On a hazy Thursday morning, 94 swimmers, each accompanied by a kayaker, loaded onto a sunrise ferry to the Fire Island Lighthouse. They plunged into the 80-degree waters of the Great South Bay at 7:30 a.m., embarking on their approximate 5.44-mile trek across the bay to celebrate a tradition: the 22nd anniversary of the Maggie Fischer Memorial Cross Bay Swim.
Despite the hot temperatures and clear skies, the daunting task that is the five-and-a-half-mile endeavor was elevated by 2- to 3-foot swells in the middle of the Great South Bay. The conditions were no match for the swimmers who rolled across the finish line.
A tradition dating back to 1927, in 1999, the swim was dedicated to the memory of Maggie Fischer. One of the 15 scheduled competitors that year, Maggie unfortunately passed away only a few days before the event. The Fischer family has assembled the swim in her honor ever since.
The Fischer’s attempted to host the swim last year despite the COVID-19 pandemic and devoted a respectable amount of time to ensuring they could manage a successfully safe event. Robert Fischer, Maggie’s father, said they could have been successful, but lightning posed a threat to safety that caused them to cancel only hours before.
Bringing the swim back after last year’s cancellation, the Fischer’s had to deal with a few obstacles with the scheduling of the swim.
“This year the swim was originally scheduled only July 19, but we had a tropical storm,” Robert Fischer said. “It was clear a few days before it was going to happen, and we had to make a change. We felt terrible for the swimmers because they were so bummed out … and we felt we owed it to them to find another day.”
Fischer went on to explain that they coordinated Aug. 13 as the rain date, but there were complications that led them to reschedule again to Aug. 12.
“It turned out to be the perfect day. I’d like to think that somebody was guiding our hand with the scheduling … and unusually, we had a new record set today for the fastest female competitor,” Fischer said.
Mary McKenna, a 16-year-old St. Anthony’s student from Seaford, completed the task in 1:52, beating a record held since 1975 by a couple of minutes. She came in a close second to Christopher Arena.
Arena, 20, from Amityville, finished just a minute before McKenna. He was the first person to cross the finish line at Gilbert Park in Brightwaters with a total time of 1:51. Arena placed first for the fifth consecutive year, and this year matches former record holder Bryan Krut for the most victories.
“It’s such an amazing cause and it feels great to know I made a difference in this race,” McKenna said. “My time swimming at St. Anthony’s definitely prepared me and I can’t thank my coaches enough.”
Like McKenna, Maggie was also a member of the women’s swim team at St. Anthony’s High School in Huntington. Arena is also a St. Anthony’s alumni.
The funds raised by the swimmers are devoted to the Hospice Care Network Children’s Bereavement Fund and the Maggie Fischer Scholarship Fund, awarded to a St. Anthony’s student.
“Charity is one thing, a race is another, the Cross Bay is both a charity and a race. I love that there’s a lot of people here because it’s a race … and they’re trying to set a record. It’s human nature to be competitive, but to be charitable is also human nature. That’s why we do it, and I know my family feels better making something good out of a charity,” Fischer said.
John Betz, 66, from Brightwaters, has rarely missed a swim. He is among 12 others above the age of 60 who competed this year, and out of them, was the fastest finisher. Betz came in 10th place, and just seconds before him was Richard Wilde, who holds the record for most completed swims.
“You know the saying victory at sea? It was victory at sea out there … the waves were big,” Betz said.
During our interview, Betz pointed to his brother, Chris, who has kayaked for him. Betz has completed the swim 11 times. “I couldn’t have done it without him. We grew up on the Great South Bay and have been going over to Fire Island our entire lives. This bay is very special to us, and I wouldn’t miss a chance to get across it. For many of us it’s a family event, run by such an impressive family.”
Rob McNulty, 55, and his kayaker Kevin Shires, 62, echoed a similar sentiment to Betz. The swimmer/kayaker duo are longtime participants in the event, and this year, two of McNulty’s children completed the race as well. McNulty has swum across the Great South Bay 15 times.
“The kids are taking over the swim. There’s so many of us Brightwaters families who as parents came out here to do the swim and finished with our kids down here at the finish line. Now it’s amazing to see that next generation evolve to follow their parent’s footsteps.”
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