The woman who plans to swim around the world

Jaimie Monahan wants to be fastest person to complete six marathon swims on six continents

Jamie Monahan at the shore in Brooklyn, New York. Monahan will attempt to become the fastest person to complete six marathon swims on six continents within 16 days. Photograph: Marian Carrasquero/The New York Times

Jamie Monahan at the shore in Brooklyn, New York. Monahan will attempt to become the fastest person to complete six marathon swims on six continents within 16 days. Photograph: Marian Carrasquero/The New York Times

 

The weather wasn’t cooperating with Jaimie Monahan on a recent weekend morning. It had rained heavily the night before, making the wind and waves too strong at sunrise for her to swim her planned 12-mile route, from the Brooklyn Bridge to Coney Island.

Although conditions in New York Bay and the Atlantic Ocean had calmed down after the sun had risen, Monahan had missed her chance to train for the Rose Pitonof Swim, a gruelling 17-mile race in mid-August. Instead, she attended a morning yoga session on Brighton Beach, organized by Cibbows, the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers.

“The tide, the hot or cold water, wildlife, weather, it all affects open-water swimming,” she said.

The 38-year-old has logged over 75 major swimming events in 10 years as an open water, ice and winter swimmer (the total climbs to 300 if you include smaller events), gaining numerous accolades along the way. She is a seven-time US national champion in winter swimming, and was inducted this year into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, along with being named Woman of the Year by the World Open Water Swimming Association for both 2016 and 2017.

Jamie Monahan at the shore in Brooklyn.
Jamie Monahan at the shore in Brooklyn.

As if she’s not busy enough swimming and collecting awards, Monahan also has a full-time job as a recruiter for Deloitte, the global auditing and consulting firm. But this month, she won’t be putting in much cubicle time. Monahan will be attempting to obtain a Guinness World Record as the fastest person to complete six marathon swims on six continents within 16 days (a marathon swimming event, which can vary in distance, must be at least 6.2 miles). Her first qualifying event will be the Pitonof Swim, which will start on Saturday, August 11th, in Manhattan at East 26th Street and finish at Steeplechase Pier in Coney Island. Later that day, she will head to the airport for a flight to Colombia. Following in rapid succession will be flights to and swims in the waters of Australia, Singapore, Egypt and Switzerland.

“I actually don’t see myself as super-athletic,” she said. “Kinda more like a penguin; clumsy on land, but graceful in the water.”

Monahan has always been a swimmer – she swam butterfly and individual medley for her high school and college teams – but her love for open water swimming didn’t become a passion until she started to train for a triathlon with her boyfriend of 18 years, Arik Thormahlen, (41), a fund-raiser in health and higher education.

She then read about Rose Pitonof, a teenager who swam from Manhattan to Coney Island in 1911 (the event named after Pitonof follows her original trajectory), and Lynne Cox, an athlete perhaps best-known for swimming across the Bering Strait. She found these women so inspiring, it fuelled her interest further.

American open-water swimmer Lynne Cox.

After participating in events in California and Florida as a test run, Monahan swam the 21-mile English Channel in 2009.

“Jaimie carries the love and spirit Rose had,” said Deanne Draeger, founder of Urban Swim, a local group that organizes the annual Pitonof swim and other clean-water advocacy programs. “They’re both vivacious, charming and passionate.”

After becoming the first person to complete the Ice Sevens Challenge, where the rules stipulate that the water temperature be below 41 degrees Fahrenheit and that seven 1-mile swims must be performed on all seven continents, Monahan said she needed a new goal. Two years ago, she started planning her marathon swims.

When her Deloitte schedule allows, Monahan likes to exercise four to seven times a week, which includes high-intensity workouts at the gym, yoga and swimming both indoors and out. On the weekends, she joins group swims or goes on long solo swims organized by Cibbows.

And there is a lot to organize. Capri Djatiasmoro, who is on the Cibbows board, sometimes must secure authorization from the US Coast Guard and notify the New York Police Department’s harbour unit about the swim routes and start times. A police boat always accompanies the swims, and depending on the course location, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation may also have to be notified.

During long-distance swims, Djatiasmoro, along with the boat’s captain and Thormahlen, is next to Monahan on a rigid hull inflatable boat. Using sonar, radar and her own two eyes, Djatiasmoro said she is on a constant lookout for other boats, Jet Skis, debris and, at times, birds. “Sometimes you look up and see lots of birds circling above and you know there’s fish under the swimmer, so you slightly alter their course,” she said.

Organizing the upcoming challenge has taken over a year. Besides logistics, such as booking flights and accommodations, Monahan had to get permission from the right authorities to swim in various international waters. Thormahlen, who said he’s been happy to do much of the research on gear, is excited to try out a new kind of ocean kayak, which, inspired by origami, folds into a compact parcel.

“When I opened it for the first time in our house, it took over our entire kitchen,” Thormahlen said of the Oru Kayak. He will be travelling with Monahan for all of her swims and using the kayak to help her stay on course.

Jamie Monahan in the Atlantic Ocean off the shore in Brooklyn.
Jamie Monahan in the Atlantic Ocean off the shore in Brooklyn.

Besides bringing eight bathing suits, Monahan, who has very fair skin, plans to take 24 ounces of Desitin, a diaper rash cream, which she slathers all over in lieu of sunblock, and bags of CarboPro powder, an energy supplement, which she drinks every 30 minutes during her swims.

Monahan said she sometimes sings songs in her head while she swims, but mostly focuses on the nature around her. On occasion, she has listened to dolphins whistle, and she has swum with a penguin in Antarctica. Jellyfish and insects are bothersome, but she doesn’t let them get to her since a solid mental state, and the ability to react to sudden changes in the water, is important in open water swimming. Although Monahan said she wasn’t letting the notion consume her, she and Thormahlen are aware that there are pirates in the Malacca and Singapore Straits.

Monahan is using up two weeks of vacation for the upcoming adventure. “It’s funny when someone from the office asks you what you did over the weekend,” she said. “Sometimes I was swimming on the other side of the world.”

THE PARTICULARS

Project: The Guinness World Record for fastest person to complete six marathon swims on six continents.
Sites: New York (Manhattan to Coney Island); Colombia (Tierra Bomba Island in the Caribbean); Australia (Bondi Beach to Watsons Bay in the South Pacific); the Malacca and Singapore Straits; Egypt (the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea); Switzerland (Lausanne to Évian-les Bains via Lake Geneva).
In the works: Since 2016.
Driving forces: Jaimie Monahan and Arik Thormahlen.
Cost: About $12,000 (about €10,400).
Biggest Obstacles: Weather, water temperature, wildlife, pirates.
– New York Times

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