Becky Dey of Champaign has always loved being in the water, but it was when she was recovering from a running injury that she got more serious about swimming.
Dey took some swim lessons in the mid-1990s, joined a master’s swim team and then started swimming more in open water.
“I always liked swimming outdoors, in rivers and lakes,” she said.
Then she started entering open water swim events. This year, she’ll do five or six long-distance open water swims, including the Aug. 4 Central Illinois Open Water Swim at Evergreen Lake near Hudson.
“You get a chance to really push yourself a little, and it’s really fun to experience the different courses,” Dey said.
“I think the Olympics has added to it, and triathloning has added to it, because to do a triathlon you generally have to swim in open water,” she said.
Hartman noted this summer’s Olympics will be the second to have a 10K open water swim among the events.
Unfortunately, central Illinois isn’t exactly a hotbed of open water swimming. Travel seems to be a requirement for local residents wanting to do organized open water swims.
Dey has already done a 2-mile reservoir swim in Columbus, Ohio, and a 4 1/2-mile swim in the Tennessee River this year.
Her next event is this weekend: a 5-mile lake swim near Minneapolis. It will be her longest race yet.
In addition to the swim at Evergreen Lake, which offers 1.2-mile and 2.4-mile distances and is in its third year, Illinois has the Big Shoulders Open Water Swim Classic. Big Shoulders includes 5K and 2.5K swims at the Ohio Street Beach in Chicago. This is the 22nd year for the event.
Dey has done a number of 5K swims, and she likes that distance. She noted many open water swims are 2.4 miles — the same as the swim portion of an Ironman race — in order to attract triathletes.
Hartman swam competitively in high school, but she fell in love with open water swimming after she trained for and swam the English Channel in 1986. She did several marathon swims (more than 10 miles), as well as shorter distances, after that.
“I like being part of the water,” Hartman said, adding she enjoys both being outside in nature and the longer distance of open water swims.
“I like getting into a steady pattern I can maintain for a long time,” she said. “I don’t change gears well. But I can keep going.”
Margaret Ballantyne of Champaign was a synchronized swimmer in college and got back into swimming when her children began taking lessons. Ballantyne has been swimming with a master’s swim group for the past five years. The Central Illinois Open Water Swim will be her first open water event.
“I’ve done triathlons in pools and in lakes, but I’ve never done an official open water swim, so it will be a first for me, and a challenge,” Ballantyne said. “I thought the temperature of the water might be a factor and I might need a wetsuit, but that’s definitely not going to be a problem.”
Training in open water in this area can be a challenge. Hartman, Dey and Ballantyne all train mainly in pools. Although East Central Illinois has lakes such as Clinton and Shelbyville, Hartman said swimmers shouldn’t swim alone there because the boat traffic makes it too dangerous. Dey occasionally swims at Clinton Lake, with her husband Bill paddling beside her in a kayak.
Open water swimming has other challenges that pool swimmers don’t face.
“Probably the hardest thing is learning to sight,” Hartman said. “Usually (swimmers) focus on keeping our heads down. You have to lift your head to spot the buoys (marking an open water course).”
Lifting your head can put strain on your lower back over the course of a long swim, she said. But swimmers don’t have the line at the bottom of the pool to keep them swimming straight, so they need to practice looking for a buoy and swimming toward it.
“Probably the hardest thing is just knowing where you are and not panicking,” Hartman said.
The swims have volunteers in kayaks or canoes or on paddleboards to keep the swimmers safe, let them know if they venture too far off course and watch for swimmers who are in trouble.
It’s also helpful to be able to breathe on either side, Hartman said, because swimmers never know what direction waves might be coming from, and to keep the sun out of their eyes.
One of the biggest challenges, though, for many novice open water swimmers is getting over a fear of not being able to see what’s below them in the water — what Dey called the “ick” factor of swimming in murky water.
“It is true some people are unsure of what they can’t see down there,” Hartman said. “But you can’t think about it. You’ve just got to swim.”
Photo: Margaret Ballantyne, Carol Hartman and Becky Dey in the pool at the University of Illinois Activities and Recreation Center. The three will be doing an open water swim at Evergreen Lake in August. Photo by Robert K. O'Daniell/The News-Gazette.