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Epic swim

Swimmers go 28 miles untouched

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The cheers of onlookers greeted Sarah Thomas as she emerged from the water at Riverside Park Friday evening, covered nose to toe in diaper rash lotion.

Most were clapping only because they were encouraged to do so by the few who understood the significance of the historic moment.

The Colorado open-water swimmer’s 13-hour swim covering 28.31 miles was the first time anyone had swum the length of Flathead Lake by English Channel rules.

The rules state the swimmer cannot wear a wetsuit or be aided by floatation devices, and cannot have any physical contact during the duration of the swim. They are monitored by watercraft, but they cannot be touched.

Thomas entered the water at Somers on the north end of Flathead Lake at about 3:30 a.m., and stepped onto the boat ramp in Polson about 5:30 p.m.

“There was 30 minutes of calm, then it was pretty much choppy all the way,” Thompson said.

She swam between a pontoon boat and a kayak, flagged heavily to keep her safe — especially important as she entered Polson Bay, where oblivious boaters and jet skiers created a churning sea with their wakes.

The historic swim may have been less profound for the swimmer herself, who used it to train for an upcoming challenge at the end of August: Loch Ness in Scotland. While both lakes may share a “monster,” Flathead Lake, with water temps ranging from 69 to 74 degrees, was substantially warmer on July 3 than its European counterpart that averages 55 degrees.

“I picked this lake because of the cold water,” she said. “I guess I missed the mark.”

Thomas prefers swimming in colder water because it’s easier on joints, keeps inflammation at bay and doesn’t elevate body temperatures while the muscles work hard. 

In 2013 Thomas was named Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year for her “unprecedented” double-crossing of Lake Tahoe in Nevada/California — 44.5 miles in 22 hours, 35 minutes — and double-crossing Lake Memphremagog in Vermont, swimming 50 miles in 30 hours, 1 minute. She did both within six weeks of each other. She’s also swum the English Channel, but that wasn’t the most difficult to cross.

“Lake Memphremegog was the hardest, because that lake is very boring,” she said. “This one is interesting.” 

While swimming through the Narrows — a small band of islands at the north end of Polson Bay — Thomas said it was so shallow that she reached down and grabbed a rock. She also noted how clear and clean Flathead Lake is.

Thomas’ mom started her in parent-taught swim lessons before Thomas’ first birthday. She has fond memories of swimming in a lake at her grandparent’s place each summer and participating on swim teams.

“I just love water,” she said.

Thomas’ friend, open-water swimmer Craig Lenning, completed the swim across Flathead Lake the same day, finishing in about 15 hours and 35 minutes. Lenning, who prefers swimming in icy-cold water, slowed down so he wouldn’t overheat.

The swimmers wanted to come in June when temps would have been around 55 degrees, but couldn’t get away until July.

“It was nice and toasty at the end. I’ve swum in water about that hot, and I didn’t do that well. It starts to drain me, but I just kept on,” Lenning said.

The remedy for recovery, he said, was to get a milkshake from the Cove. 

“Then you wash all the Desitin off you,” Lenning said. “With the help of baby oil and a friend. If you don’t want to get sunburned, use a whole tube of Desitin. It will be there for you.”

Local swimmer Mark Johnston of Flathead Lake Open Water Swimmers (FLOW Swimmers) attempted a similar swim two weeks earlier, going for more than 8 hours before calling it a day near Dayton.

On July 3, Johnston provided support for Lenning during his ultra-marathon swim.

Craig was grateful for the support of both friends who guarded him from other watercraft and strangers who honored the space he needed to swim safely.

“Once you get into the bigger distance, you can’t just grab a water bottle and swim across Flathead. You need the support,” he said.

Lenning has completed seven significant channel swims, including the English Channel, and was the first man to complete a double crossing of Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border.

In most lakes he’ll run across a soda pop can, or a plastic bag. While he didn’t see any trash on Flathead Lake, he was surprised by a few logs. 

“It’s a beautiful lake,” Lenning said. “You can taste the water, and you can tell it is very clean.”

In 2010, Emily von Jentzen successfully swam the length of Flathead Lake, by USA rules in a wetsuit, to raise funding for a young cancer patient.


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