By Jaime Franchi
The dark sky looked threatening as onlookers in red hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with the logo for the 2017 Maggie Fischer Memorial Great South Bay Cross Bay Swim huddled under tents and at the water’s edge on July 14. They were searching for signs of kayaks in the Great South Bay signifying the first swimmer to complete the 5.6-mile journey from Fire Island to Brightwaters’ Gilbert Park. Maggie’s parents, Rob and Mary Fischer, were among the spectators, as well as the event’s honoree Gary Smith, who’d won the race himself in 1956.
Brothers from St. Anthony’s High School came to show their support. This is the school Maggie had attended until a tragic car accident claimed her life in 1999, a few weeks prior to the swim in which she’d been training to compete. Rob and Mary Fischer’s lifelong friends were there too, friends from their college days who’d remained steadfast through the years. In fact, it seemed most of Bay Shore had turned up for the event on this rainy morning.
Bill and Linda Mitchell come to the event nearly every year. Close friends of the Fischers, Bill believes the event “helps keep Maggie’s legacy alive.”
Just after two hours from the start of the race, St. Anthony’s alum Christopher Arena of Amityville came in first for the second year in a row. Just as he climbed out of the water and made his way to the finish line, the skies opened up and torrential rain poured down. Spectators huddled beneath umbrellas and the event tents, while still others remained by the bay’s edge in yellow rain slickers, eyes peeled for more kayaks.
Less than two minutes after the winner came in, Justin Meyn swam up. Just one month into his 16th year, this St. Anthony’s student was thrilled to finally be able to participate in the swim, just clearing the minimum age of 16.
“The first mile was easy with the current,” Meyn tells Fire Island News. “But toward the end it got tough to get a vantage point. I had to just put my head down and go.”
Noah Chernik of Bay Shore, came in third at only 15.25 seconds behind Meyn.
Right behind the boys, 19-year old Meghan Slattery of Bayport came in as the first place female, and fourth place overall, at two hours and 25 minutes. Fire Island locals who participated in the race included Kevin Burke of Robbins Rest, at three hours and 26 minutes; Kate Hennriksen of Saltaire, at three hours and 21 minutes; and Tyler Crawson of Kismet, at four hours and four minutes. And former Saltairian Diane McManus, recently interviewed by this writer in Fire Island News, came in at four hours and 12 minutes. At 66 years old she is the oldest participant recorded in this year’s race.
The unpredictability of the weather, the currents, and the conditions are part of what make the Cross Bay Swim such an exciting event. And it’s that risk of discomfort itself that speaks to the legacy of who Maggie Fischer was and what she continues to offer the Bay Shore/Brightwaters community.
“My little girl was a disruptive child because she always made sure our lives were interesting, but never comfortable,” Rob Fischer confides. “And that’s what this is all about. Life is interesting when you’re out of your comfort zone.”
The treacherous rain certainly made the event uncomfortable. “As an athletic event, this is what we want,” Fischer says. “We want it to be tough, to scare everyone a bit.”
Gary Smith agrees. He remembers the event from 1956 fondly: the bet he made with the chef of the Riviera Beach Club that if he won, he’d be entitled to a steak dinner; the radio announcer’s voice booming, “Gary Smith is in the lead!” and the welcome the town of Bay Shore gave him when he reached her sandy shore.
“I only went in the race to see if I could make it across because I was the youngest and smallest – maybe not the youngest, but certainly the smallest,” Smith recalls. “I was just 17. I got lucky and won.”
Sixty-one years ago, the race was markedly different. Instead of the 102 competitors in the 2017 swim, Smith swam against nine others – two of whom did not end up qualifying for the Maggie Fischer Memorial Swim.
“It turned out to be really bad conditions,” Smith remembers. “And time-wise, it was nothing like they do nowadays. You’re talking people who didn’t have high school swim teams. There were no swimming pools in Suffolk County in any high schools at that time. Now there’s so much more training.”
St. Anthony’s High School swim program made a strong showing at the Maggie Fischer Memorial GSB Cross Bay Swim this year, with not only many students competing, but the swim coach and athletic director as well. Students, faculty, parents, siblings, neighbors and friends looked on, welcoming each swimmer to Gilbert Park as the rain slowly let up and the sun began to shine.
The uncomfortable weather conditions gave way to the near-tangible spirit of love and camaraderie those involved in the event have come to expect: the legacy of Maggie Fischer in her fierce disruption, keeping things interesting and fun.
For complete race results, visit www.greatsouthbayswim.com/overall.htm.
Proceeds benefit the Hospice Care Network Children’s and Family Bereavement Program, and a scholarship fund in Maggie’s name.