published Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Swimmers hit the open water: Club meets each Wednesday to swim in the Tennessee River

By Gary Petty
Chattanooga Open Water Swimmers participants get used to the water and adjust their goggles before starting their Tennessee River swim. They begin under the Market Street Bridge.
Photo by Gary Petty
Chattanooga Open Water Swimmers participants get used to the water and adjust their goggles before starting their Tennessee River swim. They begin under the Market Street Bridge. Photo by Gary Petty

"Up the creek without a paddle" usually means one is in trouble. However, "up a river without a paddle" is exactly where members of the Chattanooga Open Water Swimmers want to be.

Late every Wednesday afternoon, COWS participants gather under the Market Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga and swim up and down the Tennessee River. The "long" swimmers go just under two miles; the others go about a mile.

The rules to join are simple: You have to be at least 18 years old and able to swim at least one mile, said Karah Nazor Friberg, one of the coordinators of the group.

"Everybody is welcome to come as long as they have some sort of competitive swimming background," she added.

She and Adam Deimling started the group in March 2010. Deimling served as a pilot, in his kayak, while Friberg swam before other swimmers started to join.

Starting in March, the group swims each Wednesday until October. There were as many as 35 one time, Deimling reported.

After walking down a small landing under the bridge, the swimmers step into the river and head upstream along the shore in the eddy water. Once around the Maclellan Island Nature Preserve, they head to the middle of the river to take advantage of the downstream flow.

On July 4, nine COWS members took to the 86-degree water and stopped only four times to catch their breath. Sometimes dealing with wave rollers from passing boats, they swam mostly freestyle with an occasional breaststroke or backstoke.

"I enjoy people and swimming against the current. It is just fun," said Ben Boyer, 48, an assistant district attorney for Hamilton County.

He tries to swim about three times a week -- at the Chickamauga Dam recreation area or the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga pool in addition to the Wednesday river outing.

Boyer also lifts weights, runs and rides his bicycle three to four times a week as he trains for triathlons.

"Once I started doing it, I just got hooked," said the prosecutor, whose wife, Felicia, serves as a pilot during his swims.

For 22-year-old Ben Sollman, Independence Day was his second time to swim with the COWS. A competitive swimmer in Indiana, he took a job in Chattanooga about a month ago.

It is not swimming that brings Phyllis Williams to the river each Wednesday. She handles a boat.

"I really enjoy doing this," she said, adding that she feels essential to the swimmers' fun.

While it may be enjoyable for guests of the Delta Queen to see the activity, Williams pointed out that the paddle-wheeler adds to the swimmers' difficulty by changing the flow of the river.

Denny Marshall, 38, said he likes the freedom as well as the challenge of open-water swimming.

"I used to swim competitively on a swim team," he said. "This way you don't have to follow a black line. You can do pretty must what you want to."

Marshall also enjoys the social aspect.

"After the swim we usually will go somewhere, and some will have a beer or a glass of tea. It helps us unwind," he said.

While the group could convene in just about any open water, Deimling feels the COWS' current location is best.

"It is really nice being downtown," he said. "And it is easy to get help if you need it."

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