The Special Race Of Rondi Davies Around Manhattan Island
In 2010, Morty Berger, the former organizer of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, the famous 45.9 km circumnavigation swim in New York City, came up with a match race between Olympians Petar Stoychev and Mark Warkentin – and between Rondi Davies and Tobey Ann Saracino.
The goal of the mano-a-mano match race between Stoychev and Warkentin and between Davies and Saracino was to set a course record. With an unexpected late start to the carefully planned race on September 10th 2010, the event did not result in a record but it was remarkable in a few ways.
“The entire race was livecast with the help of technology that was developed by Chris Lundie who engineered the special livecast while sitting on the lead escort boat,” recalled Steven Munatones who did the commentary for over 7 straight hours . “Mark and Petar made the race fun and exciting to call; it was close the whole way. There was a lot to talk about. There were non-stop moves and strategic surges. Rondi, towards the end, and Tobey also made the Manhattan Challenge Swim very special.”
Davies finished in 6 hours 43 minutes after starting on Randall’s Island in the Harlem River at 116th Street. The start was at 3:20 pm for the women and 3:40 pm for the men. The weather saw the swimmers compete in a NNW wind at 16 kph with gusts up to 27 kph under cloudy skies with some sun. The high air temperature was 23˚C with a low of 16˚F. The water temperature was a consistent 23˚C. The sun set at 7:10 pm which meant the four swimmers swam the last 2+ hours in the dark.
Davies looked forward to the race and record attempt (that she would set in September 2011 in 5 hours 44 minutes in a match race against Oliver Wilkinson). “I was waiting all day for the race to start; it was nerve-wracking. I ate breakfast (cereal, no milk), lay around, and watched some online TV, took a short walk with Andy to buy gifts for my kayakers, ate lunch (whole wheat pasta), and rested some more.
Danielle, my other crew person, arrived at the apartment at 1:30 pm. We discussed the course, my feedings, and lighting the boat and kayaks when it was dark. We were well prepared. Danielle and Andy have crewed for me before and I know they have my back. When I’m in the water, Andy watches me constantly and Danielle writes me messages and stands up for me, yelling at people if necessary. They are constantly working to arrange my feeds or note the times. I couldn’t ask for a more devoted crew.
At 2:00 pm, we picked up Andy’s car and drove to Randall’s Island, about 20 minutes away. The wind was blowing and the air chilly. Only days before, New York was in the full bloom of summer. That day it felt like fall. I got a text from a friend that said, ‘Stay focused no matter what the conditions are.’ This good advice stayed with me. was pleased the wind was at least from the North because it would push us with the current down the 14-mile stretch of the wide-open Hudson River. Maybe we would even be able to surf some waves.
Most of the people — organizers, swimmers, kayakers, crew and observers — arrived in boats that had come from North Cove. It was after 3:00 pm when things started to happen. I was glad we had made our own way there so we had more time. I ate some energy snacks, arranged my light sticks on my suit, greased up my chafe areas, put my swim cap on, said a few words to my kayakers, and waited on the shore to be told when to start. Andy and Danielle left to board their boat. My friend Stefan kept me company as I huddled under the back of Andy’s car to stay away from the cold wind.
Around 3:25 pm, Tobey jumped off her boat and I climbed down the rock wall and got in the water. The currents were moving north at a fantastic speed. We had to swim against them as we waited at the buoy to start. Our official start time was 3:29 pm, ten minutes later than planned. This upset Tobey as we would be arriving at The Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, later in the tide when the Hudson River would be flooding. Unfortunately Tobey didn’t make it around The Battery, partly due to the turning tide and partly due to seasickness.
Moments after the race started, my kayakers Dan Starer and Nicholas Vos Wein sandwiched me between them, Nick on the left and Dan on the right. I had met Dan, the lead kayaker, earlier in the week and I knew I was in good hands. As well as volunteering for many of these events, he is an active paddler and knows the waters around Manhattan extremely well. Dan was very focused on the task at hand and eager to make the swim a success. I put full trust in Dan and Nic and loved having their companionship throughout the swim. They guided me, fed me, answered my questions, kept debris out of my way, encouraged me and kept me safe. Clearly the swim would not have been possible without them.
My stroke opened up quickly and I felt great as we flew along the Harlem River. Usually it takes me an hour to get my body and mind into a long swim like this. I need to warm-up, calm my thoughts and re-visit the reasons that I am there. It’s always my hardest hour, but not this time. I was immediately having a lot of fun counting off the landmarks as we swept by. I was hoping Tobey and I would swim this section together but she dropped behind me almost immediately.
