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This ultra-distance swimmer became the first to take 24-mile route up Chesapeake Bay


What were you doing on Tuesday from about 3 a.m. until sometime after five in the afternoon? If it wasn't swimming 24 miles up the Chesapeake Bay from outside Annapolis, Md., to the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, well, then you aren't artist and ultra-distance swimmer Katie Pumphrey. She is the first person on record to swim this route, and she joins us today. Hi, Katie.

KATIE PUMPHREY: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So first thing - it's been a couple days since you've finished the swim. How are you feeling?

PUMPHREY: I'm feeling pretty rough, definitely sore, pain happening and very tired, sunburnt, a little chafed but just so happy.

SUMMERS: I think a lot of people might be curious, with spending so much time in the water, how you fuel your body and how you stay hydrated.

PUMPHREY: Yeah, hydration was a big thing for the swim. This is by far the hottest swim I've ever done. The water was, like, 15 to 20 degrees warmer than most of my swims. And the air temperature was even hotter than that. And Joe, my husband, and I had talked out a kind of big plan of hydrating a little more aggressively than I do in other swims. So every half-hour, they signal to stop and throw me a water bottle that's attached to a line so they can pull it back.

SUMMERS: I know you've done the other major routes of open-water swimming - the English Channel, Long Beach to Catalina Island. But this swim was a little different. You live here in Baltimore, like I do. So why did you want to do this swim here in Maryland right now?

PUMPHREY: Yeah. A lot of my swims are definitely in other cities, in other countries. And, you know, every time I'm by the water I've thought about swimming. I've lived in Baltimore for 20 years. I'm a lifelong Marylander. The idea of doing a swim at home is just a dream come true.

SUMMERS: I think a decade ago, if someone had told me that people would be swimming in the Inner Harbor and the water around it, I would not have believed them. So I'm curious if you can just tell me from your firsthand experience. The cleanliness of the water for the whole swim - was it what you were expecting?

PUMPHREY: Other than being warm, it felt great. The way I describe it and the way that swimmers often describe water is by taste. You can't help but taste it a little, and it tastes like any other river I've been in.

SUMMERS: There is so much I want to ask you. But one thing I'm really curious about is what it was like to pass under the part of your route where the Key Bridge used to be. And I'll just point out that that bridge is familiar to you and I, but for people who may not know, that is the bridge that a cargo ship rammed into earlier this year that collapsed and made national news. What was that part like?

PUMPHREY: In dreaming up this swim for years, I've really thought about what it would have been like to swim under the Key Bridge, an iconic landmark of Baltimore, a huge connector of communities in our city. And my experience was definitely not what I envisioned. I swam under kind of the last span that was still standing. And I often swim backstroke under bridges. I think a lot of open-water swimmers do. It's just really a neat view to look up at bridges and see the spans. You know, I could see the span above me. I could see the sun kind of disappear behind. And then to my left was also just open. I definitely was caught up in a lot of feelings, and I was just sobbing, swimming backstroke.


PUMPHREY: And crying and swimming backstroke is definitely a challenge to keep it together and - took a few breaths, turned back over and kept going.

SUMMERS: Katie, at the top, we mentioned that you're an artist. Does the creativity of art and ultra-marathon swimming go hand in hand for you?

PUMPHREY: Yes. Yeah, my work is definitely tied into swimming. And actually, in this swim, I was brainstorming a painting I'm working on a lot. The sunrise was just the most beautiful sunrise I think I've ever seen out over the bay and passing lighthouses and seeing, like, big ships go by and beautiful colors. It still has some work to do. It's a nine by 12 painting, so hopefully my arms will be able to move soon. Right now they're definitely not lifting too high.

SUMMERS: We've been talking with Katie Pumphrey, a new hero a Baltimore swimming. Michael Phelps, you go ahead and eat your heart out. Katie, thank you.

PUMPHREY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gus Contreras
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.