By Martin Reichgott
PENNOCK ISLAND, Alaska, September 27. IN the summer of 2004, Willie Schulz swam around Pennock Island, sans wetsuit, to raise awareness and money for diabetes research. That's Pennock Island, Alaska.
Schulz flew up from California, to his childhood home of Ketchikan, Alaska, 700 miles northwest of Seattle, for his unique effort. It caught people's attention. This August, twenty-four swimmers from three states entered the ADA Pennock Island Challenge. Most opted for wetsuits for the 8.2 mile swim in sub-60 degree waters.
Eleven members of the Ketchikan Masters were among the first to register for the event. Although few had open-water experience, mostly triathlon swims in the lower-48, the Challenge was an excuse to try something new. Winter practices featured wetsuits in the pool, until it was warm enough to train outside. Coaches secretly feared swimmers would never return to the 25-yard confines.
Schulz also asked the Ketchikan Killer Whales Swim Club to help with a possible junior event, a smaller version for those unable to tackle the longer distance. When the coach contacted the sanctions chair for Alaska Swimming, she admitted that she'd have to contact USA Swimming to find out exactly what sanctioning an open water event entailed, never having had to do one before.
Then Schulz started receiving e-mails that make an event coordinator's heart beat faster. Sean Seaver, Ketchikan High School class of '98, and more recently, a member of the U.S. National Team at the FINA World Championships in Montreal (Open Water 25k) was coming home for a visit, and was interested in swimming. A two-time Alaska High School champ in the 500 free, Seaver didn't take up Open Water swimming until after graduation, so swimming at home would be new territory for him.
If a little bit of local star power wasn't enough, U.S. Olympian Klete Keller decided that he would attend. Keller had been the featured clinician at the May Invitational in Ketchikan, which drew teams from throughout the region and British Columbia. After a busy summer of swimming, that included World Championships, the Duel in the Pool and U.S. Nationals, Keller decided to return to perfect kayaking weather and seafood, and to go for a swim.
Just a week out of the Challenge, all swimmers received an Alaskan reminder of their unique endeavor, when a 12-year-old member of KKW was bumped by a real Killer Whale while swimming near the shore. The event, captured on video, was front-page news in a town used to working and recreating among the salmon, jellyfish and sea lions.
On August 27-28, Open Water weekend became a success. Sixteen swimmers, aged 10 to 60-plus, inaugurated the Ketchikan 1k Swim at Settler's Cove, won in a photo finish lean by Bo Meredith over Schulz. Meredith and Schulz covered the distance in 13:43 while third place went to Mark Monticino in13:53.
As for the main event, the ADA Pennock Challenge, hometown product Seaver completed the swim in two hours and 36 minutes, ten minutes ahead of Keller. Twelve swimmers, eight men and four women, completed the solo challenge, with twelve more taking part in relays. More than $15,000 was raised for Diabetes research, triple the amount from 2004.
And training has already begun for next year. Everyone's invited.