The infamous “Suck” in the Tennessee River, 15 miles west of Chattanooga, once had a history of confounding boats as a result of its dangerous rapids and whirlpools, but much has changed since then. Dams have been constructed to the north and south, and now there's even an annual swimming race that takes place here. This year, Lexie Kelly, marathon swimmer and holder of two world records in open water swimming--one for swimming the 5-mile Cayman Brac Channel, and one as part of the Long Beach Swim Focus Catalina Relay--will participate in this year's 5th Annual Swim the Suck 10-mile open water swim. Competitors will swim from the Suck Creek Boat Launch downstream through the beautiful Tennessee River Gorge, a canyon surrounded by the Cumberland Mountains and finish at the Living Water Property. Kelly, a Redding, California native, has competed in events around the world and across the country, but this will be her first event in Tennessee.
As evidenced by two world records and multiple national and international event wins, Kelly is anything but a hobbyist. She’s been swimming since she was a toddler. She and her siblings used to swim in the morning and then beg their mother to take them for a recreation swim later in the day, and she officially joined the swim team when she was 8 years old in a summer program. Although Kelly loved swimming, she also participated in dance and gymnastics. Her mother owned a dance studio next to the gym and they attended competitions in Oregon and Northern California. Kelly also dabbled in basketball in her middle school years.
But swimming resonated with her. Butterfly and IM (Individual Medley) became her specialties, and she excelled at mid-distance endurance events. Sprint events never interested her. Over the years of training, Kelly found that the work needed to master challenging stroke sets helped build mental strength as well. Fortunately, she was self-motivated even as a young swimmer and she was determined to succeed, so the yardage her club team did was ideal for her body, mind, and goals. “The discipline I learned early on helps with my distance training today,” she offers.
Kelly worked at a Chiropractic office during and after college and she continued swimming, enjoying hard training sessions early in the mornings before work. It was during those early morning training sessions that she met the owner of Open Water Source, Steven Munatones, and got involved in a variety of open water events where she first worked on organizing open water races in the Cayman Islands. Kelly worked this event and a variety of other events and realized she wasn't ready to sit on the sidelines watching it all happen. "I watched them finish these multi-hour races and thought about what a huge accomplishment that would be! I wanted to be a part of it too.”
Kelly does a lot of pool training and uses competitions as open water experience when the water is cold in California. From May through October she does most of her afternoon workouts in the open water when the Pacific ocean is warmer. She swims 6 days a week and does 8-10 training sessions. But she also does crosstraining like running, yoga, and cycling. Marathon swimming is first about having the physical training down, but “the mental part is the vast majority of what it takes to get through it. Sometimes you're swimming for 5-9 hours or more and to do anything that long takes a lot of mental strength and focus.” Training for multiple hours a day helps prepare a swimmer for such an event, Kelly offers, but she incorporates yoga and meditation to help clear her mind since there is usually a lot “going on in there.”
Her training schedule illustrates that she is consistent; she maintains a regular training schedule and uses many of the competitions she does as a workout. However, if Kelly is getting ready for a marathon swim she tapers down the yardage and intensity the week before. The distance of “Swim the Suck” will be perfect for a workout, especially if the current is working with her. She may even be able to take a moment to enjoy the scenery as she goes. This is one of the advantages of doing a shorter distance swim. It may seem like a long way to the average person, but for an endurance swimmer, the marathon distance is “among the world’s purest endurance and most arduous” events. (Note that marathon distance isn’t a set amount like the running distance for a marathon is 26.2 miles). Instead, marathon swim distances vary but in each case athletes pit themselves against the elements and challenges inherent in swimming in oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Kelly was ranked 7th in the FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix circuit in her rookie year despite not finishing 2 races and missing the last race due to work.
According to Kelly, the “FINA Grand Prix professional circuit is the longest, toughest marathon swimming series in the world with 8 races that are 15 km (9 miles), 57 km (35.4 miles), 88 km (54.6 miles), 15 km (9 miles), 32 km (19.8 miles), 34 km (21 miles), 30 km (18.6 miles) and 36 km (22.3 miles) in length.” The races are held between February and September in South America, North America, and Europe.
Kelly is fortunate in that her passion and profession allow to her spend time with like-minded people and to travel all over the world to beautiful locations and bodies of water. Not only does she spend time as a participant, but she also writes for the Daily News of Open Water Swimming and hosts various events, bringing her extensive experience, energy, and ocean knowledge to the forefront, as well as her organizational skills and welcoming style. She is skilled in organizing all aspects of marathon swims including helping athletes understand how to manage currents, waves, jellyfish, and sharks in the open ocean. Kelly has helped athletes make successful Catalina Channel crossings and has worked as a life guard on beaches throughout Southern California throughout her career.
Her nomination from the World Open Water Swimming Association highlights Kelly’s impact on the sport: “ 365 days per day behind the scenes, Lexie Kelly helps promote open water swimmers...quietly and without fanfare or expectations, she organizes conferences and awards ceremonies to honor open water luminaries...she works tirelessly to maintain a variety of data bases on events, terms and athletes...writes articles...offer[s] advice and help[s] swimmers realize their dreams. For her passion, for her infectiously cheerful outlook, for her year-round commitment, she is a worthy nominee for the 2012 WOWSA Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year. ”
Kelly’s approach to both swimming and life is to stay focused and keep going. She loves outdoor activities, meeting new people, and experiencing new cultures, but her life “truly revolves around swimming” and that’s how she plans to keep it.
Sponsorships and affiliations:
SBR Sports (shampoo/conditioner for swimmers/aquatics)
Aquadeus (French swimwear brand)
DMC swim (Australian fins, goggles, and gear)