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 hooked. 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 happens." 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 year. 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 succeed. "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 hope." 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.
Go to Gazette Homepage