On the morning of June 3, about 50 people on the southern end of Vashon Island will step into Puget Sound and start swimming.
They won’t stop until they reach Point Defiance, about 1.8 miles. Another group of about 50 swimmers will start at Owen Beach and swim a 3.1-mile route that passes near Tahlequah beach before returning to Point Defiance.
Swim Defiance, in its fourth year, is a race created by Tacoma’s Zena Courtney and put on by her swim club, Blue Wave Aquatics. Blue Wave has a masters swim team and triathlon training program. The group practices in Fife, Federal Way, Covington and Burien.
Courtney says the idea for the open-water race started when she was planning a fundraiser. “It morphed into this swim,” she said.
Courtney, 57, swam the backstroke at Stanford and competed at the 1980 Olympic Trials. She offers training sessions as part of registration.
We caught up with Courtney while she was in Florida. She’d finished a 7-mile swim on Florida’s gulf side a few days early and was on her way to a training swim, but she took a few minutes to talk about Swim Defiance and her favorite sport.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this swim?
A: In 1926 they did this, and it was a big deal. They did it in wool suits. They had a huge amphitheater that is no longer there, and it was crowded with people. There were people on the roof, and they thought it was going to collapse.
The story goes that of the (13) swimmers, one was a woman named Alexina Slater. She was still at Stadium High School, and she lied about her age to get in. You had to be 16 (Slater was 15). They thought she was going to drown so they hired a boat to follow her. She ended up getting fourth (in 1 hour, 20 minutes).
Q: If people want to do Swim Defiance, what should they know?
A: They need to get into the Puget Sound before they actually swim. They need to practice with their wetsuit. They need to eat before they swim because you need some fuel in your body when you are out in the cold. Something like hot soup.
Q: How long does it take to get ready for something like this?
A: For a pool swimmer to get acclimated, I would suggest you get in once or twice and swim for 15 to 20 minutes. The first five minutes is the most painful. That’s when everything goes numb, and then you are fine.
Q: What will boat support look like?
A: At least a dozen boats and then the kayaks. We have three layers of safety. The Coast Guard is out there, then we have the safety boats, then we have the kayaks, and in the middle is the swim course.
Q: What is different about the family fun wave?
A: I had a friend pass away from atrial fibrillation in January. She was our hospitality coordinator, so we are doing a memorial called the Julie Montiel Family Fun Wave. People can wear fins and paddles and snorkels. It’s for the family that wants to do it, but doesn’t want to race.
Q: As race director, you don’t participate in the race, but have you done that swim before?
A: Oh yeah. We did it a couple of trial runs to make sure it was safe and that it was doable.
Q: How many go without a wetsuit?
A: We usually have a handful. We have a couple of folks training for the English Channel.
Q: You said you swam for three hours in the pool without stopping, I’m curious how you keep track of how many laps you swim. In my experience, it’s easy to lose track.
A: I’ve done it so long I just count to 40 and every 40 is 1,000 yards. So I train 40 lengths with paddles on, 40 lengths with fins on, 40 lengths backstroke. I can keep count really easy, I’m just all by myself ignoring everybody in the world.
Q: Is Blue Wave Aquatics for experienced swimmers, or do you teach people who want to learn to swim?
A: We do that every Saturday at the Federal Way Community Center. We have a couple of swim coaches. We mostly train in the pool. We do some open water in the summer. We have a lot of triathletes who train with us. It’s a great group to train with.
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WHEN: Starts at 7:10 a.m. June 3.
WHERE: Owen Beach, Point Defiance Park, 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma. Swimmers race from Vashon Island to Point Defiance.
DETAILS: Swimming options include 3- and 5-kilometer routes. Safety boats monitor the swimmers.
COST: $80, plus a United States Master Swimming license ($22 for one day).