I anticipated the Harlem River would take just under two hours, but at a 1 hour 20 minutes, we had traveled nearly 100 blocks and were at the Broadway Bridge, near the northern tip of Manhattan. Ten minutes later, we were entering the Hudson. The wind howled through sections of the Harlem like a wind tunnel. In opposition to the current, it created some very choppy effects. At times, the wind chill made me cold which worried me. Thankfully as soon I realized I was worried or cold, I forgot about it.
Near the intersection of the Harlem and Hudson River, the current slowed and the wind picked up. Dan took us over to the Manhattan side of the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge. We flew under it and into some very turbulent water that threatened to smash the kayaks and me against the sea wall. We all moved a hard right and soon we were sailing down the Hudson River. The lead boat came up behind us and told us to move to the New Jersey side of the river. We had to push against the wind to do this and it felt that we were not taking the full benefit of riding the Hudson flow. Andy encouraged me to swim hard for 20 minutes. I put my head down and focused on swimming. We were at the George Washington Bridge and the New Jersey side of the Hudson in 26 minutes.
At two hours, I had a big feed: banana, GU, Gatorade and ibuprofen. We were soaring down the river, the sun was out, and everyone was happy and relaxed. Soon after this (near the sewage treatment plant at 145th), the Hudson’s current began to slow. Now looking at the times I see we were still traveling quickly, but with the waning current my hopes of swimming at record pace faded a little. For the first two hours, we knew we were ahead of Marcia Cleveland’s record because we had times for Marcia’s swim. However, she started in a different spot and she also swam earlier in the tide (as far as I can tell, she was faster in the Hudson River, but slower in the East River). Soon we stopped talking about the record because we had no idea if we were on pace.
Near 34th Street I was certain we were hardly moving as I had been looking at the Empire State Building for way too long. The water was also starting to roll with larger swells and there was a lot of chop from boat traffic and wind. I told Dan and Nic that we were not moving. Nic told me to look at the New Jersey shore and when I did I could see that we were traveling in a good current.
The conditions continued to worsen as we approached The Battery. At times, I felt like a cork bobbing up and down, unable to move forward due to the irregular chop. The lead boat searching for fast currents was causing me to move left and right, zig-zagging down the river. Around the time we neared North Cove, we were told to move even closer to New Jersey. I started getting annoyed and I could tell Dan was too. Even if the current was slightly faster here, didn’t the boat captain realize how much farther I would have to swim to get across the mouth of the Hudson? Mark and Petar were fortunate to avoid this unnecessary diversion and, I believe, swam mid-river.
The lights of the tall buildings in lower Manhattan were a welcome sight once the sun had set. Now the water was very choppy and my crew were stressed about the movements of boats and ferries in all directions around us. The men had caught up to me (not that I knew this) and we were all ordered not to feed and to swim hard toward a big white air vent on Governor’s Island about a mile away. Thankfully Dan handed me a GU, as I was just beginning a feed, then we took off. Looking toward the skyscraper-lit sky, I felt that I was getting nowhere and thought, ‘This is it. We’re not going to make it around The Battery, the Hudson has already begun to flood.’ About 10 minutes later, I asked Nick if we were moving and he said yes. Indeed, Governor’s Island was getting closer. Then we saw the lights of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. What a glorious sight.
Amongst all the mayhem, I noticed an incredibly bright light in the sky. Realizing it wasn’t the Moon (since we were swimming on new Moon tides), it dawned on me that I was directly across from the World Trade Center’s Tribute in Lights. To commemorate September 11th every year, two very bright lights are beamed into the sky where the Twin Towers once stood. It is a magnificent sight and seeing it from the water was a moving experience. At that moment my swim felt complete as I had already had so many wonderful experiences culminating in this.
It took 50 minutes to swim around The Battery. This was the most stressful part of the swim for my paddlers and crew. For me, it was a mental challenge to stay in the game because of the sensation that I was swimming out of my way and against the currents. We all had our heads down trying to keep it together in the darkness and chop. I recall looking back and seeing the giant silhouette of the Staten Island Ferry heading toward Manhattan. It had gone off course to avoid us swimmers. It beamed a blinding spotlight on me. We turned away and just kept moving, hoping to leave the scene of utter chaos as soon as possible.
