When decorated Seattle open-water swimmer Melissa Kegler emerged from Lake Desire near Renton after a 1.4-mile swim in 39.2 degree water, she left the water with a new American record.
The Jan. 14 feat by Kegler, 39, is a case study in “extreme concentration, incredible athleticism and intense determination,” said Lynne Cox, author of “Swimming to Antarctica” and a doyenne of extreme swimming feats. “Melissa pushed the boundaries of human potential and through her efforts inspires other people to consider what is possible.”
Kegler completed the technically precise lap swim in 51 minutes and 26 seconds; the 1.4-mile distance shattered an International Ice Swimming Association distance record that had remained untouched since Craig Lenning of Colorado swam 1.2 miles in Brainard Lake on July 10, 2011.
“One of the reasons I am so passionate about this swim is that I wanted to be a part of the elevation of the sport,” Kegler said, “but also to put America on the list of top distance Ice Miles.”
It was Kegler’s second successful entry in the IISA’s Ice Mile event, which requires the completion of a standard British mile (1,760 yards) of swimming at or below 5 degrees Celsius, or 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
As the seasons advise and remind, some of the most beautiful things in the natural world are ephemeral. Kegler’s record was broken by another Washington female swimmer, Lisa Yamamoto, on Feb. 26 at Fallen Leaf Lake in Camas, Clark County, with a 1.6-mile swim. As Kegler put it, “sport changes and evolves through time like the rise and fall of the tide.”
“What lives beyond any record is strength of community, relationships built and connection to nature through environmental awareness,” she said. “I’m proud to have made my mark in the evolution of ice swimming, inspiring others to push boundaries safely, and am excited to watch how this sport evolves using the knowledge of yesterday to fuel the excellence of tomorrow.”
How cold was the water during Kegler’s January Ice Mile swim? Swimmer Kirby Drawbaugh, who provided kayak support, verified, “the week prior to Melissa’s swim, the lake was frozen over.”
Before submerging into the gelid water of Lake Desire, the road to the record was paved with some of the best swim companionship in the world for Kegler, a seasoned member of the Notorious Alki Swimmers group, a fixture in the Seattle open-water swim scene and a government compliance lead for Amazon Web Services by day.
Sarah Thomas, of Colorado, the current world record holder — male or female — for the longest, second-longest and third-longest current-neutral swims, hosted Kegler’s first Ice Mile swim in Denver’s Wolcott Lake in December 2020.
“I followed Melissa over the years as she was swimming at Alki [Beach in West Seattle] and making friends with the sea life there, and knew she’d done the training needed to be successful in an Ice Mile,” Thomas said.
The best can recognize the best. Thomas, the only swimmer to have traversed the English Channel four times consecutively, over 54 hours and 10 minutes, described Kegler’s inaugural Ice Mile in 2020 in 39.5 degree water: “Melissa busted out that first mile like it was no big deal — she came out of Wolcott Lake smiling and laughing her way to the recovery area,” Thomas said.
Following her first successful Ice Mile, Kegler began a year of serious cold-specific training for a 1.4-mile swim. Weekly swims in Puget Sound and Lake Sammamish were complemented by big hikes to alpine lakes across Western Washington to chase the bitterly cold blue spaces where ancient water measures in the 30-to-low-40-degree range.
Kegler doesn’t just specialize in icy swimming. She has crossed the English and Catalina channels and circumnavigated the island of Manhattan to earn the prized Triple Crown of Swimming, too. As recently as last July, she marathon-swam round trip from Bremerton to West Seattle and back again across the shipping lane — amid the jellyfish — swimming 20.8 miles in 10 hours and 35 minutes.
It’s not all picturesque open-water swims for Kegler. Training consistency has meant hammering out mileage in chlorinated water, too. One training session in a 25-yard pool — the traditional size of most high school and college pools — finished after 14,000 yards. To put the distance into perspective, that’s more than 550 flip turns, broken into sets, without leaving the pool.
Back on the pool deck or shoreline, the Ice Mile requires layers of preparation.
Organization of people and a safe and accessible location for the crew are absolutely critical. In the case of the Jan. 14 swim, Kegler arranged for four official event observers to take the test required for ratification of her swim. Two kayakers, one stand-up paddleboarder and one fully neoprene-suited safety swimmer gave Kegler their undivided attention. Nine of the 10 Seattle crew members, all athletes of notable merit in their own rights, are Notorious Alki Swimmers — adult strangers turned exquisite friends by swim meetups at Alki.
