The old joke about Philadelphia’s unsavory water supply has gained traction over the years: “do you prefer Schuylkill punch or Delaware punch?” Swimming? Deliberately? Not so much.
That perception has changed considerably, with the advent of French Creek Racing. Founded in 2012 by John Kenny—a pro triathlete and elite marathon swimmer with national championships to his credit—it began with pool training. However, a dip in the Schuylkill convinced Kenny of the river’s potential for open water swimming. “When I lived in Bridgeport,” he explained, “I decided to take a brief swim one day. When I realized that the water was actually pretty nice and that there could be a lot of others who would enjoy it, that was the original idea.” That idea grew into three swimming venues, two in the Schuylkill River and another in Delaware’s Newark Reservoir.
There are challenges of course. Says Kenny, “the most difficult part of my job is to spread the word that open water swimming is a normal, safe, activity to partake in, especially when it's with a reputable organized group like ours.”
But Kenny is undeterred.
The quizzical looks—“you swim where?”—have morphed into interest, piqued all the more by the races Kenny puts on. Besides a series of six half-mile events scattered through spring and summer, swimmers can choose the River Day Swim Fest, featuring 5k, one mile, and/or 800 meter swims (swimmers may do any or all of these distances); the SwimRun Challenge, a 1000m swim and 5k run, which may be done once or twice through; or, for the even more ambitious, the Charles Bender Memorial Marathon Swim, which at eight miles is the longest of the swims on the French Creek Racing program.
If races bring swimmers to the river, the river does the rest. Noncompetitive group swims take place twice a week, from April through October, provided enough swimmers commit to a given day.
Paula Miller, winner of the 2016 Bender swim women’s race, enjoys swimming in the Schuylkill “because it's fairly unpredictable. Each swim is completely different, not just in terms of temperature and current, but wind and waves, too. The river is always fun.”
The saying “you don’t step into the same river twice” certainly applies to the Schuylkill. As Kenny elaborates, “conditions on the river are variable. After heavy rains, the flow and turbidity must be monitored as it's sometimes not recommended for swimming at those times. During normal flow conditions, the current is significant enough that you'll definitely notice it.” Swimmers certainly notice it. Those used to a pool can find it disconcerting.
Still, swimmers who can embrace the diverse conditions, as Miller shows, can experience it more as playground than as nemesis.
Ultimately, the water quality has “improved greatly,” Kenny observes. “The river has had a bad reputation, but it's really one of the cleanest places you can swim close to Philadelphia.”
For those who prefer not to deal with the Schuylkill’s currents, Kenny offers the Newark Reservoir swims in Delaware, less than an hour’s drive from Philadelphia. There, visitors can enjoy Monday evening swims throughout the summer, free from boat traffic. Swimming independently of a group is not permitted; however, swimmers may register online to join the swims or pay on site.
While French Creek Racing is closest to the city and oversees swims in the Schuylkill and Newark Reservoir, visitors with more time can explore several other open water sites in the Philadelphia metropolitan area and along the New Jersey coast.
Near Downington, Pa., Marsh Creek State Park’s lake is the setting for the Mid-Atlantic Multisport swims. Bill Hauser—a longtime coach, Ironman triathlete and marathoner—launched this company in 2002. Recognizing that the open water swims in many triathlons required “more than just form and technique help,” in 2004, he began offering open water clinics, a service he continues to provide.
These consist of a dry-land component, during which he explains how to cope with the anxiety many swimmers experience when venturing into what for many is a foreign setting. His goal is to help foster confidence when they encounter open water in a race. He then “gets them into the water,” where he introduces skills such as sighting, drafting, and group starts on a course marked with buoys similar to what swimmers might encounter in a race.
Originally, he offered clinics only but with growing interest in non-instructional training swims, he added those to his program as well. He feels fortunate in his choice of Marsh Creek, “the cleanest of open water settings” he’s experienced, although “weather can be iffy.” Swims will not be held if there’s a thunderstorm. And although currents are not the issue that they are in a river, “some days can be windy and chilly.” But overall, Hauser says, “we’ve been extremely fortunate with the weather.”
Hauser offers day and season passes for training swims, which take place Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings.
Another popular lake setting, Medford Lake in New Jersey, is the home venue of ETA Coach. Founded by the late Jason Kilderry, it’s now under the direction of Meg Smith. Impressed by her passion for the science of training, Kilderry tapped her as his assistant coach in 2016 and, his cancer progressing, he named Smith as his successor, so that “I had time to mentally prepare. It’s been tough, but going there has been healing. We have a supportive community of swimmers.”
Further, Smith notes that the lake is available for a “number of hours,” to accommodate swimmers want to train longer. Hence, guards are on duty Thursdays 4 to 7 pm, as well as 6:30 to 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays—except September 21, when the open swim ends at 8 a.m. and a swim/run event is held in Kilderry’s memory. When the lake is open for swimmers, Smith says, there are “always two to four lifeguards in kayaks who can get to swimmers easily when needed.”
Like Mid-Atlantic Multi-Sport, ETA Coach offers clinics as well as open swimming. These are offered during open swims, and require sign-up in advance. Those wanting simply to do training swims may do so with a day pass. No sign-up is required, simply show up and pay. Triathletes and runners can enjoy the miles of trails surrounding the lake.
Further north, Lake Nockamixon offers three open water swims and clinics per season, directed by Todd Wiley (twileycoach.com). Wiley—a competitive swimmer, Ironman triathlete, and marathoner—“grew up and lives in the area where Lake Nockamixon is located.” His swims are growing in popularity in the twelve years he has conducted them. “The biggest challenges are when you have 50-60 swimmers in the water at the same time making sure everyone is safe.”
Especially rewarding, he reports is “getting messages from athletes after they finished their race and say they couldn't have done it without the practice at one of my swims.”
