Varying temperatures, choppy tides, and clouded water—Craig Lewin, a Boston College alum, encounters all of this and more as a competitive open water swimmer.
Lewin, BC ’08, was the 240th person to complete the Triple Crown of open water swimming. This challenge includes swimming the English Channel, which is 33.7 km across; the Catalina Channel, which is 32.5 km across; and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a whopping 48.5 km swim around Manhattan Island.
Lewin grew up in Swampscott, Mass., and was a competitive swimmer throughout high school before attending BC. High school swimming, of course, only takes place in a pool—he had his sights set beyond that.
“Senior year of high school, someone gave me this book called Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox,” Lewin said. “I read the book and was like ‘Oh my god, I want to do that.’ That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever read.”
Growing up in Massachusetts, BC was always on his radar, but a combination of both family ties, academics, and sports made Lewin decide to enroll. During his four years on the Heights, Lewin was a member of the swimming and diving team.
“It was a lot of work, not just being an athlete but being serious about anything,” Lewin said. “You get out what you put in. Learning the discipline, how to balance time, be an adult not living at home and having new responsibilities.”
The swim team provided Lewin with opportunities to make lifelong friends, such as Rob Keely, BC ’06, and Joe Maloy, BC ’08, who later would accompany Lewin on his open water swims. Lewin was admired by his teammates for his hard work and dedication to the swim team.
“The kid just loved working out so hard,” Keely said. “He was a glutton for punishment. Craig was going twice a day, every day. It was like you couldn’t give this kid enough physical work.”
For open water swimming, it takes a person with that kind of grit, Maloy said.
“At first he kind of intimidated me,” he said. “I was always used to being the hardest worker, and all the sudden it was one of those ‘welcome to BC’ moments where I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can outwork this kid.’”
After completing his freshman year of swimming at BC, Lewin decided he wanted to attempt his first open water swim over the summer. He signed up for a 25-kilometer race, even though he had never completed a race over a mile. But his lack of his experience didn’t hinder him—in the summer after sophomore year, Lewin continued to compete in 25k races and as well as triathlons during the summers of his junior and senior years.
Graduating with a degree in sociology and economics, Lewin said Keely and Maloy weren’t the only lifelong friends he made at BC—he also met his wife, whom he’s been married to for just over five years. His time at BC also opened his eyes to lessons about the larger world, he said, as he has been able to apply what he learned in the classroom to his worldview.
“There’s this whole other world outside of what your parents or what society tells you to do, and learning what social norms are and how to combat them through sociology was really cool, looking back,” Lewin said.
Post-graduation, Lewin completed one more triathlon before taking time off from swimming. Pretty soon after, though, Lewin realized he missed it and decided to start up again—this time with a more serious approach, he said.
He followed a rigorous training schedule in order to prepare for his open water swims. It takes about eight or nine months of solid swim training in order to prepare for one, he explained.
“You start at lower volumes and intensities and you work your way up,” he said. “So by two months out you are hitting high volumes and you maintain that until about three weeks out, when you taper off and recover.”
A large part of Lewin’s training was getting used to swimming in cold water. No matter how seasoned a swimmer might be, the temperature of the water will still take a massive toll—they can be in the water for almost 15 hours straight, he said. Wind and currents can compound these difficulties even further.
To train his body to withstand these temperatures, Lewin would sit in an ice tub for extended periods of time, and during the winter, would swim in the ocean for brief intervals. Along with swimming, Lewin would do yoga and pilates twice a week and shoulder maintenance two or three times a week.
In 2018, Lewin completed the Catalina Channel, a 32.5 km swim between Santa Catalina Island and mainland California. Being his beginning swim of the Triple Crown, he also found it to be his most challenging, he said. It was his first big swim in cold water and he encountered some shoulder pains as the swim wore on.
“It was daunting and I had a lot of self doubt,” he said. “It was not only physically challenging, but also mentally challenging because there was so much doubt in myself.”
The Catalina Channel is known for its variety of marine life, including sharks—but that didn’t deter Lewin in the slightest.
“I think people are irrationally scared of sharks. They aren’t feeding in the middle of the channel,” he said. “I’m more nervous about seals who are more playful, they will nip at you.”
The Catalina swim was also special for Lewin because Keely and Maloy acted as support swimmers, or people who accompany the main swimmer by boat for an hour or two at a time and help keep up morale.
“You stop every half hour or so to just eat quickly,” he said. “[Keely and Maloy] would get in every other hour and just swim next to me for an hour. I would come up, it’s like 3 a.m., and they are blasting songs from college parties and keeping [me] going and I think that just made the experience special to share it with them and have other people on the journey.”
Keely said that his job was mainly about emotional support. Swimming through cold, choppy waters in the dark can take a mental toll on even the most experienced open water swimmers.
“I was just a cheerleader for him, to keep his spirits up and to help him keep his eyes on the prizes and make it across the channel,” Keely said.
Lewin described the feeling of swimming across the channel and being a part of something bigger than himself as zen-like. Swimming in the dark, every time his hand moved, he said, the water would light up with bioluminescent plankton.
Not every encounter with the wildlife was as pleasant, though—Lewin said he was stung by jellyfish multiple times.
The next swim of the Triple Crown Lewin participated in was the 20 Bridges around Manhattan in 2019, a 48.5 km swim.
“When I did the New York swim … that swim is disgusting. It’s swimming around New York,” Lewin said. “But it’s cool because you are swimming around the vessel and all the battleships, and you see all the towers and it’s really cool because it’s a perspective that not many people get.”
Swimming through the dirty Hudson and East Rivers was not a pleasant task, he said. There was trash and other debris in the water. At one point, Lewin remembers being hit by a heavy object—at the time, he just put his head down and kept swimming. It wasn’t until after the swim that he realized a bunch of watermelons had fallen off a boat and into his path.
The last part of the Triple Crown competition Lewin had to complete was the 33.7 km swim across English Channel. For Lewin, who had already completed two open water swims and training, this should have been familiar to him. But because of COVID-19, travel was not allowed into the United Kingdom until July 10 and anyone who entered the country who was deemed non-essential was required to quarantine for two weeks. Lewin had to adapt his training schedule around the quarantine. His family ended up traveling with him to England.
“I was on a flight for 300 people and there were 10 of us,” Lewin said. “I had two face masks, a shield, hand sanitizer and wiped down seats. It was so weird there was no one in the airport.”
Despite the added challenge of COVID-19, Lewin still successfully completed the swim, becoming the 240th person to complete the Triple Crown of open water swimming. Since finishing the swim, Lewin took some time off open water swimming. Currently, Lewin is the founder and head coach of Endurance Swimming, an open water swimming training program based in Swampscott, Mass.
“[Swimming] shaped my hobby, job, and things I enjoy more than my career goals,” Lewin said. “Coaching is more about helping people achieve those goals.”
Lewin’s dedication to the sport started in high school and has set him down a career path that allows him to spread his love for open water swimming to others.
“The reason I like channel swimming is because, for me, it’s not about being the fastest,” he said.
“It’s about challenging yourself, doing something you didn’t think you could do, taking on a goal that you could do everything right and still fail because of weather, sea sickness or injury. There’s a million reasons you could fail. In the end it’s just about getting to the other side, nothing else matters.”
Photos courtesy of Craig Lewin