Sunday morning’s fog lifted just in time for over 270 swimmers to set off from Ferry Point Marina on the Talbot side of the Choptank River for the Dorchester County Visitor’s Center for the Maryland Freedom Swim.
After successfully navigating the two-mile stretch during the 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. swim window, participants emerged onto the sandy beach of the Visitor Center’s cove to receive an official ribbon and medal as well as cheers, applause and hugs from family members, friends and fellow swimmers.
Some came a relatively short distance from Easton, Salisbury and Berlin to take the plunge, with others venturing across the western shore, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Delaware. But the event also brought swimmers in from shores as distant as Colorado and California.
Jason Chance, who administrated the Freedom Swim through his TCR Event Management Enterprise, noted that all 325 open spots were filled with participants paying an $85 registration fee, though some weren’t able to attend.
Chance began operating TCR in 2015 after participating in and helping out with area triathlon events, officially launching in 2018. The undertaking has been a logical outgrowth of his and wife Laura’s TriCycle & Run Shop in St. Michaels. Both natives of the Bay Hundred community area, the couple moved back in 2011 specifically to open a business dedicated to helping local people stay physically active.
With TCR, Chance is passionate about not only growing the numbers of local races available, but also bringing to them the highest technological systems and safety to help ensure success for both race organizers and athletes.
Always open to new ideas along these lines, Chance was excited to help make ShoreRivers Choptank Riverkeeper Matt Pluta’s vision of an open water swim across the river a reality. ShoreRivers is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring Eastern Shore waterways through science-based advocacy, restoration and education.
A lifelong swimmer, Pluta also belongs to the 20 to 30 members Eastern Shore open water swimming community, which led to his interest.
“My friend Michael Keene and I decided one day we could attempt to swim across the river, so we did it, quickly realizing the similarity to the iconic Great Chesapeake Bay Bridge Swim,” Pluta said, adding that the Bill Burton Fishing Pier added unique opportunities for viewers to watch the swim plus offer additional safety spotting. (This year, the pier was closed to the public due to structural safety concerns.)
“Realizing we had the makings of a good event people would travel to, but also knowing we weren’t management event people, Mike and I landed on a great partnership with TCR. My only request was that in picking a beneficiary for a portion of the proceeds they consider our Swimmable ShoreRivers Bacteria Monitoring Program, which has a direct connection with outdoor recreation, particularly swimmers, and water quality conditions,” Pluta added.
The testing program proved crucial during the event’s first year in 2018, he explained.
“That week we got over 12 inches of rain. We know from our bacteria monitoring program that after big rains we see bacteria levels increase in the river to above the water quality standard for recreational swimming determined by EPA and MDE. Adding to the concern were reported sewer overflows in Cambridge along the waterfront, and our own readings confirmed extremely high levels of bacteria in the river,” he recalled.
“We made the tough decision but the only right one, to cancel the event and not put 120 swimmers into unsafe water that day, and they thanked us for taking their health into consideration above everything. That laid the foundation for the commitment moving forward to have the safest swim anyone has ever been a part of,” Pluta said. “Similarly, ShoreRivers’ bacteria monitoring program helps educate the public about water quality conditions impacting health in order to help make wise decisions on when and where to swim in our rivers, which should be enjoyed to the fullest.”
Now on board as the event’s safety director, Pluta is on the river with about 50 volunteer kayakers and another dozen power boats and jet skis, along with the Coast Guard, keeping a close eye on every swimmer. He’s found that bringing so many different kinds of water-loving people together, all enjoying the river at the same time, is extremely rewarding.
“It makes for a good time, and a great way to celebrate these waterways. I appreciate the physical endurance challenge open water swimming brings, but even more, the ability to be part of helping to have rivers that are swimmable, most of the time. That gives me energy and inspiration to work harder to ensure our waterways are swimmable all the time. My 3-year-old says, ‘Dad, I want to swim in the Choptank River with you,’ and it’s my hope that he will have even more opportunities to swim in clean rivers than I’ve had,” Pluta said.