Hamilton swimmer joins elite marathon club

Swims across the English Channel, the Straits of Catalina and around the Island of Manhattan have made Marilyn Korzekwa’s the first Canadian to complete the prestgious Triple Crown of open water swimming.
Korzekwa poses for photos during preparation for the Lake Joseph, Ont., distance swim in June to raise money for Good Shepherd. (Marilyn Korzekwa)

Marilyn Korzekwa’s has become the first Canadian to complete one of the swimming world’s biggest achievements: The Triple Crown of open water swimming.

The 57-year old Hamilton, Ontario psychiatrist joins an elite group of just 93 people to have completed swims across the English Channel the Straights of Catalina and around the island of Manhattan.

It was only a 10-hour swim.- Marilyn Korzekwa

Her completion of the 45-kilometre Manhattan Island Marathon Swim earlier this month was the third and final leg of her triple crown, making her the 91st member of the club.

She says it was a swim with special challenges.

She dodged a Norweigian cruise ship, stared up at the underbelly of the Brooklyn Bridge, stroked her way past skyscrapers, fought currents that threatened to sweep her out to sea and battled her way through the warm, polluted water of the Harlem River.

"It was only a 10-hour swim.” Korzekwa says, without a hint of super-human gloating. She does admit it got “relatively nerve wracking.”

Read more: Hamilton psychiatrist swims Lake Muskoka for her patients

The counterclockwise swim around Manhattan (http://www.nycswim.org)  is a race. The other two Crown swims are not only shorter in distance, but swimmers are not competing against each other to finish first.

Because of a change in the Manhattan race next year, Korzekwa will be the only Canadian to be a member of the club at its current level of prestige.

The 33.7-kilometre English Channel swim and the 33-kilometre Catalina Channel swim in Southern California round out the Triple Crown feats. Korzekwa is the oldest Canadian to swim the Strait of Catalina, what she describes as her favourite challenge to date.

“Manhattan was hard. Catalina was beautiful and sunny,” she said.

In Manhattan, Korzekwa said she had to dodge buoys, a cruise ship and six-foot waves.

 ‘Crying with joy when I got in the boat’

During the Manhattan challenge, swimmers are not allowed to touch a boat or another person.

“If I needed a break I would swim slowly on my back so I didn’t really stop because I didn’t want to waste any time or waste the progress I was making against the current,” she said.

One of Korzekwa’s three sons paddled along side her for the duration. 

“The oldest paddled for me in Manhattan and the whole night in Catalina,” she said. “The biggest challenge is the currents, trying to avoid being swept out to sea as the tide changes. “I was crying with joy when I got in the boat.” 

Korzekwa finished fourth among the seven swimmers in her group. She swims for charity, raising money for Hamilton’s Good Shepherd, an organization that provides emergency services in the Greater Hamilton Area.

They include a food and clothing bank, emergency food and shelter for men, women, youth and families, transitional and supportive housing, hospice palliative care and mental health programs.

“Dr. Korzekwa is a long-time supporter of our work in the community,” said Good Shepherd executive director Brother Richard MacPhee. “We are so proud of her accomplishments, both as an athlete and as a practitioner who cares deeply for people who are struggling with mental illness.”

Earlier this year, Korzekwa swam Lake Joseph, completing her challenge to conquer the three Muskoka lakes, having tackled Lake Rosseau in 2009, and Lake Muskoka in 2013.

Advice for aspiring distance swimmers

Korzekwa trains at various Hamilton rec centres, depending on what fits her busy schedule.

“And in May and June I was swimming at Gulliver’s Lake in Flamborough.  I’ve trained in Lake Ontario since the end of June. It’s been a bit cold this year.”

This season, during the last two months of training for Manhattan, Korzekwa was swimming 30 kilometres a week.

She sits on the board of directors of Solo Swims of Ontario (soloswims.com) and officiates swims across Lake Ontario and for Canadians in the Great Lakes.  She says there is advice on the Solo Swims website for aspiring open water swimmers.

“The best way to get started is to get into the various one- and three-kilometre open water races that are in the area,” she said.

Korzekwa isn’t done now that she’s completed the Triple Crown. She is booked in February or March of 2016 to swim the 26-kilometre Cook Strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand.

“That will be a lot like the English Channel,” she said. “Cold and currents.” 

Korzekwa was also the first person to complete swims across Lake Ontario both south-to-north, in 1983, and north-to-south, in 1984.