Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Austin woman completes Triple Crown of open water swimming

Pam LeBlanc

Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 11, 2013

Congrats to Katy Dooley, who smoked the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim on Saturday, completing the third leg of open-water swimming’s Triple Crown.

I watched her finish the race, a 28.5-mile jaunt that takes swimmers up the East River, through the Harlem River and down the Hudson River. She slapped the giant red buoy at the finish line near The Battery, turned to hug her support kayaker, Vlad Brezina, then hoisted her hands in the air, raising three fingers on each hand to signify her accomplishment.

Dooley, known in my household as simply “The Beast” for her focus, strength and charm (Katie’s not afraid to tell things how they are), swam the English Channel last summer and the Catalina Channel off the coast of California in 2011. With the Manhattan race under her swim cap, she becomes one of only 69 swimmers who have completed all three long-distance swims.

How does she feel? “Very royal,” Dooley said after the race - and grateful to her friends and supporters, who helped her through it.

“(The swim) was far colder than expected and I had dropped 20 pounds of insulation that I had put on for the English Channel,” she said. “Tropical Storm Andrea brought some dirty water into the Harlem River that presented some challenges to swim through. Each swim was unique and challenging. I don’t think I can say that one of them was the hardest, because in all three of them, my mind went to a dark place where I had to dig deep mentally to complete the swim.”

I made the trip to New York City to cheer on Dooley and to crew for another Austin swimmer, Gretch Sanders, who also attempted the swim. But the water was so cold - as low as 56 degrees at one point - that Sanders couldn’t finish. In all, only 11 of the 39 solo swimmers who jumped in the water at the start made the complete loop.

Watching Sanders’ lips turn blue and hearing her words slur was agonizing. We pulled her onto the support boat, wrapped her in blankets and gave her hot chocolate. An hour later she was fine, but it reminded me what a difference conditions make and reiterated the dangers of cold water swimming.

I swam the race in 2011 as part of a four-woman relay and again in 2012 as part of a two-woman relay with Sanders. The water was close to 70 degrees, the sun blazed down on us and I couldn’t stop smiling as I swam past sites including the United Nations Building, Yankee Stadium and the Empire State Building.

But it’s been a cold spring in New York City, then a weakened Tropical Storm Andrea dumped more than 4 inches of rain on the city Friday. This year marked the coldest year ever for the race, said Morty Berger, race director and founder of NYCSwim, which puts on the event.

Compounding the problems, some of the boats enlisted to carry support crews didn’t show up and teams had to double up at the last minute. All that pushed back the start time of the race, which meant that many of the swimmers didn’t make it to a critical juncture in the race before the tides switched, and water started rushing against them down the East River. The heavy rains caused the tides to switch earlier, too.

I looked out from my perch on the support boat as we puttered through Hell Gate, the point where the East River feeds into the Harlem, and saw swimmers going backward as they tried to slog through the current.

Dooley fought her way through before the full force of the water changed directions. She finished fifth overall in the race, and second among females, with a time of 7 hours 44 minutes and 58 seconds.

“I feel particularly fortunate to have beaten the tide and to have a crew that managed my feeds by warming them up, which made all the difference,” she said. “Hypothermia is a serious risk in this sport and staying warm was a particular challenge for me in this race. This was the only swim of the three that I told my crew during the swim that I was cold, but by the end of the swim I was warm.”

She says she’ll do more long swims, but in the next year she’s focusing on running. There’s a 100-mile run in the Florida Keys in her future.

Paul Newsome of England won the 2013 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in 7 hours 14 minutes 53 seconds.