Marisa Frieder went from becoming the first person to complete the 10.7-mile (17.2 km) Portland Bridge Swim down the Willamette River through the heart of Portland, Oregon to a passionate race director.
She explains her passion for putting on such an outstanding event:
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What is your open water swimming background?
Marisa Frieder: I’m really a sprinter at heart, even after spending so much time in the marathon swimming world. My favorite event is the 100 breaststroke and I’ve only started doing the 200 in the past year. I always thought that was too far. I did my first open water race – the 1 Mile Bay Challenge in the Chesapeake Bay – in 2001 to fulfill a halfhearted promise I made to my friend and lanemate Michelle Humanick. I never thought she’d hold me to it, but she did. I completely freaked out when I couldn’t see and I did most of it breaststroke and backstroke, but I’m stubborn so I finished it.
I think I did one other open water race when I moved to Oregon, but then I got hooked up with an amazing cyclist and we formed a triathlon relay team. We raced a couple of times a year, when our schedules worked out. We did the first-ever Portland Triathlon, and at the time the swim course went under two of the bridges. I couldn’t believe what an amazing view that was, and it stayed with me for years.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What prompted you to attempt the first Portland Bridge Swim?
Marisa Frieder: I was walking my dogs along the Willamette River and thinking about what a great experience it was to swim under the two bridges during the Portland Triathlon. Then I thought it might be fun to swim under all the bridges. Then – and I’ll never understand how this came out of my sprinter brain – I thought it might be fun to swim under all of them in one shot. As a member of the Tualatin Hills Barracudas masters team, I share a pool with some amazing long distance and marathon swimmers like Dave Radcliff, Michelle Macy, and Tim Cespedes. Training several lanes away from them makes it all look normal.
So it didn’t seem unreasonable to think I could swim 11 miles.
When I first imagined it, I thought I’d get 5 or 10 of my long distance swimming friends together, we’d do the swim in a group, and when we got out we’d grill some hot dogs at Cathedral Park. So for the first couple of months, as I knocked this around in my head, it was a group activity and the safety plan I envisioned is basically what we’ve used for the first years of the Portland Bridge Swim. It was there from the moment I thought of doing this.
I eventually got up the nerve to talk to my coach, Jon Clark, about this crazy idea I had, and he didn’t even hesitate. He just came up with a training plan. I got Tim Cespedes on board for the cold water training, and Michelle Macy taught me everything I know about long swims. She even came out to train my kayaker to escort me.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Was there anything difficult about the first swim, including logistics and training?
Marisa Frieder: It was all new to me, so in some ways everything was difficult about the first swim. I trained for about 10 months to prepare. Remember, I was a sprinter. There were physical changes we needed to make in my body and there were big changes we needed to make in my head to get me to focus internally and get used to being in my head for hours at a time.
Starting in January, I was doing 3-4 hour swims each Saturday and Sunday and my yardage went up fast. We worked a lot on my pace, improving both my speed and my control. In March, Tim told me to put on my big girl pants and he took me out in the cold water. We swam with a great group of people who were all training for big cold water swims that year and it was such an honor to get to swim alongside them. Both the long swims and the cold water training seemed daunting, but I was amazed at how quickly I just got used to them. I think we all have about twice as much inside us as we think, and once you start using it, it just grows.
On a personal level, this swim came in a period of continuous loss. I had already lost 5 close friends and family members in 2 years. Then my father in law died that spring after a long, hard illness. It was a hard time and I know there were days when it was just the swimming that kept me moving. And then my friend Michelle Humanick, who had conned me into that first open water swim and who was such a cheerleader for me, died in an accident a few days before I did my swim. They buried her while I was out in the river.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What kind of logistical support did you need that first swim?
Marisa Frieder: I had a kayak escort and a power boat. The Coast Guard was making broadcasts to boat traffic, to let them know we were out there, but we had no other boats with us. Tim Cespedes served as my observer on the boat and my friend Amy Marluke, who had tortured me with weight training for a couple of years, came along as well. Michelle Macy was my pace swimmer. She was on my left and I breathe on my right, so I mostly saw her during my feedings, but I always knew she was there and that made everything better. When we passed under the second-last bridge, she popped her head up like a demented otter and chirped “last one, fast one!”
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Were the city and government authorities easy to work with?
Marisa Frieder: Because I was just one person and it was an organized event, it turned out that I didn’t need any permits or permissions. However, I still called everyone I could think of, to get permission if necessary and to ask for advice. The Willamette River doesn’t have the best reputation locally, so plenty of people were a bit taken aback when I told them what I wanted to do. But they were all generous with advice and support.
Once the Portland Bridge Swim became an organized event the following year, I did have to work more closely with the city and governmental authorities. I had to learn to navigate their processes, but it’s generally gone really well. The law enforcement agencies working the river invites me to speak at their meeting, the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services provides water quality data, the US Coast Guard provides auxiliary boats to monitor the swim, and the city’s Parks Department has given me great guidance as the swim has grown.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What were the water temperature and conditions of your first swim?
