By Liz Morrish
Swimmers emptied off the Metro-North train to Beacon, exuberant to be back for another day. For most, the previous three days had been successful. There was portentous talk, though, of stage 5, still looming ahead. They all know how tough it is, and how relatively few people finish. Some were telling tales of previous attempts, hoping to conquer ‘the beast’ this time. But today was Stage 4, and they must focus on one day at a time. It was one of the shorter stages, but taking some interesting turns around Bannerman Island and bends in the river. A highlight of the stage would be West Point Military Academy – its imposing granite citadel dominating the river valley.
You almost feel sorry for these phenomenal elite swimmers because there are so few onlookers to offer admiration and applause. Swimmers’ friends and family turn out to cheer the start and finish, but so many of them land back on deck unobserved, uncelebrated. They really deserve their own stadium, but marathon swimming takes place away from crowds and in the isolation of open water. It is not a spectator sport.
There was some nervousness about the rigors of today as well. Swimming huge distances day after day has a way of taking its toll on the body, depleting energies and making it more difficult to warm up each evening. A few swimmers are sporting kinesotape strapping around the shoulders. The physical demands can leave the swimmer vulnerable to what I heard Abby Fairman refer to as ‘residual’. This can make the first few hours of the swim uncomfortable, especially in view of the chop today. There was intermittent sunshine and a water temperature of 69F (20C) which would reduce the risk of succumbing to the cold. The wind was strong, though, and coming from the south. Swimmers were face-on to some whitecaps, favoring those who can raise their bodies out of the water and almost surf forward with each stroke.
The chop eased off as we rounded West Point. The mountains were high enough to offer some shelter from the wind, and this seemed like a haven to the swimmers who had fought their way through the morning’s tough conditions. This was where Rondi got in for a swim alongside Josh Gordon of the UK. The slight lull in the chop did not last long and the rough water picked up as the blurred form of Bear Mountain bridge emerged from the blue haze. The calm proved to be deceptive for the swimmers; the headwind and the waves dogged them for most of the race.
Today, the risk to swimmers came not from the large cement containers, shunted upstream by tugboats – it came from the Sunday speedboaters slashing along, often oblivious to attempts to warn them via marine radio. Captain Greg Porteous was constantly on the alert and would maneuver to flag boats down by a blast on the horn and a polite request to slow down and look out for swimmers and kayakers.
Stephen Rouch was once more the stage winner, crashing down over the chop and launching his way forward. He barely seemed tired. Others did not look quite so fresh as they exited, drained by the relentlessly exhausting conditions. This year, the men are proving dominant, as Stephen was followed by Josh Gordon, Ed Stoner, Flavio Toi, and Graco Morlan, before Marta Izo broke the stream emerging just before Mark Spratt and Abby Fairman.
This is also the year of consistent finishes, and there are several swimmers doing all seven stages who are on course to enter the very exclusive 8 Bridges Hall of Fame. Among them are Stephen Rouch, Flavio Toi, Graco Morlan, Marta Izo, Abby Fairman, Ed Riley, Jamie Tout, Steve Gruenwald and — Harry Finger of Brazil who battled for 40 minutes against the flood tide to make the last 100 meters to the finish today. Those of us who are aware of our own frailties can perhaps borrow some of the strength of extraordinary people like these, and stay inspired by the memory of their determination.
And there, as we witnessed successive triumphs under the suspensions of Bear Mountain Bridge, we heard seagulls for the first time, telling us we are getting close to the end of our odyssey.