Open-water swimming was all the rage around the globe in the late 1920s, after Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English channel in 1926.
Long Island was no exception.
The first swims across the Great South Bay were held in 1927, according to open water swimmer and East Islip native Rob Roos, citing newspaper articles from that time.
“In 1927 there was actually three open-water swims conducted,” he said, two of which involved swimming from the Fire Island Lighthouse to Bay Shore.
The swims went on hiatus here and there over the past 90 years, either due to organizer deaths, or events such as the Great Depression or World War II, even the 9/11 terror attacks.
But things are looking good for this year.
The Maggie Fischer Memorial Great South Bay Cross Bay Swim is set for Friday, July 22.
To the uninitiated, the event involves 100 swimmers of all ages, and it fills to capacity each year just days into registrations. Spectators are invited to Gilbert Park in Brightwaters, where the first swimmers will be reaching shore around 9 a.m. The swim itself starts at 7 a.m. near the lighthouse.
The approximate distance is 5.25 miles. Each swimmer has four hours to complete the trek, with volunteers, including kayakers, as well as rescue boats from the U.S. Coast Guard and volunteer fire departments on hand and marking the course.
After a prolonged hiatus that began in 1973 — due to the deaths of Joe Fanelli and Doug Brewster, who had spearheaded the efforts since 1950 — Bay Shore resident Rory Allen revived the race in 1999, recruiting lifeguards to participate in its return, according to Roos.
Among those lifeguards was 17-year-old Maggie Fischer, a senior at St. Anthony’s High School who lived in Brightwaters and worked as a lifeguard at Saltaire.
She had been training for the big event when she died in a car accident just a few days before the race was scheduled to go off. The swim continued, with participants completing the challenge in memory of Maggie, according to the organizers.
It was later renamed The Maggie Fischer Memorial Great South Bay Cross Bay Swim.
Her parents, Bob and Mary Fischer, are still part of the swim committee that meets once a month at the Great South Bay YMCA to plan the annual event, Roos said.
The swim also serves as a chief fundraiser for the Hospice Care Network’s Children and Family Bereavement Program, which aided the Fischer family after Maggie’s death.
Money also goes toward a scholarship at St. Anthony’s in Maggie Fischer’s memory.
“Every swimmer is asked to raise $500 and they do even more than that,” Roos said. “It’s really such a wonderful community event, and when you look at the age we live in, with people on their iPhones all the time, you get out there and you see everyone coming together and interacting in such a gorges setting, it’s really a powerful thing.”
Even open water swimming in itself, Roos said, is a throwback type of a sport.
“The beautiful thing is, when you think about other sports, like with baseball you had the deadfall era, or the steroid era, with this swim it’s exactly as it was back in 1927,” he said. “If you at the lighthouse, in the water with your bathing suit on. And you’re doing exactly what you would have done back then.”
“And if you live or you’ve grown up on Long Island,” he continued, “it’s definitely a badge of honor to say that you’ve done something like this.”
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