Watts more than keeps her head above water

Hobby now habit, she wins 28.5-mile swim race in N.Y.


July 30, 2002|By Mary Beth Kozak | Mary Beth Kozak,SUN STAFF

Try swimming for almost eight hours straight without getting out of the water to dry off or to catch your breath.

That's what Emily Watts, 35, accomplished when she won the 21st annual Manhattan Island Marathon last month.

"I couldn't fathom doing it," said her husband, Rick Watts.

The 28.5-mile course spanned through the East, Harlem and Hudson rivers. It began and ended at the Battery Park City's South Cove, on the Hudson River in south Manhattan. Watts finished in 7 hours, 46 minutes, 10 seconds.

"I knew I could be competitive and win. I just had the perfect race," said Watts, of Manchester in Carroll County near the Baltimore County line.

Her success earned her a spot in Sports Illustrated's Faces in the Crowd (in the July 15-22 issue) and in a similar segment in a coming issue of Sports Illustrated for Women.

Nine male and five female solo swimmers, and seven relay teams entered. Watts held the fastest time of all 50 swimmers.

"The fact that she was able to beat the entire field was a little surprising, but I knew she could do it - she knew that she could do it," Rick Watts said. "To get to the point where she can compete at this level is incredible. It is unbelievable and I'm very happy for her."

Her husband of eight years was aboard her crew boat nervously rooting her on. "I was taking pictures and videotaping the whole time. It was a great way to see New York," he said.

The race, held June 23, drew fewer international participants than a year ago because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Half of the participants were from foreign countries in past years.

"Folks just don't want to travel," said Rich Barkan, the marathon director of media relations. "We only had one participant from another country."

For the Wattses, it was their first trip to New York.

"Our hotel overlooked Ground Zero. It was very moving," said Watts. "Hearing about it in Maryland is so different than actually seeing and hearing it. They worked 24/7, and it's just so sad. When I was swimming, I kept looking for the Twin Towers."

Her husband spoke of his wife's victory in the historic setting. "Being in New York for the first time and seeing the Statue of Liberty and Ground Zero and all, makes it a little more special."

Up next for the ambitious open-water swimmer is the 10K for the USA, which is part of the World Cup tour.

The 6.2-mile race will be held in Atlantic City, N.J., on Sept. 7. The top two finishers will compete in the 2nd FINA Open Water Swimming World Championships on Sept. 23-28 in Egypt.

"I'm not holding my breath. I tend to do better in a marathon type of race. A two- or three-hour race isn't that exciting," she said.

Watts began swimming out of a search for a hobby. "I started four or five years ago with the mile just to see if I liked it," Watts said. "I really enjoyed it, so each summer I just started at a longer distance and it just seemed to really work for me. I like the man-vs.-nature type thing. It's really incredible as opposed to swimming in a pool and following black lines."

Watts trains every day and divides her training time between the pool and the weight room. She also works out with a masters club at UMBC pool three days a week. "Doing this is really a balancing act," said Watts, who is a stay-at-home mother of two daughters, Jacqueline, 4 and Lauren, 2.

"It's tough to find a happy medium. I have a 2- and a 4-year-old and they're pretty needy. I have to balance between not swimming too much and giving them enough attention so I can slip away to swim. My husband helps out a lot. He is very supportive."

Watts also recently competed in The Great Chesapeake Swim on June 16. She completed the 4.4-mile race in 1 hour, 35 minutes, 42 seconds. She was the third woman to finish and the 26th overall out of 581 finishers.

Watts would like to one day swim the English Channel, which is 23.69 land miles. It extends from the White Cliffs of Dover at Shakespeare Beach in England to Cap Gris-Nez in France. She said it would take about two years of training, and she'd have to get use to swimming in 50-degree water wearing only a cap and bathing suit.

The tides are strong and can pull a person back, meaning a swimmer can actually end up going more than 35 miles.

"I have the endurance. The aspect of getting my body use to the cold water would be my biggest burden," Watts said.

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