“I won’t ever pull myself from a swim, or say, ‘You know what, I’m just not feeling it today,’” said Lori King, a Rockville Centre mother who got her start in open-water swimming about a decade ago. “That’s not an option.”
Her 5-foot-2 frame does not measure up to many of the younger men whom she swims against around the world. “I think people look and they either say, ‘Oh, that’s Lori King?’ or they maybe are a little dismissive,” she said. “I don’t look like the big, scary person in the room that anybody has to worry about.”
But King’s friend Janine Serell, who was on her crew for her third-place finish in the 29th Swimming Marathon of Messinian Gulf in northern Greece earlier this month, said that swimming is “a great equalizer.”
“In a 50 [meter race], somebody really tall, with big feet and arms and hands, like a Michael Phelps, is going to take you when you’re short,” explained Serell, a fellow swimmer who met King at an open-water event several years ago. “With this, you have to be a really good swimmer, but you also have to have a really strong mental game.”
King finished the 30-kilometer race earlier this month in 8 hours, 56 minutes, winning the women’s division. “You don’t swim for nine hours on your body alone,” Serell said. “You need the right spirit, you need the right attitude. You need experience.”
King, 42, graduated from La Salle University in 1997, where she competed in the 200-yard breaststroke. Having endured the intense training of competitive collegiate swimming, she took a break from the sport after graduating. “[I] didn’t want to look at the water,” she said. “It was just a lot of work. I swam my whole life, and I was kind of done with it.”
Several years later, she began swimming again, and met members of a group based in East Hampton that would head to a beach or a bay on weekends to swim a few miles. She later joined the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers. No longer limited by pool walls, King has learned about the challenges that come with swimming in nature, whether it’s the Atlantic Ocean around Bermuda, the Messinian Gulf or the Hudson River.
“…Really the only certainty is that there is no certainty with the open water; anything can happen,” she said. “In open water, you can do everything right, and it might just not be enough because of the conditions.”
At a 24-mile race in Tampa Bay in 2013 — her first long swim — she fought what she called “sloppy conditions” before being pulled from the water just three miles from the finish by her crew, which, was following in a boat. “What I found out was I had two sharks circling me … and they were monitoring it, but then they started showing aggressive behavior.”
In Bermuda last year, King said, rough conditions meant starting a race a day earlier than expected, testing her mental toughness. There, her crew steered her clear of tentacled creatures similar to jellyfish, known as Portuguese men-of-war, which can deliver a fatal sting. She completed the 36.5-mile swim around Bermuda in under 21 hours, 20 minutes, becoming only the second swimmer to accomplish the feat, partially tearing a rotator cuff in the process.
In 2014, King swam 20.5 miles from the California mainland to Catalina Island in 8:51. A year later, she completed the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim, a 120-mile event in which she averaged about 17 miles a day, making her way from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge in Hudson, N.Y., to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in just over 34 hours. One of two swimmers who finished all seven stages, King set a record for the sixth stage, from the Tappan Zee Bridge to the George Washington, clocking 3:06:18.
She earned the Marathon Swimmers Federation’s 2016 Yudovin Award for Most Adventurous Swim.
King has grown accustomed to the demanding sport, cementing it into her daily life, which includes two kids — Ryan, 11, and Anna, 9 — and a part-time job as a research analyst for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. To prepare for races — she usually does one long one per year — she trains at the Nassau County Aquatic Center in Eisenhower Park, averaging 6,000 yards a day and peaking at 10,000 when a long race is coming up.
Give her a towel and she’ll race from the pool to Jennie E. Hewitt Elementary School, where she runs Ice Cream Day, offered every Wednesday by the PTA. “Being a mom and jumping from the pool into the school activities and the kids’ stuff,” she explained, “I kind of have considered that as part of my training.”
The swim in Greece was one King had wanted to do for years, she said, and she worked around commitments at home to accomplish it. During the first half of the race she felt nauseous, and the second half brought choppy water.
“At one point, she’s like, ‘My stomach hurts,’” Serell recounted, adding that King was still stroking at a good pace, “and I looked at her and I was like, ‘Suck it up, Buttercup.’ We both know at some point this is going to hurt a little bit in some way, shape or form, and we both laughed about it afterward.”
With the support of her crew and boat captain, who guide her and feed her periodically during races, she stayed strong. She had only met the captain a day before the race, and though he didn’t speak English well, he knew how to yell, “Go, go, go!” A feeling of relief enveloped King after she finished, and she then realized that she placed third out of 15 swimmers. Though unsure of what her next long race will be, King has no intention of stopping. It’s not as much about the competition, she said, as it is about giving it everything she has.
“I try not to worry about place,” she said, “I just try to think about, did I do the swim to the best of my ability? Did I come prepared? I don’t do anything half-assed.”