shift inside me so grand, so glorious, so monumental that right now I believe I can do anything I set my mind to.

Lady Liberty

“Miss Liberty, it’s so great to meet you,” I say.

“I didn’t catch your name,” she says.

In my daydream, I’m treading water in the Hudson.

“Julie!” I shout.

She pivots her torch so it’s shining on me. “How’s the water, Julie?”

“It’s perfect. I’ve been training in cold water so I’m used to it.”

“You have a nice stroke.”

“Thanks. Do you swim?”

“When I have time—it’s just been so busy with all the visitors.”

“I can imagine.”

“So, what are you training for?”

“The Manhattan Swim—five weeks from today.”

“The swim around the island . . . yes, I know all about it . . . watch it every year.”

“You’ve got a great view. We start and finish at the Battery.”

“I’ll cheer you on.”

“Thanks. Listen, I’ve got to head back before the boat traffic picks up.”

“Well, good luck!”

Rockaway

The weekend crowd has avoided Rockaway Beach today. It’s overcast and drizzling. I’m here for a long-distance training swim. Once I get out past the surf, I’ll swim parallel to the shore, back and forth, lap after lap.

My previous training swims at Rockaway were with Kate, accompanied by her coach. But they have left the city. They’re in Maine for three weeks of cold-water training. From there, they’ll head to the White Cliffs of Dover.

My race is four weeks away.

I set my towel and swim bag on the damp sand. Steve is in the lifeguard tower nearby. He’s the guy from Brooklyn—the one who thinks the Manhattan swim is ridiculous. “Why would anyone want to swim in that water?” he once asked.

It wasn’t a question. He thinks the water is filthy.

“It’s not that bad,” I said, even though as a race participant I’d be getting two shots: a tetanus shot in case I bump into something sharp, and a hepatitis shot in case heavy rains overload the city’s drains.

With his strong opinions about the race, I’m surprised to see him standing by my towel when I run to shore to refuel my body. Every thirty minutes he’s there with the red rescue tube under his arm and an inviting smile. “Go Julie!” he cheers. I gulp down warm tea then dash back into the ocean.

For my entire five-hour training swim, he watches over me.

The List

I’m finalizing the list of things to bring on the boat.

— Four large thermoses

— Peaches in heavy syrup, four cans

— Six-pack of Hershey's chocolate bars

I’m not done getting it all down on paper when I remember Kate’s advice: Whatever you do, don’t think about getting out.

During every long-distance training swim, I brought along an index card with a list of five things to think about. I’d review it the night before—memorize the list—then slip it into my swim bag. During challenging parts of the swim, I relied on the list. It helped me stay in the right frame of mind.

I reach for an index card and start that list.

Number one: Name all your elementary school teachers beginning with kindergarten.

Announcement

Two days before the race the Chief Creative Director sends out a company bulletin letting everyone know I’ll be competing in the world’s largest organized marathon swimming race.

He writes, “You can cheer Julie on at 8:30 a.m. when she dives into the waters off Battery Park just below the fire boat house on the Hudson River. Look for her boat with the Lintas: New York banner . . .  If you miss her start, you can catch a glimpse of Julie as she swims up the East River . . . I know you will join me in wishing her success in her attempt to conquer the elements.”

I close my office door and call my mom.

“Mom, what if I don’t make it?”

August 19, 1989 in the Harlem River

The water is brown and murky with almost no visibility. I’ve slowed down. My left hand hits something. I lift my head. It’s a rusty Campbell’s soup can floating in the river. I look around. I don’t see any more debris. I don’t see any other swimmers. I have no sense of my position in the pack.

It’s quiet.

With the kayak on my left and the escort boat on my right, I feel protected. Their presence creates an imaginary border around me and the vastness of the city and the river diminishes to an area the size of a backyard pool.

I watch Foster’s movements on the boat. He’s attentive, confident.

