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The Great Bay race: Yearly swim offers premier challenge

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Local,Nancy Dunham

Sam Arora of Rockville isn’t going to jump into the Chesapeake Bay on Sunday when swimmers compete in the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, but it’s fair to call him an avid enthusiast.

If you go
Past attendees and organizers offer some tips to make your time watching the Bay Swim enjoyable.
» When: Sunday. Plan to arrive between 10 and 11 a.m. Some attendees arrive even earlier just to make sure they secure a great place to park.
» Where: A good central point to watch is at the beach, adjacent to Hemingway’s Bay Bridge Marina, 211 Pier One Road, Stevensville, Md.
» Driving: Plan to carpool if possible because parking is limited.
» Ideas: Bring a lawn chair or blanket and a pair of binoculars.
» Proceeds: The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim has raised in excess of $1 million for charity. The proceeds were distributed to the March of Dimes, Maryland Chapter; the National Aquarium; Bay Restoration Project; the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; the Chesapeake Trust; the Chesapeake Bay Power Boat Association; CRAB-Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating.
» More information on the event: No cost to watch; charities and sponsors listed at bayswim.com.

Arora said the Bay was one of Maryland’s jewels and he was heartened that it receives such worldwide attention during this major event.

“The Chesapeake has been in bad shape for a while and it’s great to remind people of how important a clean Bay is,” he said. “I can’t help but feel proud when friends from elsewhere tell me Marylanders are crazy for swimming the Bay. Maybe we are, but it’s just not the beginning of summer [without] the Bay Swim and a crab cake dinner.”

The Chesapeake Bay Swim started in 1982 when Brian Earley, now of San Diego, did a solo swim from Sandy Point Park to Kent Island in memory of his father, Joseph Earley, who had died of diabetes complications the year before. Today, the swim is one of the premier open-water swim events in the United States. The approximately 600 swimmers in each year’s event — which are chosen by random lottery — start at the shores of Sandy Point State Park and finish at a small sandy beach on Kent Island immediately south of the bridge’s eastern-shore causeway.

“Before we went to a lottery system two years ago, the event would routinely sell out in 45 minutes,” said event director Chuck Nabit, adding there are more than 2,500 applicants for the 600 slots awarded. “What’s unique about it is the majesty of the Chesapeake and swimming between the two magnificent bridges.”

Cheryl Wagner of Washington, who will mark her 14th year in the Bay Swim this year, said that despite the physical energy expelled during the approximately 2 1/2 hours it takes to complete the 4.4-mile swim, the sight of the bridges is always awe-inspiring.

“It’s intense; it can feel like [you’re in a] washing machine,” she said. “I don’t know what it is about the Bay Swim. It’s something some people — come hell or high water — just have to do. … And it’s stunning in the middle to look up and see the two bridge spans.”

Wagner, who is a longtime member of the Terrapin Masters Swim Club and now directs the Potomac River Swim, said the intense swim is a favorite of many master swimmers.

“I’ve never seen the devotion that I do with this swim,” she said. “In the beginning, I was so proud just to finish it. Once you have done that, you just think you want to do it better.”

Mike Lears of Towson, an 18-year veteran of the Bay Swim, found the ever-changing Bay conditions the most challenging — and intriguing — part of participating.

“I did it the first year and for some reason that I can’t explain I did it for 18 years after that,” he said. “The race takes on an entirely different character depending on the conditions. … I’ve done some really, really long races, and have spent some of the toughest hours of my life there. … It is always a challenge but it’s attainable.”

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