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 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim

One Lap, 28.5 Miles
by Terry Tomalin

His friends call him the king of rhythm.

"When Ron Collins gets into a groove ... that's it," said Tom Schwartz, a 42-year-old physician from Sarasota. "There is no stopping him."

The Clearwater resident left his mark on the record books in 1998, when he became the first to swim the length of Tampa Bay. Since then, the computer consultant has looked for new challenges.

"I just turned 40, so I thought I should do something gnarly to mark the occasion," he told a small group of like-minded maniacs gathered on a pier overlooking the Hudson River on Saturday night. "So I figured why not swim 281/2 miles around Manhattan."

Most people could think of several good reasons: pain, cold, treacherous currents ... "It's doable," Collins said confidently. "Who knows, I might even win this thing."

Collins and Schwartz did some cold-water training last winter in Florida. But Collins knew a little extra weight might help a warm-water swimmer through the eight-hour ordeal.

"I drank a lot of Budweiser, ate a lot of ice cream," Collins said. "I feel good."

The race, in its 21st year, usually draws a dozen or more swimmers; some seasoned professionals, others newcomers to open-water swimming. This year's cast included an accountant, chemist, student and mother of two.

Some swam for themselves, others for families, a few for friends lost in the Sept.11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Early Sunday, they gathered in the darkness a few blocks from Ground Zero and, one by one, slipped into the 68-degree water and swam toward the East River.

Collins knew time was on his side. He figured the cold water would take its toll on Schwartz, who beat him a month earlier in a 2.4-mile race along St. Pete Beach.

"He only weighs 140 pounds, so I know he is going to get cold," Collins said. "This is one sport where weight can work toward your advantage."

Organizers started the race early, hoping the swimmers could take advantage of the incoming Tide to carry them up the East River, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and north along FDR Drive.

Each had a support boat to keep other watercraft away and a kayaker responsible for supplying the swimmer with food and drink.

Most swimmers had elaborate systems of resupply, specialty drinks and carbohydrate bars to make sure their bodies had the necessary fuel to power them around the world's most expensive piece of real estate.

But Collins chose a simpler approach.

"Gatorade and Snickers bars," he said. "That is all I need."

He did insist, however, that wife Lea Ann keep track of his strokes, time, distance and position within the 14-swimmer pack.

"Slow down ... you are going too fast," she yelled as her husband's stroke rate surpassed the magic mark of 60 per minute. "It is too early to start pushing it."

The swimmers, boats and kayaks were packed together as they passed beneath the Williamsburg Bridge, which links Brooklyn with the Lower East Side.

Collins had anticipated this. He had studied maps, charts, even satellite photographs of the course. And Saturday, he took a boat tour around Manhattan, leaving nothing to chance.

Only one place worried him: Hells Gate, where the tides of Long Island Sound meet the southerly flowing Harlem River and the northerly flowing East River.

"Often, these tides create whirlpools hazardous even to small boats," the race literature says. "I don't know which I would rather deal with, Hells Gate or sharks," said Collins, who has grown accustomed to swimming with pesky predators in Tampa Bay.

But two hours after he started, Collins passed through Hells Gate and headed north.

"Hammer the Harlem," he said before the race when asked about his game plan.

In less than a mile, he moved from sixth to second, passing bridge after bridge, methodically working his way toward the Hudson River.

For a few minutes, he faltered, suffering through a painful "stitch" in his side as he passed a railway yard surrounded by a razor-wire topped security fence. But he powered through it, and by 11 a.m. he had passed beneath the Henry Hudson Bridge with just one swimmer ahead of him.

Emily Watts, a 34-year-old mother of two from Manchester, Md., has completed the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, which Collins founded, and hopes to swim the English Channel.

She had a 100-yard lead when she entered the Hudson River, but Collins believed if he caught the fast-moving current in the center of the river, he could make up time.

But swimming far from land is chancy. If you catch the current right, you can finish the last third of the race in a couple of hours. A strong south wind, however, can kick up waves that rival an ocean swell.

Then there are the boats.

"Does he see us?" a panicked Lea Ann asked as a 25-foot speedboat headed toward her husband. Collins' crew waved the craft off, but not before everybody on the support boat questioned the wisdom of their course.

Then the wind kicked up, and Collins had to fight his way through whitecaps on what was supposed to be the easiest part of the journey.

Race officials said the water quality was good and only after heavy rains did swimmers have to worry about bacterial infections. To be safe, Collins wore ear plugs, but there was nothing he could do about taking an occasional mouthful of water.

Halfway down the river, the Coast Guard ordered Collins and the others to swim closer to shore. There were too many boats. But then the wind and currents pushed him too close to land, and he almost was washed beneath some broken-down shipping piers.

He kept his composure, though, and gathered the necessary energy to swim to open water. Seven hours into the race, he tapped into a strong southerly current and again found his rhythm. He rounded the corner at Battery Park with the Statue of Liberty smiling down on him. Eight hours after he started, he completed his 27,000th stroke.

Collins finished second, 14 minutes behind Watts and seven minutes in front of Schwartz.

"If the race had only been longer ... " the master of rhythm said. "All I needed was a little more time."

June 23, 2002
Pictures (click to enlarge)

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