Water Ways

Seattle's Open Water Swim Brigade

With the right outlook, the whole Pacific Northwest can be your swimming pool.

By Allison Williams May 5, 2023 Published in the Summer 2023 issue of Seattle Met

Some open water swimmers wear wetsuits, others don't. Locator buoys, however, are highly recommended.

Image: Brandon Hill

Canada geese squawk from the grass along Lake Washington as a small cadre of swimmers wade into the 43-degree water on a morning in early March. 

“Oh, why do we do this?”

“If anyone tells you it gets easier, they’re lying. It sucks every time.” 

“Cold is not just a state of mind. It’s cold.” 

And that’s what some of the people who like open-water swimming have to say about the sport.

There’s a reason Guila Muir, a certified swim coach and one of this crew, named the swim organization she founded Say Yes to Life Swims. It’s hard for most people to agree to immersing themselves in inconceivably cold water. But at her group’s more formal events and her own casual Friday swim with friends, everyone wholeheartedly endorses the practice—from those who just stand hip deep to Muir, who spends 20 minutes doing brisk freestyle strokes among choppy waves.

The first proper swim lesson of Muir’s life came when she was 46 years old, but within three years she was bobbing in Lake Washington, but not seeing many others; a few years later the 2008 Olympics began to award gold medals for marathon swimming. Since then, she’s observed what she calls a true explosion in the sport. But the fastest-growing demo, from what she sees, are women over 40.

Muir theorizes that demographic is reacting to kids leaving the house, to aging, to “finding something new in your midlife chrysalis.” The health benefits of cold-water immersion are, at best, questionable; a medical journal devoted to people who live in the Arctic called it “a subject of debate” in 2022. Choosing to dunk oneself in our decidedly nontropical temperatures seems bizarre even to the people doing it, but Muir claims “it’s not so much fun as joy.”

Guila Muir loves open water swimming so much she wades in regularly with friends, year-round.

Image: Brandon Hill

Say Yes to Life Swims puts on noncompetitive swims around Puget Sound, one of many groups hosting events. Another organization does an annual 3.2-mile course out of Madison Park Beach called the Fat Salmon Swim. Open-water swimmers earn the name no matter how far they go—even just a quick dunk—and whether they wear a wetsuit or not. But for the more ambitious among them, there are some lofty swims out there, completion of which is marked by recognition from the Northwest Open Water Swimming Association. The Amy Hiland Swim from Bremerton to Alki was named for the first known swimmer to do it, back in 1959; Hiland was also the first woman to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca under her own power.

Redmond’s Melissa Kegler is a compliance manager who’s built a substantial open-water swim resume, including circumnavigating Manhattan, crossing the English Channel, and completing the first-ever Amy Hiland Double, to Alki and back. The Seattle-based community, she says, is unique and blissfully noncompetitive. “We’re all there to support each other,” she says. Even Puget Sound itself. “The water envelopes you and kind of gives you a big hug.”

For all the group outings and mutual support, some of Muir’s favorite companions are the nonhuman residents of the local waters; she’s felt the tickle of kelp forests on her legs and seals nibble on her toes. On clear days, she looks down and sees starfish. “It’s the feeling of total immersion in nature,” she says. “So different from the smell of chlorine and feeling of the tile in a pool.” 

Adult Swim

  • Northwest Open Water Swimming Association
    Tracking first swims and sanctioning notable crossings, the long-standing organization supports individuals hoping to compare themselves to others in the sport. 

  • Say Yes to Life Swims
    The woman-run coaching and organizing company offers noncompetitive routes, also accompanying in kayaks to serve as safety patrol on the water.

  • Seattle Open Water Swimmers
    Locals share experiences and invitations for casual meetups in a Facebook group, open and enthusiastic for newbies. 

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