No Lanes, No Lines, No Limits | Open Water Racing in Newport Attracts World-Class Swimmers

Indoor Recreation of Orleans County, better known as IROC, was losing money annually. Executive Director and Board Chair Phil White said that the organization was dead in the summer, and there was worry that it was simply not sustainable in a rural community with high levels of poverty and unemployment.

Although IROC starts with “Indoors,” White felt strongly that the organization had to move outdoors, so members of the organization began a century ride called Tour de Kingdom and subsequently added a small triathlon. They followed that up with the half-marathon Dandelion Run, and in 2009, the Kingdom Swim.

Now in its third year, the Kingdom Swim on Lake Memphremagog has 10-, six-, three-, and one-mile options, as well as shorter races for children, and has grown to attract world-class swimmers. The race is both a competitive swim and a charity event, raising money for the IROC Healthy Changes Initiative, an exercise initiative for people suffering from chronic conditions.

White said his decision to sponsor an outdoor swimming event was met with some skepticism. “I didn’t care if there were only 10 people,” he said, “we just wanted to get it started.” White assembled an organizing committee that included Ned Denison, a native Vermonter who relocated to Ireland and specializes in long-distance swims such as the Santa Barbara and English channels; Leslie Thomas, who leads year-round open-water programs in San Francisco; and Peter Stuart, who runs the IROC children’s swimming program.

The first year saw a total of 101 swimmers from 15 states, most doing the 10-mile course. The second year, the numbers almost doubled, with 197 swimmers, 80 of whom did the 10-mile distance. Those swimmers represented 25 states, Canada, Mexico, and India.

Last year, the fastest time for a woman in the 10-mile distance was Rondi Davies of New York, N.Y., in just under 3:57; and the fastest man, Joseph Sheehan of Boxford, Mass., was more than six minutes behind her. The youngest swimmer was 6, and the oldest was 68-year-old Rob Madell of New York, N.Y. Madell had never swum more than three miles until he qualified with a six-mile swim, and then successfully completed the 10-mile distance.

The swim is held in conjunction with the Kingdom Aquafest, which involves a week’s worth of activities including a Pet and Swimmers Parade, in which swimmers are invited to carry state, provincial, or country flags, followed by a Swimmers and Yackers Pasta Dinner at Newport’s Gateway Center catered by Montgomery’s Café. “Yackers” is White’s shorthand for the kayakers who accompany the swimmers as support crew. Many swimmers bring their own kayakers, but IROC puts out a request for volunteers for those who don’t have a support team. Volunteers get $70 donated to the charity of their choice. “It beats baking cookies,” White said dryly.

Those entering the race must prove they are able to swim long distances. Much of this is done on the honor system, but entrants need to show they have open-water experience. To sign up for the 10-mile, swimmers must have already swum a three-mile distance and their entrance is conditional on their swimming six miles before the start of the race. White said this is necessary so swimmers have an idea of how often they will need to eat and hydrate. For that reason, the organizers have created the Son of a Swim, which takes place on June 18. Swimmers can do two, four or six miles to show they are capable of long-distance, open-water swimming.

Kevin Joubert of Towson, Md., will be competing this year for the third time. He cut almost 20 minutes off his 2009 time in 2010 and is requesting the same volunteer kayaker who had helped him on the first race. An engineer by trade, who also coaches a master’s swim team in Baltimore, four of Joubert’s students will be joining him for the race this year. “Phil [White] does a really nice job,” he said, “and the volunteers are fabulous.”

Winners do not receive monetary prizes. The fastest male and female in the wet-suit and non-wet-suit categories receive hand-carved walking sticks. Birch medals are awarded to top finishers in various categories, as are jugs of maple syrup, blocks of Cabot cheese, and other local products. Prizes are also given to those who raise the most money for the IROC Healthy Changes Initiative. “The world of open-water swimming is just blossoming,” said White. “A lot of people have moved out of the pool and fallen in love with open water.”

That blossoming is thanks in part to the Northeast Kingdom Open Water Swimming Association or NEKOWSA. Now, in addition to the Kingdom Swim, there are outdoor swims in Lake Seymour (Aug. 6) and Lake Willoughby (Aug. 20). White hopes to add a swim on Caspian Lake in September.

Elaine Kornbau Howley of Waltham, Mass., travels around the world for swimming competitions. Although she specializes in ultra-swimming events and considers the 10-mile course to be somewhat of a sprint, she will be racing the Kingdom Swim for the second time this year. “I loved it,” she said of her first experience. “It’s really well organized, and it’s a beautiful venue. It’s great to swim in such a beautiful, clear lake.”

David Dammerman of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., concurs: “Lake Memphremagog is one of the most beautiful open-water swimming venues in the world,” he said. “Some participants are trying to see just how far they can swim, while others are testing the limits of how fast they can get there. It’s an incredible setting for athletes to tackle personal challenges and support others who are striving to make healthy changes.”


Kingdom Swim

July 9, 2011

Staggered starts at 8, 8:30 and 9 a.m. for the 10-, six- and three-mile events, with an afternoon start for the shorter distances.

Begins and ends at Prouty Beach, Newport.

The Kingdom Swim is capped at 100 swimmers per distance.

The event is sanctioned by U.S. Masters Swimming.

Pet and Swimmers Parade: July 8 at 6:30 p.m.

Phyl Newbeck

Phyl Newbeck lives in Jericho with two spoiled orange cats. She is a skier, skater, cyclist, kayaker, and lover of virtually any sport which does not involve motors. She is the author of “Virginia Hasn’t Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving.”