TRAVERSE CITY — Shea Williams spent 11 months training for the 2016 Mighty Mac Swim, getting up at 5:30 a.m. most days to hit the pool or the lake. The grueling Great Lakes challenge tests even the most experienced swimmers with its big waves and strong currents.
“I know people who couldn’t finish,” said Williams, a Traverse City teacher and former competitive long-distance swimmer who trained for the race with the coach who taught her how to swim when she was 2. “The current was taking people one way or the other.”
Four hundred swimmers from 20 states will brave the waters of Mackinac Straits in the 2019 Mighty Mac Swim on August 11. The annual race is recognized as the Michigan Open Water Championship by both the World Open Water Swimming Series and the Global Swim Series.
Colonial Michilimackinac State Park in Mackinaw City is the starting line for the 4-mile course stretching the length of the Mackinac Bridge. A team of four wounded military veterans will ceremoniously lead the event conveying a message of valor and resilience. The Great Lakes swim finishes in the Upper Peninsula at Bridge View Park in St. Ignace.
“We’re the new kid on the block,” said event executive director Jim “The Shark” Dreyer. “Distance swimmers want to mark it off their bucket list.”
The original Mighty Mac Swim took place in 2007 in conjunction with the bridge’s 50th anniversary and the annual Labor Day Bridge Walk. It returned in 2015 and 2016. Dreyer said the swim is now planned as an annual event.
Dreyer, a Grand Rapids area native, is known as an ultra-marathon triathlete. His record-breaking feats include swimming across all five Great Lakes. The 55-year-old who had a near drowning experience in childhood took his first swimming lesson at age 32 to overcome his fear of water. Two years later he was setting records.
Event athletes bring their own histories to the Mighty Mac Swim. TJ Zarafonitis of Traverse City, like Dreyer, didn’t discover his passion for swimming until age 30. The Munson Healthcare lab scientist got his feet wet three years ago in the Traverse City Triathlon. He went on to tackle the Swim for Grand Traverse Bay point-to-point open water event before committing to the 2019 Mighty Mac Swim.
Zarafonitis expects attitude to play an important part in his ability to complete the crossing. “The biggest challenge, apart from the current, is keeping on your mental game while in the middle of the Straits,” he said.
Retired nurse Patty McClees of Petoskey grew up swimming at what is now Petoskey State Park.
“I have always loved the water,” she said. “I especially love deep water. It gives me the feeling of freedom. It’s like flying.”
McClees, 64, swam the 4.04 miles across Little Traverse Bay in 2016. She began training for the Mighty Mac last October by hitting the pool or open water about four times a week. She sees wind as potentially the greatest challenge to a successful crossing.
“If it’s really windy, there’s going to be big waves to fight,” she said. “It’s one of those things I have no control over.”
Event athletes may choose to race or join the event for the experience of prevailing over Great Lakes’ forces. “If Mother Nature gives us her full fury, none of us will make it across,” Dreyer said.
Dwight Lewis of Interlochen joined the initial Mighty Mac event at age 24. Ten months earlier he had had hip replacement surgery.
“I wanted to prove to myself and the doctors that I was recovered,” he said. “It was incredible. I loved it.”
A health condition prevents Lewis from joining the 2019 swim, but he plans to be on hand photographing swimmers as they cross the finish line.
Williams, too, will miss this year’s race.
“After the amount of training i put in for the 2016 race I just took a break,” said Williams, 27. “I definitely could see myself wanting to do it again.”
She recalls the majesty of the Mackinac Bridge — a Michigan landmark she’d sometimes driven across — from the close-up perspective of the water, and the surreal moment when she finished the race in under three hours and fell over when she tried to stand.
“To be able to go up there and do that swim was a very cool moment,” she said. “I stopped in the middle of the race just to take it all in — how big the bridge was, and Mackinac Island.”
Awards will be presented to the top finishers in 10 age divisions beginning at 11:30 a.m.
The event returns next year on the second Sunday in August. Register early. Slots for this Sunday’s swim filled by mid-April.