Three other swimmers on our team entered this race. When I asked Foster to be my coach, I thought he’d tell me he wasn’t available, that he’d committed to taking another swimmer around the island. Instead, he said yes without hesitating. I’m thankful.

I’m thankful my parents showed up. Months ago, I talked to them about flying out here. “This race is important to me,” I said. “I want you both to come out.”

Spending time with Kate, I’ve witnessed the power of being direct and communicating with clarity.

Gratitude keeps me going.

The Hudson River

I’ve been swimming about six hours. This water feels cooler and cleaner than the Harlem River. It’s bluer, too.

During the swim, Foster waves a small flag to signal it’s time for a scheduled feeding. When I see the flag, I swim over to the boat. He holds out a long wooden broom stick with a four-cup drink holder at the end, a contraption he made that allows the swimmer to get refueled without getting close to the boat. Race rules state that a swimmer who touches the escort boat, or anything for support, will be disqualified. But right now, Foster is not waving the feeding flag. He’s making wide sweeping arm movements. He’s motioning for me to swim to the boat. He’s shouting something and I can’t hear him.

I swim over to the boat with my head raised.

“Swim backwards,” he shouts. He moves his arms like a backstroke swimmer.

I lean back and swim backstroke heading in the opposite direction of the finish line, unsure of what’s going on.

“Look,” he says. He points to a giant cruise ship up ahead crossing our path, an entire deck packed with spirited passengers waving at us. “Wow! This is exciting,” he says. He waves back at them.

I mirror his excitement, tread water, and wave. In those few seconds, the river’s powerful current pulls me forward. I quickly get on my back and swim backstroke, speeding up my arm rotation and kick.

The ship moves out of our path at a leisurely pace.

Foster signals it’s safe to resume swimming.

I regain focus. I know I’m close to the finish line, close to accomplishing what I set out to do. My thoughts rejuvenate me and I pick up my pace.

A few hours later, I touch the wooden dock at the Battery. My final time: 8 hours, 28 minutes, 33 seconds.

The Awards Luncheon Banquet

Sunlight streams in through the waterfront windows. It’s Sunday, the day after the race. Eight of us gather around a table at The Water Club: my parents, Coach Foster, the two kayakers, their wives, and me in a bright yellow dress.

I’m called up to the stage to receive a plaque. I’ve placed third in my age group of women under thirty, fourteenth overall, and finished less than a second after the King of the Channel.

Before we leave, I talk with the other swimmers. I hear that one of the race participants got dangerously close to a cruise ship pulling out of the ship terminal on the West Side, so close that the support crew had to quickly pull the swimmer into the escort boat, resulting in a disqualification.

“They were trying to race past the ship,” someone says. “But if you get too close . . . that wake will take you right under.”

A View from Above

I climb into the helicopter.

“Go ahead and buckle in,” says the pilot.

I raise my voice so he can hear me over the engine buzz. “That’s my friend Kate,” I say.  Kate is standing on the heliport. We met here after I got off work. Now she is bouncing, cheering, dancing—a solo pep rally on the FDR Drive.

“This is her gift to me,” I say. “She wanted me to see how far I swam.”

“Really?” he says.

“Yeah, I swam around Manhattan this summer. Do you know about that swim? Around the island?”

“I’ve heard about it.”

“I did it.”

“Wow.”

“And my friend Kate . . . she swam the English Channel.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, we’re both swimmers.”

He lights up with the news. Then he shifts his attention to the control panel in front of him. He maneuvers the levers and presses down on the foot pedals. The helicopter blades speed up and lift us into the Manhattan sky.

Up, up, up we rise—into all its goodness and glory.

About the Author

Julie Labuszewski

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Julie Labuszewski’s creative writing has appeared in The Maine Review, Progenitor Art and Literary Journal, Spectrum Literary Journal, and elsewhere. She’s a recent graduate of the MFA in Writing program at the University of Nebraska and currently works as a marketing copywriter in Colorado.