An off-the-cuff conversation over a cocktail between a National Geographic journalist and a local river enthusiast inadvertently launched the annual
Great Ohio River Swim
five years ago.
“It was really a lark,’’ said Brewster Rhoads, who recounted the conversation he had with Boyd Matson
. “Boyd was in town with his wife and he was looking for something fun and unique to do and he said: ‘Who wants to swim the Ohio with me?”’
That’s the question Rhoads and race director Jonathan Grinder have asked each year since.
This Saturday will mark the fifth annual swim, which has grown to the largest swimming event on the Ohio River.
Last year, 131 swimmers competed in the nearly 900-yard event. The timed race, sponsored by Ohio River Way, Inc., and managed by Tucson Racing, Inc
., begins at the Serpentine Wall and crosses the river to Kentucky before ending at the Public Landing.
Grinder, President of Tucson Racing, also organizes the Cincinnati Triathlon
, reached out to Rhoads that first year – after seeing a photograph in the Enquirer of Rhodes and Matson getting out of the river.
Grinder wondered if Rhoads would like to do the swim annually, on the day before the triathlon, so triathletes could acclimate to the river.
Triathletes and regular swimmers have been involved since.
For Rhoads, the river’s most vocal cheerleader, the swim is the best way to introduce people to the beauty of the river and to dispel the myth that it is unsanitary.
“Nothing beats providing a personal experience – an immersion experience – where people are able to experience the beauty and wonder of this,’’ he says.
Participants effuse delight recounting prior swims. Many are surprised by the water quality, the tranquility of the swim and how energized they felt after the event. Rhoads said the river quality is exceptional this year, noting he can see at least four feet down.
Jennifer Mooney is no stranger to open swimming, but last year was her first Ohio River swim. She plans to participate Saturday.
“The city is very still in the morning,” says Mooney, 49, of Wyoming. “The view from the water is peaceful.”
John Finnigan, whose first river swim also was last year, says it wasn’t difficult to complete, but noted that he had to adjust to the river’s current.
Rhoads said swimming in the river is different than in a swimming pool. Anyone contemplating joining will be required to sign a waiver saying they can steadily swim 1,000 yards.
“This is not something someone should just jump in and do,’’ he says.
Swimmers will be required to participate in a 20-minute safety review at 7 a.m. They will need to wear a provided swim cap and a chip around their ankle that will track their time. Swimmers will not be allowed to wear wet suits.
The river will be closed to barge and power boat traffic from 7:30 to 8:30 am. Certified lifeguards and a legion of safety boats – including 20 safety kayakers and three personal watercraft, will be on the river during the race, Rhoads says.
This year an oil spill boom will also be provided to help with safety. Rhoads, who is in charge of safety and does not participate in the race, says there has never been a safety issue, and all participants have completed the swim.
Proceeds from the swim benefit the non-profit Ohio River Way, Inc., to support its work to promote, protect and celebrate the river.
Greg Landsman is eager to make the swim again this year.
“I plan to do it every year,’’ said Landsman, 35, of Mt. Washington. “It’s an exceptional way to start a Saturday morning: Good exercise, a refreshing swim, the vitality of the group and the sense of accomplishment – ‘I swam across the Ohio River and back today!’”
• To join the swim: You can register online
. Swimmers can only register Saturday beginning at 6:30 a.m. at the Serpentine Wall. Parking is free. Cost is $45 per swimmer and $35 for member of USA Triathlon.
• Look at photos
from the 2010 swim.
• View a video
from the 2010 swim.
By Chris Graves
Chris Graves is the assistant vice president of Digital and Social Media at the Powers Agency.