Swimming a mile in the still water of an indoor or outdoor pool is a feat not many can say they would be able to accomplish in a competitive amount of time. Even swimmers know that long distance swimming isn’t for everyone, especially the 1600m. But multiply that one mile by 28 ½, change the pool to the open waters that surround Manhattan Island and you have just one example of the many open water races the native New Yorker, Simona Dwass ’19, has competed in since she met the minimum age requirement at 15.
However, competitive swimming has not always been a part Dwass’ career. Although she began learning to swim once she was 6 months old — a consequence of being raised by parents with a love for swimming — it wasn’t until she was 12 that she started swimming competitively. It also wasn’t until this time that she discovered her affinity for swimming in the unbound, open waters of the ocean.
“Some people ask me ‘How can you swim a mile in the pool? It must be so boring!’ and it totally is boring.” Dwass admitted. The repetitive back and forth movement with a wall constantly waiting for her to turn off of it was never something that excited Dwass. “It’s just the same thing over and over again,” she said “But in open water it’s totally different. If you swim 1 mile you’re in a totally different place, you can already see two or three landmarks and I think it’s just so much more fun.”
Dwass’s experience swimming in open water began when she was 12, when her swim coach started a group that would go out to Coney Island during the summer and do swimming exercises in the bay. It was at this time that she also discovered the organization NYC Swim that organized swims around different areas of New York including Governors Island, the Statue of Liberty and the Hudson River.
“I really wanted to join but I was 12 at the time and you had to be 15 to join. My friends who were already 15 were allowed to participate in the races so I was really jealous for three years.”
But 15 finally came and Dwass competed in her first ever official open water race: 1.6 miles up the Hudson River. “I remember it was on Memorial Day so it was freezing,” she recalled. “I was completely purple when I came out.”
Dwass continued to participate in other open water swims such as the race spanning across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan and the swim around Governors Island, one of her favorite open water swims to date.
However, one of the most memorable open water swims Dwass competed in was the 17-mile Rose Pitinoff swim in the summer of 2014 when she was only 17. After attempting to compete in the race at 16 but getting turned away due to the age requirement of 19, the organization planning the event personally contacted her the following year and sent her an email asking if she would be interested in participating in the race.
“Since I was going to be 17 and the original girl (Rose Pitinoff) was 17 when she first swam the race 103 years ago, they were willing to make an exception for me,” she said.
Not only would Dwass serve as the second youngest person in the history of the race to swim from the East River to Coney Island but she also felt a special connection to the locations where the race would start and end.
“I thought the race itself was really cool because I live on 14th Street and the swim starts on East 26th Street so you swim right past my building!” She explained. “And the race ends in Coney Island where I first started swimming open water. I thought it was so cool and symbolic.”
Accompanied by a kayaker that kept her on course as well as an observation boat full of friends and family, Dwass finally finished the 17 miles of constant swimming with a few, short breaks in between. However, she completed the race faster than anyone could have imagined and broke the all-time record with a time of 4 hours and 24 minutes.
“It was the super moon that weekend,” she described. “So the currents were ridiculous and the tides were totally unlike anyone had expected. While I was swimming I could tell that the currents were helping me, but I definitely didn’t realize that they were that fast.”
With the help of the experienced kayaker that helped guide her toward the currents that pushed her along toward Coney Island, Dwass arrived at the finish line before it was even up. “I got there an hour ahead of when they told the volunteers to come so they had to run up the last minute and finish setting up the buoy as I was swimming up to it.”
After her huge success at the Rose Pitinoff swim, Dwass still hadn’t gotten her fix of open water. This brought her to compete in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim this past summer — 28.5 miles and 8 hours and 20 minutes of cold, choppy waters, and at some points, even three-foot waves.
“It was definitely a lot harder to swim in than the Rose Pitinoff race,” she said. “I definitely felt the feeling of ‘I don’t think I can finish this’ more than the Rose race too. I’ve swum almost all of the rivers around Manhattan Island but it still felt very foreign.”
Not only were the waters, especially along the Hudson River, rougher than the Rose race, the temperature was colder too. And to make matters worse, the waves and temperature weren’t the only things making the race difficult to finish.
“Feeling sea lice bite you while you’re swimming is really uncomfortable and you can definitely feel it,” she explained. “Sea lice are tiny little things that get stuck to your swimsuit and bite your skin underneath. I had 73 bites after the Manhattan Island swim.”
Despite all of these unforeseen issues, and even a lack of communication between her and the kayaker responsible for timing her breaks and giving her food — resulting in a long period of time without eating — Dwass was still able to complete the race.
“I really wasn’t expecting to finish just based on my training,” she explained. “But I’m satisfied with my time.” After finishing fourth in her age group in overall time, there’s no reason she shouldn’t be.
Although Dwass will be unable to compete in open water swims for a while now that she’s confined to the concrete slabs of the Ware Pool, she plans to continue competing in long distance swims like the 1000m and the 1650m once swim season begins in the spring. With hundreds of miles of open water experience under her belt, a mile in the pool is nothing she isn’t used to.