Swimmers endure 25 miles through the dark across the border
Newport —Stretching 31 miles from Newport, Vt., across the Canadian border to the town of Magog, Quebec, Lake Memphremagog is a narrow, fresh water glacial lake that’s a popular recreational area. The lake is also rumored to be the home of Memphre, a lake monster that has received sightings since the 18th century.
Early this September, a group of elite swimmers attempted to swim between the two cities in search of the lake’s underwater denizen.
“We love and hate the border,” Phil White, president of Kingdom Games LLC, which organized the swim, said before the event. “We love the diversity and cultural differences so close by, and we have many, many Canadian friends. But we hate the fact that it is a barrier to so many who will never get a passport, enhanced license, or NEXUS card. Any chance we get to organize an event that crosses the border, we jump at.”
The event began on Friday, Sept. 5, when the swimmers gathered at White’s log cabin, overlooking Memphremagog. The weather was warm and balmy and the evening sky rippled in the distance with heat lightning. Starting at 10 p.m. the first three swimmers hit the water. An hour later, two more followed.
They had been in the water for only two hours before an unpredicted thunderstorm rolled in around midnight, scrubbing the swim. The next day, swimmers hung out at White’s cabin, where they stacked firewood and kept an eye on the changing weather conditions. Saturday brought rain for most of the day with variable winds.
By evening, the weather showed signs of holding, and the remaining four swimmers went out on the water for a second attempt.
On the starting line (again)
Paula Yankauskas, 60, from Hyde Park, Vt., has been a committed distance swimmer in the Northeast Kingdom. A veteran of the 10-mile Kingdom Swim course, she signed up for all of the Northeast Kingdom Open Water Swimming Association’s swims in 2013 and shed her wetsuit for the 10 Mile WOWSA world championships, earning her the title of NEKOWSA Swimmer of The Year. After competing in a four-lake series of swims in Arizona this spring, she came back to Vermont to complete the 15-mile Border Buster and was one of three swimmers to swim eight lakes over eight consecutive days, a total of 45 miles in the Swim the Kingdom Week.
“You get curious as to what your limits could be,” she said. “So you train and prepare and then go for it.”
In preparation for Saturday, Yankauskas trained in swimming pools and in fresh water and worked with accomplished swimmer Charlotte Brynn on developing her own training regimens. In an interview before the longest swim of her life, she said she was physically and mentally ready to go.
“Successful outcomes are as much mental as they are physical in these endurance swims,” she said. “It gets hard at times and there is pain involved, but the challenge is what makes them great.”
Franco Prezioso, 48, from Bel Air, Md., went from the golf course to the water in 2008 and never looked back. In 2013, Prezioso did the 27-mile END-WET swim downstream on the Red River in North Dakota and completed the 15-mile “Border Buster” this year.
“It’s peaceful,” he said, describing the experience of swimming in open water. “When you’re out there, you don’t worry about your phone ringing or checking your email. People think that mentally it can be a tough thing, but for me it’s a way to get away from everything.”
David Uprichard, 48, from New York City, transitioned from triathlons to open water swimming when he was looking for a lower impact sport. In 2011, his first full season of competing in swim events, he participated in 16 open water races, including two other 10K swims in the New York Harbor and Bermuda. The 5-mile Lake Willoughby swim brought him to Vermont and in 2012 he graduated to the 10-mile Kingdom Swim course.
This is the year of “the stretch” for Uprichard. In June he completed the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in 8:17:20. He participated in the inaugural 15-mile Border Buster swim at this year’s Kingdom Swim. For him, a time of 16 hours seemed reasonable.
“I know I’m going to reach a point where I know I’ve been in the water for 10 hours,” he said. “It’s my hope that I’ll be able to get that smooth state of mind where I can keep going.”
