Bay race honors endurance

Triumph: The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim was less about speed than about diving into the challenging waves -- and defeating them.

June 14, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

KENT ISLAND -- With a rambunctious crowd cheering from shore, "Rocky" theme music blaring and the sun bursting from behind clouds as if to announce his arrival, Tom Newman finished the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim yesterday with a single, triumphant pump of his fist into a crisp morning sky.

Then he peeled off his swimming cap, hunched over to catch his breath and talked about how he did it -- how he finished in 472nd place, no swimmers behind him, dead-in-the-water last.

"Been training since January. Swam about 10,000 yards a week. Really did."

Yesterday was his fourth go at the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, which began in 1982 with a single swimmer and has grown to attract athletes from around the country.

Just after 7 a.m., he and 553 other greased-up swimmers pushed themselves off the beach and plunged into the choppy waters at Sandy Point State Park.

They battled 2-foot seas, moody currents and threats of jellyfish for 4.4 miles as they wended their way to the Bay Bridge, then swam the length of it, between its two giant spans to Hemingway's Restaurant.

Rescue workers plucked 82 people from the water, leaving Newman, 50, to capture last place. Race officials said fatigue caused by strong currents accounted for the rescues and that no serious injuries were reported.

Sean Brennan, 25, of Forked River, N.J., won the race, finishing in one hour, 35 minutes, 48 seconds (about 2 1/2 hours ahead of Newman). Last year, Brennan finished second.

"I felt like I was swimming with a piano on my back from about halfway in," he said. "I'm looking forward to a lot of Advil and a lot of water."

The winner of the female class was Tiffany Sawin, 21, of Bridgewater, N.J., who finished in one hour, 44 minutes, 22 seconds. She finished second among women last year. "It was harder than last year. It was really, really, really choppy," Sawin said.

These are serious athletes, these people who do what Brennan and Sawin and, yes, Newman did, especially considering some people are afraid to drive over the Bay Bridge, let alone swim beneath it.

The race has never been all about winning, which might be why the crowd cheered more loudly for the last person to pull himself from the water than the first -- and why Newman could grin about it.

The swim is about facing a challenge and conquering it. In the smaller picture, it's about people like Newman, a land developer from Oakton, Va., getting through the race, much of which is like swimming upstream.

It's about people like Brad Schertle of Baltimore, at age 15 the youngest swimmer, who had never tried a race of this distance -- and finished in ninth place, all 5 feet 3 inches, 111 pounds of him.

It's about guys like Jason Miller, 25, of Woodlawn and his buddy, Kevin Grayson, 24, of Millersville, who once swam together at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and challenged each other to get in shape for yesterday's swim.

"We had a pinkie-swear that we'd do it this year," Miller said.

It's about people like Marge Stahl, 69, the eldest swimmer, who decided against the 4.4-mile swim but pulled herself through the 1.1-mile preliminary race. "But it was a long mile," she said.

In the bigger picture, the race is about much more than that: The swim raised more than $50,000 yesterday for the March of Dimes.

"People do this because it's a chance to help other people," said Chuck Nabit, race organizer.

"I think it's grown because people are just fascinated by the Chesapeake Bay, and the opportunity to swim it and to look up at this huge bridge -- it's too much for some people to pass up," he said.

The opportunity was made as safe as possible with dozens of boats and kayaks deployed to keep an eye on swimmers and help those needing it. Boating lanes were closed to all but volunteers and participants.

The currents can make for a hazardous swim. They were stronger yesterday than last year, when nine swimmers had to be pulled from the water. Add to that a stiff northern wind, and the going can get tough.

"The current was rough, really hard, a lot harder than last year," said Russell Kominski, 25, of Alexandria, Va., the second-place finisher. Added Alex Condrell, 27, of Washington: "In the middle, it felt like I wasn't going anywhere."

With Newman's finish, he's not sure he'll swim in next year's race. This was his fourth race, and he had always finished in the middle of the pack.

"I don't know what happened," he said. "The guy on the boat says, `You're the last guy,' and I said, `What the ?' But I wanted to do this when I was 50, and now I'm 50, and I've done it. It carries me through the rest of the year, knowing that I did it. It's an accomplishment. So who knows? Maybe I will be out here next year."

"But last place?" chided his son, Adam, 23, who did not swim at all. "I guess we can still let him come home."

Pub Date: 6/14/99

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