When we got close to Governor’s Island, the pressure was off and I had a feed. The lights of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges were before us. I knew the hard part was done. All we had to do was ride the currents of the East River to the finish. Danielle yelled that we must keep moving. Dan took us way over to the Brooklyn side of the River. We jumped in a fast and turbulent current that was reflecting off the sea wall to create some big waves. In this powerful current, I felt very small, like a piece of plankton in the belly of a blue whale. I could see people at Pier 1 Park looking into the river and watching us go by. I can’t imagine what they were thinking, or perhaps they had been tracking us online and had run out to see us.
As we went under the Bridges, one of the male swimmers swam up on my left. I didn’t know if it was Mark or Petar. We both tried to look over our kayaks at each other, but Dan yelled at me to keep going. Then I saw the swimmer speed off ahead and I thought, ‘I’m won’t be seeing him again if he’s moving that fast.’
Beyond the Williamsburg Bridge, the river darkened and grew more foreboding. Here, deserted, old factories line the shore and the river widens. Again we saw the male swimmer. A bright light from his boat was shining on him and his legs and arms appeared to be going in every direction. The vision of his frantic, erratic swimming alarmed me. In addition, the sensory over-stimulation of the last hour was catching up with me, the wind was blowing, I felt cold and mentally I started to go downhill.
I had a feed and my crew told me we were at the 5-hour mark, Marcia’s record was still in sight and I needed to put my head down and work harder. At this point, I didn’t care about the record. I just wanted to survive the experience and get to the finish. I put my face down and reluctantly began to recite the mantra that had been in my head all day, ‘Strong and easy and let the speed flow.’ Usually, I sing a lot of songs and my mind wanders. Today I was very focused and only remember citing the mantra. I picked up the pace, the wind and chop died down, my crew fed me warm drinks and all was well. I heard later we got a police escort from this point to the end of the swim.
We swam toward Manhattan, past alphabet city, the Empire State Building —which sped by quickly this time — and the United Nations building. Soon we were at Roosevelt Island and I was excited to see the lights of the 59th Street Bridge approaching. The Footbridge at 103rd Street would be the final bridge after that. The water became very calm and my mind quietened too. I concentrated on swimming strongly beside Dan. At about 5:45 pm, I knew the record was out of reach and if I got to the Footbridge in 6 hours I should be done by 6 hours 10 minutes or 6 hours 20 minutes. Dan kept us in the middle of the channel along the Island where the currents were fastest. At 90th street, and the tip of Roosevelt Island, my crew yelled that we were passing the second male swimmer, who I now assumed was Petar Stoychev, swimming closer to the wall of Manhattan. Fully surprised I said, ‘Are you serious?’ My kayakers laughed.
Past Roosevelt Island, we crossed a bay with Mill Rock to the right. If only our swim was ending here as originally planned. We headed for the Footbridge and re-entered the Harlem River. It was after six hours now, there was only 13 blocks or less that a mile to go. My crew failed to feed me as I am sure they thought we would be finished soon. In the dark, narrow river, Petar and I and our kayaks constantly wove left and right of one another. Petar would pass me in a flash with a fast surge, then with my constant pace I would pass him right back. This went on for 45 minutes. I was so focused on finishing the swim I didn’t realize how much time was passing, nor question why we were still swimming.
Finally I saw the finishing buoy and relied on Nic and Dan to take me there. Petar had fallen behind. As we approached the buoy, my kayakers pulled away and Petar surged on my right and touched the buoy first. This pushed the buoy away from us and I had to swim another few strokes to touch it. Petar and I stood up near the wall of the Harlem River and shook hands as competitors do. Only then, I noticed the current was moving quickly south. What? We had been swimming against the current — traveling less than a mile in 45 minutes. I started to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Here I was swimming against the current in the Harlem River at 10:00 pm at night and racing the god of marathon swimming and my idol, Petar Stoychev. [I tell my running friends that Petar is the running equivalent of Haile Gebreselassie, the world record holder for the marathon.]
A friend told me later that his favorite piece of commentary from the live webcast was, ‘Let me tell you about these two swimmers, Petar is a 10-time world champion, three-time Olympian, and holder of the English Channel record, and Rondi, she’s a tough Aussie.’ I was completely thrilled by the outcome of the swim. It was an honor to swim in a race with Petar, let alone battle him to the finish (even if it was a bad day for him). The record stood for another day but I had the time of my life. I know that my ability to stay so calm and focused was because of all the support I had on the water and from my friends and family around the world tuned to the events GPS tracking and webcast. My mother said she swam every stroke with me.
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