Communication, of course, is key in easing swimmers’ fears of open water.
Says Wiley, “I try to talk with the athletes and ask them what their concerns are and if it is a physical element or a mental aspect that is preventing them from doing what they want to do in the water. The anxiety of being in the open water will cause the heart rate to rise and could cause hyper ventilating so the more I can do to talk with someone and getting their HR and breathing down to as normal as possible the easier it will be for them to swim.”
While the clinics are designed mainly for swimmers preparing for triathlons, anyone needing to make the transition from pool to open water can benefit.
One open water swim venue near Reading, Pa., Blue Marsh Lake, is unique in offering year-round swimming (yes, even in mid-winter) in a location that does not require a permit, as the others do. Swimmers here are an independent group, and scheduling is more informal than at the other sites.
Group swims come together through Facebook posts and messages. The swimmers arrange a time or simply say when they plan to swim, and soon enough, a group forms.
There are rules, though: swimmers must stay within a designated area marked by buoys (within the no-wake zone, since motorized boats are present), wear a bright colored cap and use a tow float for visibility.
Besides these informal swims, Louise Darlington, founder of Penn Heron Open Water and a frequent Blue Marsh swimmer, has introduced more structured clinics.
Darlington, has diverse open water experience, including participation in Catalina, English Channel, and Santa Cruz Island relays. As an ice swimmer, she competed in the Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival in Vermont.
She holds clinics for beginning open water swimmers undertaking their first triathlon and coaches aspiring marathon swimmers, as well as offering kayak escorted swims, that allow swimmers to test nutrition and practice taking food/fluids without touching the boat, as required by Channel rules. Eventually, she plans to hold a 10k marathon swim in Blue Marsh Lake.
All that aside, the lake continues to be the go-to spot for a regular cadre of swimmers. As informal as the swims may be, Darlington cautions swimmers about safety—and preparation, especially when facing colder water. Says Darlington, “The most important thing to bring to open water swims is your confidence and spirit of adventure. In considering cold water swimming, gear and support people become even more critical. Never train alone, bring extra warm clothing, feeds and gear.”
Finally, let’s not forget that the Atlantic Ocean is only about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia. Resort towns such as Atlantic City, Ocean City, and Cape May, with open water swims and triathlons taking place all summer.
On hand to prepare swimmers for their ocean adventures is Bruckner Chase, an ocean advocate, coach, pro triathlete, and marathon swimmer with swims in Lake Tahoe, Alaska, and American Samoa to his credit. Chase directs the masters swim program of the Ocean City Swim Club and conducts open water swims in both Atlantic City and Ocean City throughout the summer.
A transplanted Californian, Chase had enjoyed swimming with a group on the west coast. On moving to New Jersey, he missed that camaraderie, so started his own group. From thirty-five swimmers over four to five sessions per week, the group has grown to over 1000 swimmers, ranging from newcomers to Olympic Trials qualifiers, from triathletes to open water swimmers, and, as Chase says, simply “ocean lovers.”
If transitioning from a pool to a river or lake intimidates some swimmers, leaving the sheltered inland waters for the swells and rip tides of the ocean is a whole new undertaking, one for which, all the more, swimmers must prepare. And while the skills are more complex than those involved in swimming in a calm lake, the rewards are significant—the discovery of a “dynamic environment” calling on greater “situational awareness” than in other open water settings, and the bonding with other swimmers
Safety is paramount. Chase listens to people’s concerns, shows them how to enter, exit, and be in the water safely. Swimmers are instructed to respect the ocean, not to assume that their pool or lake background prepares them for the ocean. If conditions are rough, he will advise inexperienced swimmers not to stay on shore. One or two trained lifeguards or coaches will shadow new swimmers. For some, the goal is simply to reach the first buoy of the triangular 300m course. The mantra he reinforces: “When in doubt, get out.” Swimmers need to be honest, Chase says, in assessing ability and “whether one is ready for conditions that present themselves,” adding that “even good swimmers can get in trouble if they’re new to open water.”
At the same time, Chase says, it’s especially important to “stay relaxed, stay calm,” Chase says. “The worst thing you can do if you’re in trouble is to panic. People are there, trained to help, if needed.”
This is “not just a workout group,” Chase explains. It’s a “welcoming group of members who look after one another.” His group has “no place for prima donnas.”
Perhaps that point is central to all the open water settings in the area. All the coaches mentioned the importance of community and volunteer support. Kenny speaks of this in explaining how he manages to combine coaching, training, and directing events.
“I've been fortunate enough to have found some great help. Bottom line—when there's a will, there's a way. I work hard and play hard, but I've also been really fortunate to have found a community that's been supportive of my efforts. I couldn't do it without those other swimmers, triathletes, and volunteers who help make things happen.”
Swimmers have responded. Common to all their comments: the sense of community that Chase mentions, wherever they swim—salt water or fresh water, inland or on the coast, river or lake. “Find a group”: that is the chorus.
Mike Barbacano, who ventured into open water to train for triathlons, now volunteers regularly in order to “give back” and calls Philadelphia area open water swimmers “a great group of people.”
Neill Clark, a former Philadelphian, was a regular at the French Creek swims, recognizing not only its convenience to his home, but also the shared enthusiasm of fellow swimmers. He urges swimmers to “find a local group like French Creek Racing as their members run the gamut from newbies to world open water champions. It's the perfect combination of camaraderie, competition and training.”
Adds Tamie Gangloff, who should know, as she has swum in almost all the locations mentioned here, “Get to know your fellow swimmers. They are some of the kindest people I’ve met.”
Yes, we have the Liberty Bell. Do have a look at it. Then consider the name, Philadelphia: Greek for “City of Brotherly Love.” Our swimming community lives that motto—and has some fun in the water besides.
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