Though Amanda Husslein grew up in a family of lifeguards and swam the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke on Smithtown High’s girls swimming team, she never dreamed that she would become a long-distance swimmer.
“I dreaded the 500,” the tall, slim, green-eyed 31-year-old said during a conversation at The Star the other day.
Swimming, she said, had been a natural thing to do given her family history — her grandfather had been a lifeguard at Coney Island, and her grandmother “used to have us do laps before we were allowed to play.”
At the age of 14, she began teaching at the swimming school her mother ran in Bay Shore, and at 16 she became a certified lifeguard. She is certified to make ice rescues and open water rescues, as well, aboard a Jetski, a rowboat, a kayak, or a canoe.
A single mother with a 7-year-old daughter, Sierra, Husslein works full time at the J. Crew store in East Hampton Village and teaches swimming at clients’ pools and to groups, including the I-Tri girls who are preparing for the Youth triathlon at Maidstone Park on July 24.
Of those Springs teenagers, who, until they joined I-Tri, had never thought of themselves as athletes, Husslein said, “They’re really great. We started them in March in the [Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter’s] pool and evaluated them. Some of them didn’t want to put their faces in the water. Annette [MacNiven, an age group bronze-medal winner at the International Triathlon Union’s off-road world championships in Spain] worked with them on technique and form and I was the motivator. . . . ‘You guys can do it. . . !’ ”
“Now we’re in the bay, at Maidstone Park, Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 to 12. They’re pretty confident . . . they’re excited. . . . They’re serious about this. I’ve overheard them talking about the workouts and about eating nutritious food. After the triathlon, they have a salon day where they have makeovers. It’s about being a healthy and beautiful woman.”
Husslein’s long-distance swimming career began here three years ago when she entered Swim Across America’s half-miler at Amagansett’s Fresh Pond Beach.
“Yes, I doubted myself,” she said. “I’d only done the 200 free in high school and I didn’t swim in college. It was the first open water race I’d ever done.”
At the finish, she said, she was “very, very happy. . . . I did all the Ocean Rescue races after that — the mile, the 5K last year. . . . I was nervous being out there alone — I just remember pacing with one person, and I swam through a group of sea lice, zappy bugs, but it was a great feeling doing that, and I wanted to go farther.”
“I don’t know why,” she said with a smile, “but I did.”
Last fall, she signed up three others from here — Tim Treadwell, the masters coach at the Y, Theresa Roden, I-Tri’s founder, and Vivian Keegan — to take part in long distance swims in Bermuda. She and Tim Treadwell did the 10K, while Roden and Keegan did the 7.5K. All finished.
“The water was gorgeous, though it was windy and they had to change the course. It was around Harrington Sound. There were 100 or so in the race.”
Asked if she had placed, Husslein, who was first out of the water in the Kirk-to-Ditch Hampton Lifeguard Association half-miler two years ago, said, “I’ve been a middle line swimmer since I increased my distance, but long-distance swimming is more about finishing — about the experience, the beauty of your surroundings, and the people.”
In Bermuda, Husslein, who always seems to be doubling her distances, heard of a 20K in early June around Key West, and, despite shoulder problems, signed on, hoping she could get together a team from here.
“I asked everyone I knew, but nobody volunteered for that one. I wound up doing it solo, with a friend from Connecticut who was in a kayak. You have to have a kayaker with you.”
Asked how that 12.5-mile race went, Husslein said, “I didn’t know if I could finish. . . . It was intense, like a whole other level. The cutoff was eight hours. My goal was seven, and I did it in six hours and four minutes.”
“You’re weren’t allowed to touch the bottom — you could see it the whole way except coming into the Gulf from the Atlantic, where the cruise ships dock — and you weren’t allowed to touch the boats. . . . I’ve been camping. I knew I would need fuel for a six-hour race. I took electrolyte pills and water mixed with Gatorade, and a power gel, which is like cake icing. I took an electrolyte pill before and in the middle of the swim. I had the pills in a water-proof hard case. There were three hot pink strings attached to the kayak. When I’d yell for the bottle or for a power bar, my friend would throw them in, and then reel them back.”
“Because my shoulder had been giving me problems, I didn’t want to train too hard. I focused on technique and my breathing. I wanted to breathe less — every five to seven strokes. You breathe from both sides and sometimes with your head up in the open water. The water was beautiful, 75 to 80 degrees, very comfortable, and there were starfish and barracuda, big conches, and tiny little neon fish. But it was hard. There were high winds that day and two straight miles of two to three-foot chop. I’d float on my back sometimes and stretch. Sometimes I’d hold my breath and swim underwater like a frog. I could feel my arm starting to give out. It’s very mental — every bit as mental as it is physical. I definitely had thoughts of dropping out. Five of the 30 women who swam solo did. Heading toward the finish you pass 10 pilings. I kept yelling to my friend, ‘What number is that?!’ ”
After crossing the finish line, “I was exhausted, but I felt accomplished. I just wanted to stand up. I wondered, ‘Can I stand up. . . ?’ I tried, but flopped down like a rag doll. . . . I floated in the water for a while. And then I had a hamburger. I found a shady spot to rest. And then I called my daughter. But while I was on the phone, they said, ‘Wait! Wait!’ so they could take a picture of me with this silver medal that I’m wearing around my neck. . . . When the plane landed at J.F.K. I started crying. I thought, ‘I’m home, and I did it.’ When I saw my aunt and my daughter, I just. . . .”
“Vivian keeps teasing me,” Husslein said. “She says what I did was half the length of the English Channel, and that since I’m always doubling my distances, that should be next.”
On her return, Husslein also heard from Sinead FitzGibbon, a physical therapist and adventure racer from Sag Harbor, who’s putting together a group to do a 20K swim in Australia in 2013.
“I told her, ‘Yeah, I’m in!’ ”