Grace Van der Byl, 36, from Solana Beach, Ca., came to Newport with significant distance swimming experience. She is the current Catalina Channel record holder (island to mainland in 7:27) and one of only three swimmers to complete all seven stages of 8 Bridges Hudson River stage swim, which she did in 2012. She won several stages of the 2013 S.C.A.R Swim Series in Arizona, and won the inaugural 15-mile Circumnavigation Challenge around Cape May, N.J. in 2013. In August of last year, she participated in a 228-mile relay swim along the Californian Coast and this year she won the 2014 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim around the island. She is consistently ranked as an All American and Top Ten swimmer in U.S. Masters Swimming pool competitions.
For a swimmer accustomed to salt water, the freshwater Memphre swim was a departure from her usual venues (it was also her first swim in Vermont). While the other swims she’s completed this season have been 35 or 50 miles, she said that wouldn’t make her swim any easier.
“Twenty-five miles is still twenty-five miles,” she said. “You can’t underestimate what you’re going to run into.”
In the water, across the border
For the swimmers, most of the pre-swim nervousness had been before the first attempt. After the storm the night before, Yankauskas said she was feeling “oddly calm” before the second attempt.
“By the time we were able to get in the water, it was such a relief to be finally underway,” she said.
With that nervousness gone, she said she was able to focus on the swim.
David Uprichard offered a similar opinion.
“It was like I had gotten all that nervousness out of my system because of the dry run,” he said. “So day two we just wanted to get it done. It a way it worked out quite well.”
Such a long distance swim brought a variety of water conditions and changes in visibility. When Yankauskas, Uprichard and Prezioso started at 10 p.m., the water was almost still; an hour later, when Van der Byl had started, a light wind began stirring the surface of the lake. At night, swimmers wore glowsticks clipped to their bathing suits or waterproof lights to make them visible to the spotters in the boats. The moon was nearly full overhead and when it set the stars shone brilliantly. Dawn brought choppy conditions that eventually diminished.
The swimmers and their boats encountered crosswinds that made it difficult going, and tricky when receiving food and fluids from their support boat. The swimmers swam without insulating neoprene wetsuits or swimcaps and weren’t permitted to touch their 16-foot aluminum escort boats.
The end point was a floating metal dock off of a park in Magog.
“That last bit is tough because you can see the dock, but it’s still seven miles away, which is still quite a few more hours to go,” Yankauskas said. “You have to mentally keep yourself going because it would be much more comfortable just to get out. It’s definitely a nice feeling of accomplishment to touch that dock.”
The first to the dock was Grace Van der Byl, who finished in the early hours of Sunday morning. Her time was 11:33, her longest time in the water and her longest swim without assists from currents.
For Saturday, she said the strategy was to relax during the night and then turn up the intensity during the day.
“The key is to not let the four to five hours you’re going to be in the dark get into your head and embrace it,” she said. “Then when the daylight comes, put the hammer down and get home.”
Uprichard followed four hours later with a time of 15:59, just one minute under the prediction he gave Phil White earlier.
“It was hands-down, the longest, toughest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “In swimming or anything else.”
As he swam north, Uprichard focused on breaking the swim down into smaller goals, first he focused on getting across the border, then he set his sights on Owl’s Head, a small ski area in Quebec visible from the lake. After passing a fork in the lake at around mile 16, he was able set his sights on the shore.
“You set these small goals for yourself,” he said. “That way you always feel like you’re advancing.”
Prezioso had to drop out after five hours of the night swim. His two race spotters continued to stay on, assisting in the race effort.
Finally, after nearly 20 hours in the water, Yankauskas finished with a time of 19:55. She was tired and dizzy; after spending so long in the water, the inner ear becomes accustomed to the horizontal position and the weightless tossing of water all around. But she was thrilled to be done.
In 2016, she’s scheduled an attempt at the English Channel, a classic open water swim that she says will be a culminating effort after her swims in Vermont.
“It’s a strange sport but with a very nice set of people,” she said. “They know how tough it is.”