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Morgan Filler '97 was an accomplished distance swimmer at Colby. Her junior and senior years she competed at Nationals in the 200-meter butterfly and the 500-meter and one-mile freestyle events as well as the 200 freestyle. Now that mile swim seems like a sprint.
Filler's shortest races now begin at 16 miles (some reach up to 62 miles) and are completely in open water--from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the Red, Mediterranean and Baltic seas. A professional open-water marathon swimmer on the Federation Internationale De Natation (FINA) World Cup circuit, Filler was named to the U.S. national team and ranked fourth in the world in 1999 and ended 2000 ranked fifth after suffering a minor muscle tear near her ribs.
It isn't just the distance and absence of chlorine that make open-water marathons different from racing in a pool. Each open-water swimmer races with a support boat, with a coach who gives mileage reports on a dry-erase board and hands off fluids and energy bars at feeding time. Filler has been stung for eight hours by sheets of jellyfish and has swum into snakes. The waters can be glass smooth or punish swimmers with four-foot-high waves. "You get tossed around like a washing machine," she said.
Filler's races typically last six to nine hours, and water temperatures can be as cold as 55 degrees Fahrenheit. And no, she doesn't wear a wet suit. "Wearing any wet suit is considered cheating, because it helps keep you buoyant, which means faster in the water," she said. "And it helps against the cold, which is an element that must be part of the challenge."
Ironically, dehydration is one of a marathon swimmer's main concerns. Four hours into a race in Argentina's Parana River--pre-race preparation included hepatitis shots--Filler realized she hadn't brought enough of the high-carbohydrate drink she consumes every 15 minutes during a race. So she improvised.
"I knew this water was very dirty," she said, "so, I would clench my jaw and teeth together to make a human-mouth filter while sucking in water." She finished the race, the last of the season, but was sick for two days afterwards, passing out on the plane ride home. "I had nothing to lose," she said. "I needed the prize money, the World Cup ranking points and the personal satisfaction of never getting out or giving up in a race."
After graduating from Colby, Filler spent a year competing in and winning shorter amateur races in the States. In 1998 she was accepted to the pro circuit and moved to California to train. (Her first professional race was a 26-miler across Lake Memphremagog from Vermont to Canada.) "I swam 20 hours a week, 80,000 yards and had Sundays off," she said. This past year Filler moved her training to Seattle, "a city with friends."
Despite her success on the World Cup circuit, Filler and other marathon swimmers are unheralded in the States. Abroad it's another story. In addition to signing autographs, riding in parades and getting free desserts at restaurants, Filler has had bodyguards assigned to her in countries like Argentina where the sport is worshipped. "Mobs of locals want to touch me and want my swim cap and goggles," she said.
Filler has made many sacrifices for her sport. The biggest prize she's won was $5,000 for winning a race in Japan. She doesn't socialize as much as her friends; between training sessions she works at Starbucks. "I've learned to make choices to allow me to do the things that are priorities to me," she said. "No matter where I am, how many races I do, each time I am introduced it's a thrill to be on parade, to represent myself, my hard work and my country."
--Alicia Nemiccolo MacLeay '97
HOW SHOULD WE TEACH?
Small Triumphs: Alex Quigley '99 finds reason for both hope and despair in the Mississippi Delta
A Ray of Hope: Brittany Ray '93 inspires where she found her inspiration
An Education CEO: Robert Furek '65 brings accountability to Hartford public schools
Charting Success: James Verrilli '83 directs charter school turn-around in Newark
Perspectives on Reform: Colby experts discuss reform and the purpose of education
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