My truth about my swim across Juan de Fuca

“Exclusion lights up the same regions of the brain as physical pain.” 
― Britt Andreatta, Wired to Connect

As a woman, a person living with a disability and someone in an interracial relationship, the politics of exclusion is not new to me – nor does it surprise me. What does surprise me, however, is the number of people who are aware when it’s happening and don’t speak up.

My swim across the Juan de Fuca Strait a few years ago was a reminder of the sharp edge of the politics of exclusion and exclusionary leadership in marathon swimming. My swim led  me to uncovering the wide-spread acceptance of these practices. What remains a mystery to this day is why so many continue to look the other way while their fellow swimmers are being harmed.

The swim history of Juan de Fuca Strait

In December 28, 2016 I made the decision to swim across the Strait of Juan de Fuca wearing no more than a swimsuit, cap and goggles (traditional marathon swimming). I wanted to swim the same 30-kilometre route from Port Angeles to Victoria swum by Marilyn Bell and Vicki Keith (butterfly). Juan de Fuca Strait is not a popular swim because of the cold temperature, and strong winds & currents. In the Strait’s heyday in the 1950s there were only five successful traditional crossings including Marilyn Bell’s; 3 decades later Vicki Keith swam it butterfly.

Although there have been a few attempts since Vicki Keith’s butterfly crossing no one else had completed the near 30 km swim with the exception of Finn Donnelly in 1994 who swam with a wetsuit.

In 2014 Andrew Malinak, founder of the North West Open WaterSwim Association (NOWSA), attempted a new 16.5km route – just over half the distance of the traditional route.  Unsuccessful with his attempt, he jumped back in the water the following year becoming the first to complete this new route.

It is worth noting that the NOWSA website does not distinguish between the 16.5km route Malinak swam and the 30km traditional route. I checked the Marathon Swim Federation (MSF) website at the time and noted that all swimmers were on the same list with no distance recorded. I emailed Evan Morrison, co-founder and head of the Marathon Swimmers Federation (MSF) to let him know as I felt it was a disservice to those who swam 30km to be lumped in the same group as those who swam 16.5km route. He wrote back stating “I agree with you and appreciate you calling it to my attention. These are distinct routes which should be distinguished in the records of the sport.” 

The MSF website has since been adjusted to include a distance of 16.8km for ALL Juan de Fuca Strait swimmers regardless of the distance. In other words, those who swam 30 km only show as swimming 16.9. Although swims are typically measured based on the shortest straight line across the channel or strait, it would not have taken a lot to distinguish the two routes as traditional and modern as Morrison suggested he would. There is a significant difference between swimming 16.8km and the 30km – especially in water 9 – 13C water. The recording of these swims on both the NOWSA and MSF websites also does not line up with MSF’s Golden Rule of Transparency of Swim Conduct. One is left with the impression that all of the swimmers on the list achieved the same thing when they clearly did not.

Juan de Fuca Strait swim sanctioning and ratification

Soon after deciding to swim Juan de Fuca I reached out to Malinak at NOWSA to see if they would sanction and ratify my swim. I wanted to support their efforts in the Strait. I let him know I wanted to swim the traditional route. He suggested I start at Dungeness Spit, adding a kilometre to the route, instead of from Port Angeles which would have me swimming straight through a shipping lane. He then directed me to work on my swim plan and contact him at a later date.

For the next several months I trained and worked on my swim plan. Training for Juan de Fuca is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. The water can dip as low as 3C in the winter if the cold wind sits inside the waves. There were times I wanted to quit.

Mid spring, I was speaking with a fellow swimmer. They had been chatting with Malinak about my swim and he had apparently said “If she thinks she is going to swim the long route she has something coming.” I did not know if this was true or not but thought I should have a backup plan just in case. I contacted the Masters’ Swimming Association of British Columbia (MSABC) and asked if needed, if they would sanction and ratify the swim.

A few months before the swim I contacted Malinak and forwarded my swim plan for his review. He emailed me back stating there must have been a miscommunication and that NOWSA would not be able to sanction or ratify the swim.  My fellow swimmer was right. I wondered why Malinak would have not told me this before so I could make alternative arrangements. Luckily, I had.