Marisa Frieder: The water was somewhere between 68 and 70ºF for my swim, and has been true for most of the years since. The weather was kind of overcast on the day I swam. That was a bit of a disappointment because it just didn’t feel as celebratory, but I know it was a blessing for me and everybody out on the water. The water was nice and calm, though, and I’ll take that over sun any day.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Is this a downstream swim? Do you get any push- either with you or against you- along the Willamette River?
Marisa Frieder: Yes, it’s definitely downstream. I’m a sprinter, remember? I wasn’t going to make it any harder than I had to.
The Willamette is tidal, but the current and the tides aren’t terribly strong. According to the monitors I follow closely, the peak current for that time of year is about 1/3 mile per hour. It’s enough that you notice you’re working a little harder if you turn to swim upstream after a few hours, but you don’t really notice a push when you’re going downstream. We’ve had swimmers come to the race expecting more of a push and they’re surprised to find they have to work the whole way down. For safety and kindness, we schedule the Portland Bridge Swim for a day with the most favorable tide. Ideally that will mean a push all the way, like we had last year, but sometimes it means the tide will turn against them late in the race. That can be rough, because it happens when they’re in the industrial section of the river, with no landmarks and no bridges to gauge progress. All they have are the last 2 bridges, mocking them from a couple of miles up ahead. When the tide turns on you in that section, it can really make you wonder why you thought this would be a fun thing to do. That’s the cool thing about our course. It’s great for sightseeing, but it’s still a mental and physical challenge.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Who helps you organize the Portland Bridge Swim?
Marisa Frieder: Tim Cespedes was our safety boss for the first couple of years and there’s no way any of this would have happened without his input and calm oversight. Tim Waud, 2013 recipient of the U.S. Masters Swimming Dorothy Donnelly Service Award and the energizer bunny of Oregon Masters Swimming, is our new safety boss. Byron Olson is our web and social media guru, also managing our registration system. On race day, he’s our boat boss and serves as Tim’s eyes and ears on the water. I kind of don’t breathe until all the swimmers arrive safely at the race finish, and Tim and Byron are the ones who make that possible. Tim and Byron also have a really lively swim team, the Oregon City Tankers, and they’ve been instrumental in recruiting volunteers. My teammate, Julie Andrade, has taken over registration, packets and check-in. Michelle Macy comes out to work as a race official on the boats when her schedule permits. All these folks and so many others have put their backs into this, but they’re also really fantastic for knocking ideas around. We get together for dinner and pick apart systems and problems to figure out how to make the swim better and stronger every year.
When we started, it was mostly people I thought I could guilt into getting up at 5 am on a Sunday. At first I honestly didn’t think anybody much cared about this crazy idea that I had, and I felt like I was imposing on them by asking for help. But once we pulled it off the first year, word spread and people got excited. Volunteers have come back and worked the swim every year. Members of Oregon Masters Swimming have stepped up to build and improve the swim. And people in our community, who have no connection to swimming at all, have brought their boats and their skills and their bodies to make this happen. So many people have gotten excited about this race and they are so generous and wonderful, I can’t say that enough.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Why do you do it?
Marisa Frieder: When I was training for my swim, I talked with other, real, open water swimmers who were interested in doing it themselves. I promised one of them that I’d make it an organized event the next year. And she hasn’t done it yet, so I have to keep it running until she does.
Honestly, there are so many great things about it. The marathon swimmers come and they race, HARD, for 11 miles. For me, an open water swimming race is a test of our relative paces. I might be able to pull a little more out at the end, but for the most part all I can do is just go at whatever my pace is. So to watch people battle neck-and-neck for miles is an awesome thing for me. And I get the honor of watching, and maybe even helping, people challenge themselves. I’ve got a couple of teammates who signed up for the relay, started doing some training swims, and quickly got up to 7 or 8 miles. At least one of them is coming back this year to do the solo swim and I can’t wait to see her finish. Every year I get to see people do this and it never gets old.
Portlanders have a really uneasy relationship with their river: It used to be really dirty, and then local and federal governments worked hard to clean it up. The EPA says it’s safe for swimming. The city changed its sewer outflow system to almost eliminate sewage releases into the river during storms. My background is in infectious disease research so that was something I checked very carefully, and now I get bacterial counts from both the city and our friends at Willamette Riverkeeper, to whom we donate proceeds from the race. We don’t get into the water unless both groups agree that bacterial counts are safe, and we’ve never had a problem. So the water’s clean, but nobody was getting into it to enjoy the benefits of our hard work.
When I had my crazy idea in 2010, the only people who swam in the river were associated with the Portland Triathlon. In the years since, we’ve had almost 200 participants who can go out and be ambassadors for the river. The swim has grown to be highly visible and it’s drawing spectators. I know we’re making them rethinking their understanding of the Willamette. And swimmers use it for open water training now! The Big Float, a community pool party in the downtown section of the river, came together at about the same time and they draw a couple thousand people more. The Willamette is a jewel in the middle of the city, and the more people we can get to understand that, the more they’ll advocate for the health of our favorite open water swimming venue.
It’s just such an amazing thing for me, to see how this thing has taken off. The Portland Bridge Swim started as a pretty hare-brained idea, or maybe an excuse to grill some hot dogs with some friends. Four years in, it’s turned into a way for us to connect with swimmers and our community, and to change the city we live in. And oh boy, it’s such a rush to see all those people in the river on race day.
Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association