Stories have an amazing power to capture and engage us and their details often remain in our memories for years after the tale has been told. A little over ten years ago, I read a book entitled Swimming to Antarctica, which is the autobiography of Lynne Cox, a famous long-distance swimmer. At the time, I had just completed my first ever triathlon, finishing tenth from last, and sworn that I would never again sign up for so much as a 5k running race. As I turned the pages of Cox’s book, however, I was captivated by her perseverance and sense of adventure. At the age of 16, she set a world record for swimming the English Channel – not a record for women swimming the channel, but a record for all people who had swum across the 20-mile channel (9 hours, 57 min. in 1972 and 9 hours, 36 min. in 1973). She went on to swim the Cook Strait between the north and south islands of New Zealand, the Straits of Magellan in Chile, the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the Bering Strait between Alaska and the U.S.S. R., and even (as the book’s title implies) one-mile in the frigid waters of Antarctica. Did I mention that she swam unassisted without even a wetsuit in each of these locations?
Like worms, her stories wiggled into my mind and nestled there, refusing to leave. After reading another book – Becoming an Ironman, by Kara Douglass Thom – I found myself registering for my first ever Ironman Triathlon in Madison, Wisconsin. During long practice swims, I would picture Lynne Cox swimming with dolphins in New Zealand or narrowly avoiding a shark attack off the coast of Africa. When my first Ironman was completed, another one followed, and several marathons as well.
Though most of the tales from Cox’s book inspire strength and tenacity, one in particular sticks out in my mind for a different reason. She had signed up to compete in an open-water swim in the Nile River in Egypt and discovered the water to be disgustingly polluted. Midway through the swim, her hand punched through…a dead dog carcass floating in the water. It was one of the only swims Cox was unable to complete, and she actually ended up in the emergency room afterwards due to a water-borne illness.
In the United States, most of us are accustomed to lakes and rivers that are clean enough to swim, fish, and play in, without risk from rotting carcasses or dangerous bacteria and viruses. Forty-five years ago, before the Federal Clean Water Act was passed, however, many rivers and bays in our country were just as polluted as those in China, Rio de Janeiro, and Egypt are today. Prior to the Clean Water Act, factories were allowed to discharge toxic chemicals and industrial waste directly into lakes, rivers and oceans and many cities dumped raw sewage into the water as well. The Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969 because it was so contaminated – and it wasn’t even the first time the river had burned.
Now that regulations have been in place and restoration efforts underway for nearly 50 years, it is sometimes easy to forget why those regulations were established in the first place. On the Mississippi River in Minneapolis and St. Paul, National Park rangers take groups of school children canoeing, and city residents watch smiling while their dogs play in the water. To some people, the rules seem onerous now that there is no longer a glaring problem in view. At the same time, we are still struggling to meet our goals of fishable, swimmable lakes and rivers across Minnesota and around the country. Non-point source water pollution is now our biggest concern. We’ve successfully reduced discharges from factories and wastewater treatment plants, but still grapple with how to keep runoff from parking lots, roads, and farms out of our waterways, as well as how to address unseen dangers like mercury contamination. Some of these problems could be addressed with further policy and regulation. For example, 1239 lakes and rivers in Minnesota have fish consumption advisories due to mercury contamination from atmospheric deposition, which could be reduced by transitioning away from coal toward cleaner energy sources. Other problems, such as runoff pollution, will require cooperative efforts and community engagement to solve.
During winter months, I do my swimming and biking indoors at the gym, where death from monotony is a bigger risk than predatory sea life or polluted water. While I swim endless laps in the pool, staring at the long blue line on the ground, my mind sometimes wanders to places I’ve visited around the world where litter piles along the roadside and you wouldn’t dare swim in a river. I’m thankful for the Clean Water Act and the rules we have in place to keep our lakes blue and our fish, kids, and crazy triathletes swimming safely.