Although I had a backup plan in place, the experience was very unsettling. I definitely wasn’t feeling supported by the swim community I thought I was a part of. And whether intended or not, I couldn’t help but feel I was being excluded. It really is a horrible feeling.

The swim and aftermath

With the support of my family, friends, and MSABC, on July 31, 2017, I successfully swam the 30km traditional route across Juan de FucaStrait .

I completed the swim in 10 hours and 6 minutes, the fastest known traditional route crossing to date. I was very pleased as this was a significant achievement for me and for the Multiple Sclerosis Community – they had never even considered someone with MS being able to do this. 

Soon after the swim I posted my achievement in the MSF swimmers forum. Within minutes my post was removed, and I was locked out of my account. I contacted Morrison from MSF to find out why. The message from him read as follows:

The relevant organization for Juan de Fuca is the Northwest Open Water Swimming Association. Your Forum accounts were disabled due to a violation of Forum policies. See, specifically this part: Promotion of bandit solo swims (swims in bodies of water governed by an established local organization, but done without that organization’s sanction).

I could have not been more disappointed. I wrote back to Morrison letting him know that the swim had been sanctioned and ratified by MSABC who has been ratifying swims in the Salish Sea longer than NOWSA has been in existence. He never wrote back.

I tried to access my account a few times over the next several months thinking that Morrison may need time to make the change. I was never able to regain access. 

I also received a scathing email from Malinak from NOWSA stating swim was not safe and I put swimming at risk in the Pacific Northwest. My pilot has been sailing Juan de Fuca for over 40 years. His father sailed Juan de Fuca and taught him. My plan was reviewed and approved by the Canadian and American Coast Guards and both Customs Agencies. Search and Rescue was also involved. I had a nurse on board, as well as someone with Emergency Management certification from the Justice Institute. My kayakers have all been paddling these waters and the waters on the coast for over 20 years.

Why am I sharing my story now?

When I was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, my doctor told me to go home; contact him if another attack happened. I was given no information, guidance, and definitely no support. I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. I was hurt. I felt rejected and worthless and that anything I did was inconsequential. I felt I didn’t matter.

I had similar feelings when NOWSA backed out of sanctioning my swim and provided me with no information or guidance as to how I might proceed after training for so long. These feelings were further exacerbated when MSF locked me out the forum. Rejection is a horrible feeling, and in my opinion, excluding people from participating in a community cruel –particularly when it comes from a community that claims they are there to help.

Like other painful events in our lives, it often takes time before we are ready to share. A few days ago, someone posted a link to the MSF Long Swims Database – the self-claimed “world’s most comprehensive marathon swimming results repository”. I was happy for those who were listed, but at the same time, I wondered if I was the only one who had been excluded.

I posted to a Facebook group to try to find out if anyone had insight into how MSF’s governance model and if they had a board of directors. I hoped this might provide me with some understanding of who and how the decisions are made regarding swim listings and people’s access to the forum. I was called a cyberbully for requesting transparency.

I find that when hurtful things happen, we are often not alone, but rather many have been scared into silence. Some of the posts on the Facebook page where from others who had been removed from the forum. I also received a number of private messages from people who have had their swims removed from the database, have been removed from the forum, and felt pressured into silence. I continue to hear about additional people; at least one per day. I have further discovered that the exclusionary practices are common knowledge in the marathon swim community.

I can’t help but ask why. Why would anyone be ok with others being treated this way? And why would people continue to participate in a community knowing that people are being hurt? I understand some people want to be recognized for their achievements and listed amongst their peers, but if they know the lists are intentionally incorrect, and that it is at the expense of others, I am at a loss and hope that someone can explain.

I have done a lot of soul searching through my own journey with Juan de Fuca. I have come to realize that 2 to 3 generations from now, no one will know who I was or what I have achieved. How many people have ever heard of Annabelle Mundigel? What has become important to me is what I do here today, right now, and how it impacts those around me.

As marathon swimmers we are seen as some of the most courageous people around, and our community often boasts of a culture of support. If we are truly supportive of one another, does that support not extend beyond the water? Are we not willing to stand up and say that the politics of exclusion is wrong or is this how we want our sport to be?

If you have been impacted in a unjust way by MSF I am sorry you have had to experience this. You are a valued person and your achievements should be honoured. 

Please reach out to me so we can work toward an alternative.