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Going Against The Tide In Manhattan Swim

GUY RAZ, host:

Another woman will be trying to break a barrier tomorrow. Penny Palfrey wants to become the first woman to swim around the island of Manhattan, against the tide. Last year, the trailblazing Aussie became the first person to successfully swim the Santa Barbara Channel in California. And in March, she swam from Hawaii's big island to Maui. She's the first woman to do that too.

From New York, Lara Pellegrinelli reports on Palfrey's latest quest.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Just two weeks ago, Penny Palfrey came in first among the female competitors at the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, completing the 28.5-mile route around the island in seven hours and 17 minutes, but so much for going with the flow.

The swimmer has decided to attempt the run again tomorrow, only in reverse.

Mr. MORTY BERGER (Founder, NYC Swim): Seriously, if it was a normal recreational swimmer, they would go nowhere.

PELLEGRINELLI: Morty Berger is the founder of NYC Swim, a group that oversees open-water swimming events around the city. He's helped to plan Palfrey's attempt.

Mr. BERGER: If she's done Manhattan Swim in seven and a half hours, and this is a - and that's not a really super fast current, and now she's expected to do this in 12 hours, then it's 40 to 50 percent harder.

PELLEGRINELLI: Palfrey will be swimming clockwise, against the current for a significant portion of her journey. If she succeeds, the Townsville, Australia native will be the first woman to complete the reverse swim. In fact, there's only one person thought to have finished it before, and it took him nearly 18 hours.

Even though she prefers the open water, Palfrey's at home in indoor pools, like Chelsea Pier's, where she's been working out.

Unidentified Man: Two hundred, (unintelligible), yeah. Just 200.

PELLEGRINELLI: A competitive pool swimmer in her youth, Palfrey was considered over the hill at the tender age of 15. That was the 1980s, when teen athletes like gymnast Nadia Comaneci were the reigning champions. Palfrey only got back in the water to get in shape after having her first child.

Ms. PALFREY: (Unintelligible), it was about 5k a day. I'm sure she was getting dizzy with all the tumble turns.

PELLEGRINELLI: Now 46 years old and a grandmother, Palfrey ordinarily swims 80k a week. That's about 50 miles. Women in the sport are generally on par with their male counterparts, and like marathon running, physical and psychological maturity has some advantages.

Ms. PALFREY: You think you can jump on an airplane with a swimming costume and a pair of goggles. It's not like that at all, you know?

PELLEGRINELLI: In addition to rigorous training, Palfrey requires an ample support team: two powerboats and their crews, as well as two kayakers to guide her through the shifting currents. And it's expensive. Typical for open-water swimmers, she has no sponsors. Palfrey and her husband, who also competes, fund their ventures with earnings from their small accounting firm. Luckily, NYC Swim has loyal volunteers and decades of experience staging complex events.

Mr. BERGER: Open-water swimming is going through a renaissance. The amount of people who are jumping into waterways around the world is increasing at an astronomical rate.

PELLEGRINELLI: Morty Berger says Palfrey is part of a new generation of swimmers who love exploration and are trying to find the equivalent of Mount Everest in the rivers and oceans. Palfrey wouldn't disagree.

Mr. PALFREY: I'm often (unintelligible) I look out there, and I see something on the horizon, an island or a headland, and I think well, I wonder if I could swim there, you know?

PELLEGRINELLI: With considerable skill and some luck, nothing should hold her back in her attempt tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.