Teens Conquer 6-Mile Swim, Despite White Caps and Wind | 18 & Under Sept. 2011

Eli McFarlane with his coach Peter Stuart.

On July 9, nearly 200 hardy swimmers took to the waters of Lake Mephremagog as part of the third annual Kingdom Swim. This open-water swimming event, sponsored by Indoor Recreation of Orleans County, features six different events, ranging in length from 100 yards to 10 miles. Generally, the shorter distances are designed to give younger swimmers their first taste of open-water swimming, while the longer events allow older, experienced participants an opportunity to challenge themselves in a competitive environment. Nevertheless, some participants ignore this trend entirely. In this year’s edition of the Kingdom Swim, a handful of adolescents tackled the longer races and proved that just because they’re young doesn’t mean they lack the skill to excel.

Kristina Gavin readying for the swim.

In addition to a 16-year-old from Ithaca, N.Y., winning the female non-wetsuit, 10-mile division (the most challenging category for women), two Vermont teens braved Mephremagog’s choppy waves to participate in the six-mile race. Fourteen-year-old Kristina Gavin of Derby and 15-year-old Eli McFarlane of Newport, both members of the IROCKETS swim team in Orleans County, went toe-to-toe with more experienced swimmers and put up solid performances despite their relative lack of experience. Kristina finished fifth out of nine swimmers in the six-mile non-wetsuit female division (wetsuits provide more buoyancy, making it easier to complete a long-distance open water swim) and seventh out of 21 in both six-mile women’s divisions combined. Eli finished fifth out nine in the six-mile male wetsuit division.

Kristina cites her competitive nature and natural inclination for long-distance swimming as her main reasons for taking on the Kingdom Swim.

“I’m a long distance swimmer. I like the competition in the lake,” she says. “The six miles was new and big and something that I really wanted to accomplish.” Peter Stuart, one of the coaches in the IROCKETS program, concurs. “Kristina is just plain tough in the open water,” he says. “She likes doing distance events. Her even stroke is really designed for distance swimming. She beat me last year in the three-mile swim and part of her inspiration this year was to beat me in the six-mile swim, which she didn’t do. She just wants to challenge herself.”

Eli’s competitive swimming background, too, lends itself well to a race as physically demanding as the Kingdom Swim. “I’ve been swimming competitively since I was nine, and this is my second year doing the Kingdom Swim,” he says. He also views the race as an opportunity to escape the monotony of the pool. “In the pool, its back and forth and back and forth. In the lake, you see all this cool stuff around you. I much prefer it,” he says. Stuart, his coach, agrees. “Eli just enjoys being outside,” he says. “He doesn’t like the pool very much. Being in the lake suits him better. He feels better when he’s out there.”

Asked if he has any misgivings about sending young swimmers on a six-mile swim in open water, Stuart acknowledges some of the inherent risks involved in the race. “Yeah, I did have a few qualms about sending them out there,” he says. “It’s dangerous. It’s not like the pool where you can touch the bottom halfway down the pool. Especially on that day, the water was pretty rough. I’m anxious every time we go out. I get more anxious during practice than in the actual race. For practice purposes, we have a buddy system, where everybody has somebody that they need to watch.”

Despite the challenges that open-water swimming poses, both Kristina and Eli proved they have the mental fortitude to successfully meet their goal of finishing the race. “It was quite nerve-racking. You’re not sure at first how you’re going to do it,” Kristina says. “My mom was kayaking right next to me, and she helped me cope with a lot of the things that stress me out. The water was really choppy and hard to swim through. You would swim a ways, and then the waves would crash into you and push you back. I try to focus on what’s in front of me, and the next buoy that I had to hit.”

Eli cited his wetsuit as a significant aid against Mephremagog’s rough waters on race day. “You float a lot easier in a wet suit,” he says. “They’re a lot warmer, too. On the race day, the water was really cold because of the previous day’s rain, so the wetsuit helped.”

Most important, the two teens weren’t fazed by the Kingdom Swim’s daunting length. Both plan to come back next year and eventually move up to the 10-miler. “I’d like to graduate to bigger distances. I’d like to do the 10-mile distance next year,” Eli says.

Adds Kristina, “I’ll do it again next year, but I thought about the 10-mile distance, and I think I would wait a few more years before I tried that.” So start training for the 2012 Kingdom Swim everybody, because there will be stiff competition in the form of two dedicated Vermont teens.