Pushing RVA’s limits with a five-mile open water swim

Most people think that swimming five miles in the middle of the James River would be hell. For others, it’s their idea of a good time.

As bucket lists go, swimming five miles in open water doesn’t strike many as a high priority. But you’d be surprised.

On Saturday, October 13th, over a hundred people are slated to swim five miles in the James River with neither life jacket nor flippers. The event is To the Bridge & Back, and it speaks to RVA’s growing interest in outdoor recreation.

Jay Peluso, founder of Peluso Open Water and organizer of the event, is an experienced triathlon competitor and an active member of the Richmond Triathlon Club (who has served a five-year term as that organization’s Chairman of the Board of Directors). In years past, he said he’s spoken with many who considered competing in a triathlon, but were hindered by a common anxiety: the water.

“People would come up to me and say: ‘I’d love to do the triathlon, but I’m not a good swimmer,'” said Peluso. He said that while many people were comfortable swimming laps in a pool, “a lot of people had a fear of the open water.”

For one, you can’t stand on the bottom like you would in shallow water. Once submerged, visibility is also diminished. People could “swim in a pool all day,” said Peluso, “but the fear of the unknown in the open water” is what frightens most.

So, in May 2011, Peluso organized a 750m (nearly 2500 feet) open water swim series in the James to “get people used to the idea of an open water event.” The first event had 25 swimmers. By the third event, the number of swimmers had doubled. Not only did the number of participants steadily increase, but Peluso noticed the events were drawing both would-be triathlon contenders and exclusive swimmers alike.

As time went on, many of those swimmers, some novices just months ago, became comfortable with the 750m distance–so, Peluso added a 1500m series. Now, Peluso said less people are taking part in the beginner events, opting for longer, more advanced challenges. For some, the biggest challenge will come Saturday.

Waves of 10 swimmers will begin individual races by splashing into the James River at the American Legion Post 354 dock in Midlothian, VA. Swimmers will head upstream toward the World War II Veterans Memorial Bridge (Rte. 288). They will then round an orange buoy (a green buoy for those participating in a simultaneous 2.5-mile race) and return to where they started. One kayaker will monitor each swimmer participating in the five-mile race.1

As of last week, Peluso said over 100 people have registered for To the Bridge & Back. “It’s really awesome,” he said.

Peluso said that there were several reasons for staging the five-mile To the Bridge & Back swim in October. The first is that the temperature of the James is “typically good” and should be in the low-to-mid 70s. Peluso said that the river is calmer in October, making if favorable to swimmers.

Another reason for the fall date was to not compete with the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, a 4.4-mile annual summer event that draws nearly 600 people–some from around the country–to Maryland. That event inspired To the Bridge & Back. “We wanted to start an event that’s a little more local,” said Peluso. If the local triathlon athletes are any indication, RVA is up to the task.

With approximating 800 members, the Richmond Triathlon Club ranks among the top 10 largest in the country. Not only is the club one of the nation’s biggest, but Peluso said local athletes “do very well in national events.” He said those athletes are only a “small part of the outdoor athletic community” in RVA. It’s a growing community, one that recently received national recognition.

Last month, Outside Magazine named Richmond the Best Town Ever. For Peluso, the distinction underscores how passionate Richmonders are in celebrating the James River and the many activities associated with it. He said “Richmond is looking for the next challenge.” He wants To the Bridge & Back to be that challenge.

“Eventually, I would like to see Richmond have a 10k [6.2 miles] open water swim,” he said. While acknowledging the city is not ready just yet to host an event of that scope, Peluso hopes To the Bridge & Back pushes RVA closer to it. With registrants from as far as Chicago, Illinois traveling to participate in Saturday’s event, Peluso is “hoping we can impress people out of the state” to return home and sing the praises of Richmond and the James.

To the Bridge & Back will takes place on Saturday, October 13th at 4800 Welby Turn, Midlothian, VA 23113.

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  1. Organizers are in need of volunteers to man kayaks. Volunteers need not bring kayaks, as they will be provided. 


photo by Kyle Taylor

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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