Ready, Set, Swim

Author name: Guy Cohen- open water marathon swimmer

Marathon swimming in open water

אריק זינגר(1) Marathon swimming. photography: Arik Zinger

Not many people know that competitive swimming, usually associated with swimming pools, actually began in open water (oceans, seas, and lakes). The first significant swimming event we know of was the crossing of the English Channel in 1875 by British sailor Captain Matthew Webb. This event established the sport of open water swimming. The swimming competitions in the first Olympics in Athens in 1896 were also held in the open waters of the Mediterranean in Piraeus Harbor.

Photo: Arik Zinger

A swimming marathon is defined as 10 kilometers or more in open waters (with no help from currents). Meaning swimming with no assistance from a third party, where the only things a swimmer can use are a swimsuit of textile fabric, a swim cap, swimming goggles, and his or her own physical and mental strength. Coming into physical contact with any boats, people, objects, or the ground is prohibited during the entire swim. In fact, using the same tools Captain Webb had in 1875 and nothing else.
The marathon swimmer treaty states there are multiple ways of making the sport easier by using extra equipment (such as wetsuits, flippers, sport watches, earphones, listening devices, etc.) but marathon swimmers purposefully avoid these! Swimming a marathon is the athlete’s way of becoming one with the ocean without distraction, feeling part of the marine space without separation, being inside nature and dealing with the forces of nature in the most direct way, and all without leaving a mark. Of being able to say- I tried, I struggled, and I overcame!

Guy Cohen and his son on a 24 hour swim. Photo: Arik Zinger

The most well know marathon swimming events are, among others, across of the English Channel, around Manhattan Island, and between Catalina Island and mainland California. Each one of these swims is an exhausting and grueling challenge. The difficulty is caused by the long swimming distances (over 30 kilometers), the low water temperatures (between 16 to 18 degrees Celsius), the changing sea conditions (waves, winds, and currents), jellyfish, and sharks. Very few people completed these challenges in the past, but the rising popularity of open water marathon swimming, and other kinds of open water swimming, is causing more and more athletes to try and face them. Today there are already five Israelis who have conquered the English Channel, and two them (Avishag Turek and yours truly, Guy Cohen) have also completed all three swims in what is called the “Triple Crown” of open water swimming.

In Israel we also have a significant marathon swim challenge

To swim the full length of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) from Tzemach to Amnon Beach, a 20.5 kilometers course. On October 28, 1944, Yitzchak Yehezkel, a Hapo’el Tel-Aviv swimmer, was the first person in history to cross the Kinneret. He did this in 9:39 hours.
On June 6, 1948, the Davar newspaper wrote the following in an introduction to an essay dedicated to Yitzchak Yehezkel and his successful lengthwise crossing of the Kinneret:
The military campaign in the Jordan Valley, which is endowed with courage and self-sacrifice, has not yet ended. The Sea of Galilee is one of the centers of interest in these days. The Jordan and the Sea of Galilee are engraved in the hearts of the people, and not because of their ancient splendor. Many chapters of the glamor in the history of the nation’s revival in the homeland were written to their shores.
While the name Kinneret rejoiced in the heart of the youth in particular, in the Hebrew sport, the small and mischievous sea took its place with the success of the Crossings of Sea of Galilee – the national enterprise of Hapoel.

It is not a sports enterprise for its own sake, but a test of the ability of the Hebrew swimmer in open water. Swimming far away and prolonged width crossings of the Sea of Galilee symbolized the immigration of many of us to the coast of the homeland from the heart of the sea, and our assistance to them.
Here we present the experience of a single and first successor, a member of Hapoel Tel-Aviv, who crossed the full length of the Sea of Galilee.

I became a marathon swimmer a few years ago. In my youth, I was a competitive swimmer in swimming pools, but the first extreme sport I participated in was running. At first, I ran 10-kilometer runs, then a half-marathon, full marathon, and finally ultra-marathons in Israel and abroad. My peak was running the 250 kilometer Four Desert ultra-marathon in Madagascar. But the swimming bug never really left me, and I decided to exchange highways and mountain paths for waves and open waters. I entered the sea and fell in love! The connection to the sea, overcoming natural fear, the distance from the shore, and commitment to open water, leave a feeling a freedom that is hard to express in words. This feeling, and the desire to face new challenges, led me to embrace a new sport and to set my sails in the direction of new accomplishments.

Recently we initiated and established the Galilee Marathon Swimming Association (GMSA). The goal of this association is to support, acknowledge, and publish the organized marathon swims in Israel undertaken by athletes from around the word and from Israel. Thanks to the association, the Kinneret was added to the Still Water Eight. This is a marathon challenge for swimmers around the world which includes crossings famous lakes in all of the continents including Lake Tahoe in California, Loch-Ness in Scotland, Titicaca Lake in Bolivia, and now our very own Kinneret as well.

Guy Cohen Open water marathon swimmer.
Holder of Israel’s record for longest swim with no break, 24 hours for a distance of 70 kilometers, in the Mediterranean.
Has completed the open water triple crown (English Channel, Manhattan, and Catalina).

Photo: Arik Zinger
Translated by Daphna Shapiro Goldberg