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Secrets of open-water swimming: Liz Fry on avoiding sharks, refueling, and making 55 degrees feel “balmy”

October 22, 2009 – 4:29 AM


By Laura Pappano

Elizabeth Fry, 50, is a powerhouse of an open-water swimmer who last month shattered by more than six hours (six hours!!) Kris Rutford’s record for the reverse Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. On September 18, she completed the 28.5 mile clockwise swim – against the current, down the East River and up the Hudson – in 11 hours, 41, minutes, and 5 seconds. Fry, who also swam the English Channel – three times – as well as to Catalina Island, has completed the counter-clockwise Manhattan Island Swim (with the current) in 7:44:47. A Wesport (CT) resident, Fry is also the event director for Swim Across the Sound, which raises money for cancer patients and their families.

FGN: You swim the English Channel, around Manhattan, off the California coast. Isn’t it awfully cold?

EF: The English Channel, for example, is incredibly salty and cold. You have to prepare yourself for the temperature to be about 58 degrees. If you’re lucky it will be 62. You spend a lot of your training acclimating to a much colder temperature. We can start swimming in Long Island Sound in April or May. If you swim at, say, 53 degrees, 55 is balmy and 62 becomes very tolerable. I don’t mind cold water.

FGN: How do you eat – or drink – when you are swimming for hours and hours?

EF: I don’t train with fluids. During my [competitive] swims, I have scheduled feeding breaks and they are primarily fluids. I have warm peppermint tea with an unflavored protein powder mixed in. I usually stop and tread water and talk to my crew (which includes my sister Peggy, whom I trust with my life). The crew will use that time to assess my mental and physical state.

FGN: Have you ever had to call off a swim?

EF: In 2007, I had a very bad asthma attack crossing the English Channel [Fry was attempting a double cross]. I had gotten to France and it was a very tough swim. When I stood up in France – you have to go above the water line – I felt as if my lungs were compressed. As I walking back into the water I was having an issue with my asthma and my crew handed me my inhaler. I swam another five hours, but then there was a moment in that last couple of minutes in which I felt warm and great. I realized you shouldn’t feel wonderful and great – I might have been ready to pass out – and I said, ‘It’s time.” I had pneumonia by the time I got home. I respect the sport now as an extreme sport.

FGN: Do you ever encounter wildlife during your swims?

EF: Out in the [Long Island] Sound you mostly run into jellyfish. During my Catalina swim, I had encounters with seals, flying fish and a sleeping sail fish. I knew these were shark-infested waters and I asked my friend Marcia Cleveland what to do. She said, “Don’t wear blue or black.” I had seen a 7-year-old wearing a pink bathing suit. It was adorable, so I got one for myself. I was swimming and these things — these flying fish — are coming at me and it turns out the pink suit probably looked like a giant lure. But I also saw a dolphin. If there is a dolphin, it is a great swim.

FGN: Did you swim as a kid?

EF: I was one of five kids – the middle child – growing up in Long Beach [and later, Westport], and we were always at the beach, in the water and the waves. My parents couldn’t get me out of the water, I was blue, shivering. In 6th grade, I started swimming at the YMCA in Westport. There were no other organized sports when I was a kid. In high school, they did not have a swim team until my senior year. Before then, I played softball and field hockey. But as a senior, I stopped playing field hockey to swim. We had a 20-yard pool, but the facility made no difference.

FGN: What made you interested in swimming in open water – and across huge bodies?

EF: I started open-water swimming when I was about 8 and went to Camp Ak-O-Mak in Canada. We would go up in June, but there wasn’t a heated pool. You swam in a lake. You could almost feel the ice cracking in the morning. But that’s what you were there for. [The camp has produced Olympic swimmers]. The mess hall there had pictures of swimmer and they had this small section of channel swimmers. I remember looking at that. My father being British, we always heard about the English Channel being the Everest of swimming. In 2001, I was working for T. Rowe Price and a group decided to swim the English Channel relay. It was a fantastic experience. I don’t think the notion of swimming the English Channel [myself] ever left my mind.

FGN: Does open water marathon swimming have any relevance in your work life?

EF: I do strategy consulting around mergers and acquisitions. I work with investment advisors, brokerage firms, banks. Swimming requires discipline. You are the only one. You can’t slack and hope someone else will pick it up.  I will go to a meeting and we are meeting a client for the first time and they will go through the introduction and then they say, “And let me tell you about Liz – she swam the English Channel.”

They are not talking about the university I went to or the other things I have done in my life. There are a lot of people I work with who are very accomplished athletically as well. People don’t get to be the CEO of a company in this day and age without having the professional and the physical.

FGN: Any advice for young girls dreaming of these big swims?

EF: I had a big advantage because from a young age I was in open water. I was in the Atlantic Ocean. I was very comfortable with it. That is the biggest challenge – there are no lane lines, you don’t know what is under you. Girls can get involved in a shoreline or lake race – even one-milers or relays. And for the relay division you can wear wetsuits. Longer races can require a lot of training so you want to maLizFryke sure teachers and parents are involved.

What do you think about when you swim?

EF: I don’t think about anything. It’s a complete blank. I know some people sing. The only way I can describe it is as a dynamic meditation. I am just totally loving it, looking at my hands in the water, the phosphorescence, the stuff that makes your hands almost light up. The good news is I don’t think it’s cold and I’m not hungry. It’s like you have spaced out while you are driving and all of a sudden you are home.

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