Swim for Life

By Elizabeth White

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

Every September hundreds of swimmers plunge into Provincetown Harbor for the annual Swim for Life AIDS benefit.

Long Point curls south and east to enclose the waters of Provincetown Harbor. On September 9th 300 swimmers gathered on Long Point's north shore to swim the 1.4 miles to downtown. With the sun shining, spirits were high.

Rick Riggley: "It's an amazing energy here."

This is Provincetown resident Rick Riggley eleventh swim.

Rick Riggley: "When you swim in, and you hear all those people screaming. I don't know. I've never experienced anything like this. It borders on spiritual."

Return swimmers Kathryn Rafter and Francie Beall find the day so inspiring that this year they decided to make it their wedding day. Kathryn says the idea came to them while salsa dancing.

Kathryn Rafter: "Just seemed like the right thing to do. This is our seventh year to swim. And we've been together seven years. You know, the swim represents a journey, it's got a challenge to it. Seems like marriage is the same way. What do you think Francie?" [laughs]

Reporterr: "And you've done the swim also Francie?"

Francie Beall: "Yes, done it the same amount of years. And there's just nothing more inspiring than being in the body of water. "

Kathryn and Francie were married in their wetsuits, just minutes before plunging into the harbor.

All swimmers were sponsored with donations to benefit the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, and other Outer Cape health services. The finish line was strung with thousands of colored prayer ribbons collected over the years, each marked with the name of a lost loved one. Patrick Smith, director of development for the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, says the Swim has become a real town tradition.

Patrick Smith: "It sort of a right of passage now for the end of summer here in Provincetown. And it's more than just a fundraiser, it's an actual moment. We're remembering people who have been lost by this horrific disease over the last twenty-five years. It's more than just a feat of athleticism, swimming across the harbor. It's truly a memorial and a testament to us continuing to fight against HIV and AIDS."

Kayakers and safety boats accompanied the swimmers on the often chilly journey. On the opposite shore, cheerleaders shouted encouragement.

Dan Geurrera was the first swimmer in at 29 minutes, 29 seconds.

Reporter: "You're the first swimmer in by a long shot. How do you feel right now?"
Geurrera: "Oh, I feel tired, I love it though."
Reporter: "Have you done the swim before?"
Geurrera: "Yeah, I did it a couple years ago. I love coming up here. I miss it."
Reporter: "And was it cold this year?"
Geurrera: "It was cold. It's warm in the middle and cold on the end. So you know you're getting to the end when it's getting cold again. "

"Swim for Life" was started by Provincetown artist Jay Critchley eighteen years ago. Critchely recalls this first swim in 1988.

Jay Critchley: "If you have this image of a gallon jug on the beach: that was it. People brought their money in paper bags, crumpled up in paper bags."

This year's swim raised $150,000. Critchley says he likes to think the event grew organically.

Jay Critchley: "Cause it wasn't like every year it got bigger. It sort of got bigger, and then stalled. Some years it was a little less. But I remember six or seven years ago, we had 75 more swimmers than the year before. And I was thinking, 'oh my god we might even hit 300.' And now we've been hitting 300 for the last three or four years."

This year Critchley noticed more kayakers than usual. Critchley says organizing the swim is a lot of work, but it's work that make sense to him. Over the years, he says "Swim for Life" has raised close to $2 million dollars. He finds the figure rather stunning.

Jay Critchley: "It's a huge amount. It's hard to - well, of course, being a millionaire myself it doesn't seem like a lot. [laugh] Anyway, it's really amazing, and I think the important thing is it's spread out, that it's year after year. Keeping the energy going from the event, that's what it's about. "

It's about commitment says Critchley: year after year these swimmers pledge to continue the fight against HIV and AIDS.

Jay Critchley: "How's everybody doing? Let's hear it for the swimmers."

To learn more about the Swim for Life, visit swim4life.org.

Broadcast September 21, 2006

Elizabeth White reports for WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR Stations.