A last-minute comment from the boat captain might have ended the project then and there. It was the dead of night and Eliza Cummings ’17 was about to plunge into the cold Atlantic to begin a 20-mile marathon swim across Cape Cod Bay when the captain started talking about the great white shark sightings that had closed nearby beaches that day in August. “I looked at the dark water and thought, ‘I’m going to do this. A few stories are not going to get to me,’” Cummings wrote later.

At that point, she decided she had worked too hard and too long to look back. Pushing down her anxiety, she jumped into the 61-degree water. For 9 hours and 37 minutes—a record-breaking pace by a full 5 minutes—she would battle hypothermia, jellyfish stings and nausea as she made her way from Plymouth to Provincetown, Mass. Happily, not a single shark showed itself.

Six Smith women have conquered the English Channel so far, with more to come.

It was a remarkable summer for Smith’s long-distance open-water swimmers—an elite group that is creating what it calls Smith’s “marathon swimming ‘fempire.’” Six Smith women have conquered the English Channel so far—seven, if you include first-year phenom Charlotte Samuels ’20, who swam it two years before arriving at Smith. But that’s just one of the awe-inspiring swims these athletes are taking on— and what’s more, they frequently serve as support swimmers for each other.

Assisting Cummings in her record-breaking swim, for instance, was Smith teammate Abby Bergman ’18, who swam alongside Cummings for nearly three hours. A month earlier, Bergman had accomplished her own marathon swim, 20 miles across California’s Catalina Channel. At her side for several legs was another Smith marathon swimmer, Paige Christie ’15, who had just recovered from a jaw-dropping 120-mile swim over seven consecutive days in New York’s Hudson River. Samuels joined Christie for one leg (before being pulled because of lightning), and texting her all the way were Bergman and Cummings.

Beyond the help these swimmers give each other—Christie calls it a “chain of sisterly support”—they share one other irreplaceable factor: coach Kim Bierwert, who is marking his 40th year as coach of swimming and diving at Smith. “Coach Kim makes me believe I can do things I never thought I could do,” Bergman said. Each swimmer credits Bierwert’s training plan, which emphasizes strength and endurance, but also mental strength to push past discouragement and doubt.

The proof is in the outcome. In 2015, Christie became the sixth Smith swimmer to attempt and complete the legendary 21-mile English Channel crossing, giving Bierwert’s swimmers a 100 percent success rate. Next summer Bergman intends to add her name to the list.

These open-water swimmers all talk about the importance of serving as support swimmers for each other. “During hours 3, 4 and 5, I was hurting,” said Bergman of her 11-hour Catalina swim. “It was dark and scary, but I knew Paige would jump in at hour 6. When she got in, it was like the swim started over.” “The support swimmer helps you pick up your pace,” Cummings said. “The biggest part is the mental boost to have someone with you.”

Beyond the help these swimmers give each other—what Paige Christie ’15 calls a “chain of sisterly support”—they share one other irreplaceable factor: coach Kim Bierwert.

For Christie’s seven-day Hudson River swim in June, she was spurred on by other swimmers attempting the 8 Bridges swim, which runs from Rip Van Winkle Bridge in Hudson to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York Harbor. In the end, only one other swimmer completed the race, and Christie became the youngest swimmer to do so.

All the swimmers are (or were) on Smith’s swim team, but they pursue—and raise money for—these open-water swims on their own. With the addition of Samuels, it’s clear the Smith “fempire” is going strong. At age 16 she became the youngest person to complete the triple crown of open-water swimming—the Catalina Channel, the Manhattan Island marathon and the English Channel. And next year, she has her eye on the difficult currents and cold water of the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland. “For me, this type of unpredictable swimming is something I am reeled into time and time again, testing myself and where in turn I feel most at home,” Samuels said.

From left, Charlotte Samuels ’20, Eliza Cummings ’17 and Abby Bergman ’18 all completed record-breaking distance swims.

SAQ, Winter 2016–17