Just after noon on August 22nd Joe Zemaitis jumped into the frigid 63 degree water off of Dover, England without a wetsuit, He reached the shore south of Calais, France shortly after midnight after swimming the 21 mile straight line distance, though the powerful tides meant swimming a course of approximately twenty-eight miles. Besides the chop and the tides, plentiful jellyfish and a fast approaching storm added to the challenges
The English Channel was the third leg of the renowned Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. Zemaitis completed a 21 mile swim from the California Mainland to Catalina Island in August of 2016 and the 27 mile circumnavigation of Manhattan Island in June of 2017. As of 2017, fewer than 150 people have completed these three legendary open water swimming challenges.
Joe’s passion for testing the limits of endurance started even before he competed on the Horizon High School Swimming and Cross Country teams in Arizona. He completed the 1998 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon at the age of 18, setting a course record for 19 & Under and becoming the youngest ever to finish in less than ten hours.
“Joe’s passion for racing was evident at a young age,” said former Horizon High School Coach Don Giardina. “He has always been about challenging himself with seemingly impossible goals. People were saying he would burn out in high school with everything he was doing. Here he is twenty years later with his greatest accomplishment yet.”
After graduating from Lake Forest College (IL), Zemaitis returned to Arizona in 2002 and started Swim Neptune, a competitive swim team at the Village Health Clubs in Scottsdale and Phoenix. It has grown to a Valley-wide team of over six hundred competitive and pre-competitive swimmers. Swim Neptune won the Arizona Swimming Age Group State Championship eight times since 2010.
While spending most of his time on a pool deck instead of in the water, Joe has coached dozens of swimmers who have gone on to compete at the collegiate and national level. While the success came quickly in the pool, open water was never far from mind. In 2006, Zemaitis coached Braxton Bilbrey, at 7, to become the youngest ever to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco. This launched the Swim FAST program, now entering its twelfth year, to train over five hundred swimmers (age 8 to 75) to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco one day and under the Golden Gate Bridge the next.
Zemaitis made his return to Open Water swimming by swimming the Strait of Gibraltar in 2013, then finishing 2nd overall in the 18 mile Lake Zurich (Switzerland) Marathon swim in 2015. He has also twice competed in the SCAR Swims in Arizona, a four day race over the 40+ miles of Saguaro, Canyon, Apache, and Roosevelt Lakes.
“Of all the swims I’ve done the English Channel was the most rewarding. It’s the Mt. Everest of Open Water Swimming,” said Zemaitis.