Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 7, 1995

Nursing Swimming Manhattan Marathon For Young Patient
Getting Into The Swim Of Things

Mike Field
Staff Writer

     A word of caution to those contemplating a daylong swim
around the island of Manhattan: be sure to allow plenty of room
between yourself and the four-foot intake pipes of the city's
sewerage treatment plant on the Hudson River.

     And while you're at it, keep a wary eye open for freighters,
barges and oceanliners backing into port.

     These and other obstacles are among the challenges facing
nursing student Viki Altomonte when she competes in the 28.5 mile
Manhattan Island Marathon Swim on Aug. 13. The annual event
attracts some of the best swimmers from around the world, anxious
to compete in the middle jewel of marathon swimming's triple
crown: the English Channel, Manhattan Island and the coast to
Catalina Island race in California. 

     This year, 18 individuals and four relay teams of six
swimmers will participate in the Manhattan Island race. In order
to qualify for the swim (which is open by invitation only)
entrants had to fill out an exhaustive questionnaire, meet
challenging qualifying times in other races and submit
documentation of previous open water swims. Altomonte, who has
swum the 4.4-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Swim six times and more
recently completed the grueling 7.5-mile Across the Potomac Swim,
had no real difficulty qualifying for the Manhattan race. And she
is cautiously optimistic that she will be able to complete the
course in a very respectable eight hours.

     Not bad for a 45-year-old mother of two who works a
full-time job in the hospital's Oncology Center and is studying
at night for her master's degree in nursing. Especially
considering she only started swimming seriously in 1984.

     "I took some Red Cross swimming lessons when I was 7,"
Altomonte says, "and after that I used to ride the waves and play
in the surf at the Jersey shore." 

     She was never a member of a swim team, and never dreamed
that one day she'd compete in races through miles of open ocean.
Her change from casual wave rider to competitive ocean swimmer
came about through a desire to lose weight.

     "In 1984 I joined the Maryland Masters swim team and started
swimming two to three times weekly in a sporadic sort of way,"
she says. She started in the slow lane, working with swimmers who
were often 60 and even 80 years old. In due course the program
was successful, and she lost 60 pounds. But what she gained was
even more significant: the desire to compete.

     "I got serious about my swimming in 1987 and started
practicing four to six times a week," she says. "I started
working with coach Jim Wenhold who is now the aquatic director at
the University of Maryland, College Park. He's the person who
turned me into a real swimmer." 

     In June 1988, Viki swam her first open water swim, competing
in--and completing--the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Swim. When she came
out the other side she was wet, she was tired, and she was

     From that moment forward it was perhaps only a matter of
time before she would want to take on the kind of challenge the
Manhattan Island Marathon Swim represents. 

     "Once you start doing open water swims it's almost like a
marathon runner constantly looking for places to run," says Marty
McMahon, himself a veteran of both the Manhattan and the English
Channel swims. "It gets so when you drive by a lake you start to
imagine yourself swimming across it." 

     Viki says she became really hooked when she started doing
open ocean racing in Ocean City, N.J. 

     "Most of these races involve swimming parallel with the
shore, although I did one race once that was a half mile out and
a half mile back," she says. 

     And the fear--mentioned by more than a few of her friends
and co-workers--of things that go chomp! in the deep? "I don't
worry about sharks," Viki says. "If a dolphin comes by I might do
a double-take, but as for sharks, if that's what happens it

     There are hazards of other kinds to consider when swimming
around Manhattan. Like all the other swimmers, Altomonte was
advised to get shots for hepatitis and tetanus before diving into
the East River. And when she comes out on the Hudson side eight
hours later she will begin a limited regimen of antibiotics just
to be sure. But water quality has improved tremendously around
Manhattan in recent years, and one thing most swimmers comment on
is the relative clarity of the water. 

     "When I swam Manhattan in 1989 it was much cleaner than the
English Channel, and it's gotten even better since then," says
McMahon, who serves as the applications chairman of the Manhattan
Island Swimming Foundation, the group that sponsors the swim each

     A large measure of the improved water quality is due to the
aforementioned Manhattan sewerage treatment plant, located on the
city's west side. To date, no hapless marathon swimmers have been
sucked inside the plant's giant intake valves, but participants
are advised to swim at least 100 yards offshore when passing the
plant. As frightening as it may sound, the plant is one of the
lesser challenges facing the swimmers.

     "The hardest part is the training," asserts McMahon.
"Swimming every day for a year and a half prior to the race--
that's the tough part."

     Altomonte trains relentlessly for her goal. Each morning she
gets up early to swim for an hour and a half to two hours before
work. Evenings are spent training with weights and running from
two to four miles. Weekends have been spent in Wildwood, N.J.,
where she will typically swim several miles in the open ocean. 

     "My husband has been incredible, he's been so supportive,"
says Altomonte. "On the weekends we take a walk on the beach"
before retiring early. Then it's up at 4:30 a.m. for a full day's
workout. And her sons, now aged 21 and 25? "Oh, they think I'm
crazy," says Viki, and she laughs.

     Yet in many ways, the Manhattan Island race will be a family
affair for Viki Altomonte. Each swimmer is accompanied for the
entire event by their own boat, which monitors their progress and
provides them with food and drink--delivered on the end of a long
pole--as well as healthy doses of encouragement. On this race,
Viki's husband, Wayne, will be providing her with food and water
at quarter-hour intervals, and moral support as needed. Co-worker
Jennifer Grant, a physical therapist at the hospital, will serve
as her stroke counter, seeing to it that Viki maintains the
optimal 17 strokes per 15 seconds that will assure her of good
speed without the risk of premature exhaustion.

     For her part, Viki Altomonte will be racing with her Hopkins
family in mind. Like many others participating in the event, she
is soliciting sponsorship for a worthy cause. Touched by the pain
and frustration endured by former-patient, now friend, Danielle
Rinaldi, Altomonte has begun a patient family fund for
bone-marrow transplant recipients. Rinaldi, now 14, underwent
such a procedure in 1990, and has been in physical therapy ever
since. A native of New York, Rinaldi plans to attend the race to
help cheer Altomonte on.

     For her part, Altomonte is racing not to win, but to

     "This is sort of the Mt. Everest of marathon swimming," she
says. "After you accomplish this goal there's really nothing left
to challenge you." She pauses a moment to consider. "At least I

     Sponsoring contributions to Viki Altomonte's Patient Family
Fund should be directed to Elaine Delman at Oncology 3-121 at the
Johns Hopkins Oncology Center. Call the Hematologic Malignancies
Division at (410) 955-8783 for further details.

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