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Everyone in The Pool: February Swim Challenge

Self Portrait with Goggles

Self Portrait with Goggles /Heather Kaweck

Underwriting support from:


Self portrait with Cap

Self portrait with Cap /Rudy Malmquist

Training for any sport takes a tremendous amount of dedication, persistence, time and energy. Making a commitment to train every single day notches that up and makes it more than training - it becomes a challenge.

Each February for the last four years, a growing group of Grand Rapidians (30+ this year) commit to swimming a half mile every day. Rudy Malmquist cites Perry DeYoung a fellow athlete for coming up with the idea of swimming every day for a month. "He's an extreme friend, kind of like me. We do things at 150 percent," said Malmquist. "We feed off each other. So we came up with the idea of the February Swim Challenge." Malmquist has pondered formalizing the event, but the loose structure seems to suit the group. The website/blog is interactive and participants post comments and progress for each day of the swim.

The Challenge takes place in a variety of Grand Rapids area pools and participation is free. People swim where they wish. Most pools in the area are 25 yards in length, thus swimming a half mile is about 17 laps or 34 lengths. Many swimmers cite 20-25 minutes to complete the distance.

"It is really about getting there and doing it. The key is making time to do it. If one thing gets in the way, then ten things get in the way and you're not doing it," said Malmquist.

For people who love to swim, even the February Swim Challenge is a challenge. "Getting to the pool for 28 straight days is a challenge. Doing anything for 28 straight days is a challenge enough, but in the middle of the cold winter it is even more so. When it's not February, I'm in the pool about three days a week, so this is nearly doubling the time I'm swimming," said J.R. VanderWall.

"Most people who are triathletes are not swimmers by nature," said Malmquist. "They're dominant in one sport and suffer through the rest." Swimming presents a particular set of challenges. It involves both the upper and lower body, as well as the core. It takes additional coordination to breath efficiently and strokes done poorly can slow a swimmer's speed.

"I'm a swimmer by nature.  I do the other disciplines (running and biking) but swimming is my strength, where most others in the Challenge, it is their weakness.  For many of the people it's just a challenge to get into the pool. For me, it's just part of who I am," said VanderWall.

Jen Crowley is a swimming late-bloomer. "I only learned to swim three years ago. My dear friend, Melissa Tourtelotte, taught me the basics and then made sure I didn't drown in the lane next to her while she was training for a half-Ironman event. I was horrible! I didn't have a good stroke, I didn't know how to breathe bilaterally, I had no endurance in the water. But I kept slogging away and just fell in love with it. I love the whole zen experience of the pool and now I swim regularly," she said.

Malmquist recruited Crowley in 2009 for the Challenge, her first. "Since I had just learned how to swim the year before, I was very anxious about not being able to finish -- either not be able to swim that much or not be able to make it every day. But I did it and it was a blast!," she said.

The challenge of getting in the pool everyday and the sense of community she has with blogging on the website are two of the reasons she enjoys the challenge. Crowley recruited Rick Treur. "I have a hard time motivating myself to do things if I don't have a goal.  It is the same reason I have signed up for the River Bank Run or Chicago Marathon in the past," he said. Like many other athletes, having a goal provides focus and accountability.  Treur says he is a weak swimmer and hopes the Challenge will help him improve. "I've done the Reed's Lake Triathlon a couple times and the swim is the worst part for me.  I end up getting passed by people in the heat behind me," he said.

Heather Kaweck is using the Challenge as triathlon training. "At the end of February last year I was so confident in my newfound swimming skills that I decided to train for my first triathlon," she said. The training paid off, she completed a tri last summer and set a personal record for the 1/2 mile swim of 15:28. "This year I'm doing it as a continuation of my tri training, and again as a push to get me through the long cold winter until I get back outside," she said. For Kaweck, one of the biggest challenges of the month-long swim is finding the time in her grad school and work schedules to swim. The blog helps keep her accountable to others in the group and "to every person that I've bragged to about this," she said.

Denise Cheng and a group of her friends including Lori Slager Knorr, Uma Mishra and Miriam Slager joined the Challenge at Kaweck's urging. The group has a mantra: No girl left behind, and they support each other. They meet up to carpool to the Y and if schedules don't coordinate for all, they break off into pairs. "Lori, Uma and I hardly swam before this. When people would ask me if I swam, I'd say, I float. We weren't sure we could make it after the first few laps on the first day. That's where it helps to have a group, we push each other,” said Cheng.

"I've been wanting to include swimming in my workout routine, but was stalling on taking the first step and doing it.  I'm learning with three other women, and we can support one another. I love the challenge! I knew it would be difficult, but forgot how busy my life is, and to squeeze swimming 20 laps into my daily schedule can be tricky. I'm really enjoying the group of women I'm swimming with, and I love challenging myself to swim farther or faster," said Knorr.

"I'm not a good swimmer and never swam before this challenge.  I am a runner (only because I was forced to be in the Army) and enjoy a good run, but hate the thought of getting in the water, which is precisely why this is a challenge.  Everyday I have the choice to swim or not, and so far the past seven days, I've  jumped in," Mishra said. Her greatest goal is to be comfortable in the water.  “I fight the water even now and my strokes are not efficient because I have some fear of water.  My hope is that swimming for 28 days will allow me to come to a place where I can stop struggling and just swim." 

Malmquist cites the consistency of the daily swim for a month as something that turns doubters into swimmers. "If you don't think you're a swimmer, and you complete this challenge, at the end of the month there will be no doubt in your mind that you are a swimmer."

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 What a fun story! I'm a runner and a biker, but a pretty shaky swimmer, who managed to complete a sprint triathlon a couple years ago without drowning. This kind of challenge is exactly what I'd need to get back in the water! Next February...

Thanks for reading the article and taking time to comment. From what I know of these people, you'd be welcomed to the group.