“This is about community and the process that led up to the very small thing, which is a record,” Kegler said.
Perhaps the most important preparation for an Ice Mile is the time after the swim. An Ice Mile without a post-race warm-up strategy is like summiting Mount Everest without a descent plan in place.
So in addition to one stroke counter, one timekeeper, one photo and video validation member and a crew manager, Kegler recruited a medical doctor to oversee the swim and the rather prickly matter of the warm-up.
Official endurance and ice swims require the same uniform: no neoprene, no gloves, no bootees. A swimmer may wear a basic swimming suit, one swim cap, earplugs, a nose clip, goggles and nothing else.
“Melissa is a phenomenal swimmer and has a really incredible cold water tolerance, honed from years and years of cold acclimatization,” said Thomas, the world record holder. “She’s really a special swimmer and human and I’m so proud of her accomplishments.”
Only 49 Americans have completed an Ice Mile, per the IISA; most entries are just over the 1-mile distance. Kegler is in the elite company of a handful of Americans who have completed more than one Ice Mile, said Joe Zemaitis, chair of the International Ice Swimming Association USA.
“We at IISA USA are impressed by the diligence and preparation of Melissa and her team as they worked to create a challenging but safe event. We congratulate Melissa as she raises the bar for what’s possible in the ice,” Zemaitis said. “As the country is inspired by the feats of our Olympic athletes, we can look even closer to home to be inspired by great athletes doing great things in difficult conditions.”
One measure of Kegler’s greatness is her accuracy. As she swam the Ice Mile in January, “she did every loop at the exact same time, almost to the second” said Ofer Levy, who paddleboarded behind Kegler during her swim.
“Her stroke count per minute was the same in the first five minutes of the swim as the last five minutes. She finished her swim at the time she told us she would at the pre-brief,” Levy said. A former fitness combat instructor for the Israeli Defense Forces, Levy does not impress easily. “It was amazing.”
Kegler trained to swim with such precision partially out of consideration to the exceptional crew she assembled. Besides Levy, who works in tech, the talented team included a 30-year Boeing engineer, a speech-language pathologist, a working artist, a copywriter, a Seattle public bus driver, to name a few — a diverse cross-section of people who make Seattle great.
By swimming with accuracy, Kegler could also reassure her crew that the 39.2 degree water was not affecting the power of her stroke or her hard-earned tolerance of winter Pacific Northwest water. She didn’t need to tell them she was fine; she could silently show them.
And show them she did. She threaded the needle, swimming slow enough to hit even splits throughout each lap but fast enough to evade the creep of hypothermia that even the best in the world cannot avoid indefinitely. When she completed her target distance of 1.4 miles, Kegler exited the water with her smile intact and prepared for the most painful part of her swim.
Cold-water swimmers, elite and amateur alike, experience a phenomenon called after-drop following a cold swim. Simply, it is the time when the blood in one’s numb arms and legs begins to circulate with the warm blood surrounding the torso. As the cold blood and the organ-protecting warm blood mix, a swimmer feels her coldest. The swimmer’s internal temperature reaches the nadir of her swim.
Elite swimmers like Kegler are physiologically trained to navigate the shuddering, teeth-clattering discomfort of after-drop and have the experience to be prepared for the temporary effects. In Kegler’s case in January, her strategy included a warm house not far from the lake dock. She had three female crew members tasked with removing her two-piece bathing suit and then redressing her in dry clothes. Once Kegler was dressed, Dr. William Washington continued to monitor her various changes in heart rate, as her body worked to rewarm. The cold of the after-drop caused dilation of her pupils and pallid extremities. The inability to speak provided a stark contrast to the Michigander’s cheerful, chatty nature.
The jaw-clenching and thunderous shaking relented after 45 minutes, exactly as Kegler had predicted to her team. She had succeeded in setting a new U.S. record with precision.
Asked about her next big swim, Kegler revealed that a two-year training plan is underway. Inspired by the open-water community and the exhilarating swim culture thriving in Seattle, she remains committed to consistency and safety in her athletic endeavors. Her next event? She won’t say just yet. But she has a wave of support behind her.
“To my community and crew, the heart of why I swim, you are what brings life, love and joy to the process,” she said.
Watch this space, Washington. This crystal-blue, spine-tingling, world-class swimming space.