Open Water History: 105 Years of Swimming Around Manhattan

Swimming Around Manhattan

Open Water History: 105 Years of Swimming Around Manhattan

Swimming around the center of New York City (45.9km/28.5 miles) has long been a tradition for many swimmers, with hotly contested races between top swimmers also part of history. The challenge consists of strong tides, the flows of three rivers, boat traffic and two tricky locations named Hells Gate and Spuyten Duyvil (translated from Dutch as Devil’s whirlpool). Even the Circle Line cruise ships occasionally fail to make it around the island due to the tides!

Long before the first swims, the water drew all types of showmen and daredevils. Shortly after the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, the first jumper perished. Three years later, in 1886, Steve Brodie, for a $200 wager (value of $5,500 in 2021), completed the jump. It was front-page news in the New York Times and he was jailed! The next year Paul Boyton** completed a six-day swim down the Hudson River – through floating ice floes in February in his famous “rubber immersion swim.” It was again a major story and massive crowds were reported on the river sides and rooftops to witness the end of his swim. Eight years later, dredging connected the Harlem and Hudson Rivers, making a water trip around Manhattan possible.

The first swimmer to complete the course was Robert Dowling* in 1915, using the trudgen stroke. Dowling went on to become a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. He donated a college to the city and led efforts to improve the lives of African Americans as president of the National Urban League and a director of the Negro College Fund. Thirteen-year-old Ida Elionsky* shattered his record by more than two hours the next year.

Ten more swimmers completed the swim before Diana Nyad* set a new course record in 1975 (7 hours, 57 minutes) and brought the swim to the attention of the wider public. Remember that nearly 45 years ago the public perception of water quality in urban waters hadn’t taken into account the positive impact of decades of environmental laws and cleanups.

In the early 1980s, Drury Gallagher* inspired the formation of an association and Dr. Tim Johnson, DPS, PE* created the computer tidal models which predicted favorable swim times. His book, History of Open Water Marathon Swimming, was used to help with this article. Since then, more than 750 around Manhattan swims have been completed.

Stars of the next decades included:

Julie Ridge* swam the first “double” and became the first “Queen of Around Manhattan” with 11 swims. See her on USA Television (David Letterman show).

Shelley Taylor-Smith*** twice broke the Manhattan record and held it for a combined 23 years. She won the elite race (beating all the men) five times from 1985 to 1998.

Kris Rutherford completed the first clockwise swim (takes more than twice as long against the flow of the Hudson River) and became the “King of Around Manhattan” with 23 swims.

Jaimie Monahan* swam the first quadruple (four times) in 2020 and took over as the “Queen of Around Manhattan” with 27 swims.

During group swims, the organizers need to balance the start time (tides) versus the expected speeds of all the swimmers. The current speed record was set on Sept. 28, 2011. Oliver Wilkinson set the record of 5 hours, 44.02 seconds with Rondi Davies finishing on his shoulder.

Today, the swim remains one of the most popular marathons in the world and together with the English and Catalina Channels comprises the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming – completed by fewer than 250 swimmers. Now branded as 20 Bridges, it is run about five times each summer with small groups of swimmers and also for individual swimmers.

*Honoree of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF)
** Honoree of the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF)
*** Honoree of both IMSHOF and ISHOF