A ‘real’ distance swimmer

CSB graduate Michelle Macy one of world’s top marathon swimmers

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January 8, 2014

By Mike Killeen

Swimming in the Columbia River in 2013.

In high school and college, Michelle Macy was considered a distance swimmer. Now, that term almost seems laughable.

"Yes, I was a distance swimmer then — although it is funny to think of 500 yards as distance now," Macy said.

These days, 500 yards is a drop in a bucket for Macy, a 1999 graduate of the College of Saint Benedict who is one of the world's most accomplished marathon swimmers. She was the third person in history to complete the Oceans Seven, open water swimming's version of climbing the Seven Summits, and was a nominee for the 2013 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year.

Macy has swum the 21-mile English Channel between England and France (in 2007, 2009 and 2012); the 21-mile Catalina Channel between Catalina Island and the Southern California mainland (2008); the 19-mile Cook Strait between the North and South islands in New Zealand (2010); the 12-mile Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco and the 26-mile Molokai Channel between Oahu and Molokai islands in Hawaii (both in 2011); the 23.6-mile Tsugaru Channel between Honshu and Hokkaido islands in Japan (2012); and the 21-mile North Channel between Scotland and Ireland (2013) to complete the Oceans Seven.

Forget about swimming laps in a pool. Added together, Macy has totaled almost 143 miles of swimming in cold and warm waters infested with sharks, jellyfish and other creatures.

"They all have their difficult points," Macy said, when asked to discuss her toughest swim. "I think for me mentally, one of the toughest was the Molokai Channel. I'm much more suited to cold waters, and Molokai is known for being warm. In addition, Molokai is notorious for sharks. Having been scuba diving in Hawaii, I've seen the wildlife there, so like the boogie man under your bed, I knew I could encounter this wildlife.

"I believe that my imagination ran away with this idea, so I was very tense and anxious during this swim. It also is swum partially at night, so this adds an extra dimension of spookiness.

"Physically, the most demanding swim was the North Channel," Macy continued. "It is known to be the most difficult water to swim due to extreme cold temperatures — often never higher than 53 degrees, rough conditions and it can be teeming with Lion's Mane jellyfish."

It wasn't easy. Macy did that swim following the "accepted rules" of marathon swimming — wearing a standard swim suit, cap and pair of goggles.

"That leaves most of the body exposed to all the sea's elements," Macy said. "I was swimming through jellyfish blooms for pretty much the whole swim, and I was stung all over my body. One jellyfish was so strong that it stung me through my swimsuit material. When you start to get stung, you either quit the swim or keep going. I decided to keep going. I was in extreme pain and it took a good month for my skin to recover from the damage caused."

Macy has been pretty much in the water since she was born in Faribault, Minn. Her family moved to Chaska, Minn., when she was 9 years old.

"My parents believed that it was important to be in the pool as soon as we could when we were babies," Macy said. "They had each of us in the water around 6 months old. From that point on, we spent most weekends and all summer at the pools and lakes around town."

Macy was a two-time Honorable Mention All-American swimmer at CSB. She still holds the school record for the 1,650-yard freestyle (17 minutes, 48.74 seconds), and is also listed among the top times in the 1,000 freestyle (second), 200 freestyle (third) and 500 freestyle (third). Her sister, Katie, was also a successful diver for CSB.

"I know that being involved in a sport at CSB enriched my time there," said Macy, who was a biology and Spanish double-major at CSB. "It is where I found my home among the larger Saint Benedict community. Being involved in a sport teaches you to carefully budget your time for competing life priorities, learn how to be part of the team and overcome challenges and setbacks."

But she decided to leave the Blazers' swimming team after her junior season. Macy studied abroad in the Greco-Roman program, and said it was "one of the highlights of my CSB time."

"I was burned out (on swimming)," Macy said. "I had been swimming year-round for more than 10 years, and I started to pursue other interests like travelling."

After graduation, Macy took a consulting job with Accenture, a multinational management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company. She spent a lot of time traveling with her work. However, when she tired of the long hours and the inability to "enjoy the places I was travelling to, I left Accenture and joined Nike as a business consultant in Beaverton, Ore.

"It was at this time (when she was 28) that I reconnected with swimming," Macy said. "I've found that it is pretty natural for a distance pool swimmer to think about the English Channel, which is considered the Everest of marathon swimming.

"I went into this component of swimming very naively. I went from swimming two days a week, approximately 3-4 miles a week, to swimming around 20 miles a week after I signed up for the English Channel. It was not the best plan."

However, she successfully completed the English Channel for the first time in September 2007 and was the fastest American for the Channel Swimming Association in a time of 10 hours, 2 minutes.

Macy has also set a goal to raise $50,000 for Breast Cancer Research through her swimming, and is roughly halfway toward that goal.

"With the world being over 70 percent water, I still have a long bucket list of swims that I want to accomplish," Macy said. "They are located all over the globe, from the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia ... you name it and I probably have a swim that I want to do there."