History of The Great Race at Kingdom Swim

History of The Great Race at Kingdom Swim

The 10-Mile Race at Kingdom Swim on Lake Memphremagog in Vermont is referred to as the Great Race.  Race visionary Phil White describes it, “For the speedy, it’s a true measure of just how fast are you? For those starting to stretch beyond the standard 10 km marathon distance, it is a gateway to the longer, wider open water world that lies beyond.  Completion is the measure, earning swimmers clay rocks from the Clubhous Beach.

There are no guide buoys, just turn buoys. Instead, long stretches without any buoys, a wide open lake, and, typically, some frisky weather changes to challenge the best swimmers. Navigating the winds and the subtle lake currents is challenging even to the best kayakers.”

Its history dates back to 2009 in the aftermath of the first Olympic 10K Marathon Swim where a number of marathon swims exploded worldwide. With guidance from Ned Denison of Cork, Ireland and Leslie Thomas of San Francisco and the support of locals like Peter Stuart, Kingsley Boyd, Charlotte Brynn, and Shannon House Keegan.  

Just hours before the start of the inaugural race, thunderstorms and high winds blew through Newport and Derby, knocking out the electricity in both towns, followed by event-threatening torrential rains … then true to the fickle personality of Mother Nature, the rains suddenly stopped just 15 minutes before we deployed the first round of kayaks.   Water turned calm and misty. 

White recalls the first race, “Rondi Davies of New York City won in 4 hours 4 minutes.  Watching her on the north leg of the swim, graceful and long in the water, and so, so fast.  Winning among the men was John Humenik, also of New York City, running across the line in the sand at Prouty Beach in 4 hours 34 minutes.  Also swimming that first 10-mile race was David Barra.  His longest swim prior to that race was the Ederle Swim, a current assisted swim.  The very next year, David went on to swim the English Channel, Around Manhattan, and the Catalina Channel – the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming – all in the space of 81 days.   Also tucked in the crannies of the one and three mile swims that first year were the likes of Charlotte Brynn, Shannon House Keegan, and Paula Yankauskas, all of whom would then swim the 10-miler and go on to swim the 25-mile length of Lake Memphremagog In Search of Memphre and more.

Over the years, it has been the venue for the WOWSA World Championships as well as the US Masters Swimming National Championships. But it stands, on its own, as a major open water swimming challenge in its own right, with the grand prize: a gallon of Couture’s Maple Syrup, a pound of Brault’s Beef Jerky, and a walking stick, lovingly hand-carved by Bill Peck, a beloved, retired obstetrician, who has, himself, swum the 25-mile length of Lake Memphremagog in stages during the 1990s.

In 2017, two Olympic hopefuls, Eva Fabian of Keene, New Hampshire and Chris Deegan of Australia, set the course record at 3 hours 19 minutes. And just last year, Eric Nilsson of Boston, came close to breaking that record with a time of 3 hours 38 minutes. 

The Great Race also stands as a most important breakout step in “the ladder” for many an open water swimmer who has gone on to swim the 25-Mile In Search of Memphre and other long swims in the wide open waters around the world.  In addition to Brynn, Keegan, and Yankauskas, they include Bill Shipp, Lori Corena, Jen Dutton, Bethany Bosch, David Dammerman, Vera Rivard, Abigail Fairman, Amanda Hunt, Dan Shub, Natalie Lang, Lauren Byron, Stephen Rouch, and James Loreto.

Bethany Bosch

Bethany Bosch (shown above) was the last one back to the beach in 2011 with a time of 7 hours 43 minutes. We were holding the Awards Ceremony on the beach as she walked out of the water and crossed the “line in the sand.” All to a standing ovation of all the other swimmers assembled on the beach. She later said that that was the moment when she knew she was a marathon swimmer. She went off to Ned Denison’s Cork Distance Week and returned the next year to shave an hour and 20 minutes off her 10-mile time, finishing in 6 hours 25 minutes. She then swam the 25-mile length of Lake Memphremagog in 2013, the same time that Sarah Thomas completed the first 50-mile double-cross of the lake. In 2014 Bethany swam the English Channel.

Why we say that the 10-Mile Race is a maker of Kings and Queens of the Open Water.  Put another way, take “The Dip” in the Magical Waters of Mighty Memphremagog and the world is yours for the taking.

Over the past decade, the Great Race has attracted swimmers from over 40 different states, including California, Oregon, Washington, and even Alaska, three Canadian provinces, and nations worldwide including, India, Scotland, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, Mexico, and Argentina.

Kingdom Swim is supported by a battle-hardened fleet of local volunteer patrol boats who provide guidance around the course and safety for swimmers who find themselves in distress during their swim.  All swimmers must be accompanied by a kayaker. Most bring their own with them. But some can’t.  Last year we recruited and provided 40 volunteer kayakers to swimmers who needed them.

The Great Race is hosted by Kingdom Games and the Northeast Kingdom Open Water Swimming Association. It is held annually toward the end of July at Kingdom Swim, which now includes 1 mile, 5 km, 10 km and 25 km distances as well as the 10-Mile Race.  During the weekend about 150 swimmers and an equal number of kayakers descend on Newport in a grand celebration of open water swimming, with our Costume Pet and Swimmers Parade, Boat Tours, Ceremonial Laying of the Buoys, a Swimmers and Yackers Pasta Dinner under the tents at the EastSide Restaurant on the shores of Memphremagog, with 1 and 3 milers, young and old, sitting with Triple Crown stars, shoulder to shoulder, sharing their love and joy of open water swimming.

The Kingdom Swim is the flag ship swim of the Northeast Kingdom Open Water Swimming Association, spawning over 25 days of other swims in the lakes of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and the Eastern Townships of Quebec. They include NEK Swim Week, the Saturday Clubhous Swim Series and In Search of Memphre, not to mention the Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival.

Rondi Davies in Lake Memphremagog

Online registration is open for Kingdom Swim 2022 and all of NEKOWSA’S 25 days of open water swimming; register here.

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Steven Munatones