Seventy-Plus Plunge In for Rescue Squad

‘What John has done for this town has been huge’
With Julia Brierley leading the way, the half-milers exited the water.
With Julia Brierley leading the way, the half-milers exited the water. Jack Graves

    Before he entered Gardiner’s Bay early Saturday morning for the Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad’s half-mile swim John Conner, who was an international-class miler and 800 runner before being struck by a truck on a bicycle training ride here 10 years ago, recalled Glenn Cunningham, the great American miler, as having said, “In running it’s you against yourself — the cruelest of competitors.”
    Well, with some help from his Ocean Rescue friends on paddleboards, Conner, who is 76, and was among 77 or so competitors, swam the half mile, though Craig Brierley, one of those who guided him from buoy to buoy, said, “John probably swam a mile all told. . . . He was an inspiration.”
    Actually, walking through the water toward the finish line was probably the most difficult part for Conner, who said on the way to the Fresh Pond Park beach that he no longer has a good sense of balance, one leg being significantly longer than the other as the result of the accident.
    The Ocean Rescue Squad had turned out in numbers to oversee the swims (there were also one and two-milers), making sure that everyone would be safe. While he wasn’t among Saturday’s competitors, Rod McClave, who earlier this summer won two-milers in the bay and in the ocean in Montauk, and who competes in long-distance swims all over the world, has said that the swims here are the safest he’s ever been in.
    The first swimmers to reach the beach that day were two 9-year-olds, Mackenzie Licata and Jack Neiberg, members of East Hampton’s junior lifeguard program. They did a third-of-a-mile buoy swim just to get their feet wet, as it were, in anticipation of doing a half-miler next year.
    “It’s to entice them,” said John Ryan Sr., who has overseen the junior lifeguard program here for the past 25 years. While scores weren’t kept, East Hampton’s junior guards had acquitted themselves exceedingly well at the recent national tournament in Cape May, N.J., he said.
    “In the final of the junior lifeguard beach flags, for example, there were five Monmouth County guards and five from East Hampton, and when it was over it was all East Hampton  — Lucy Kolhoff, Carly Drew, Amanda Calabrese, Alyssa Bahel, and Marikate Ryan. We took one, two, three in the distance swim . . . that’s how it went. We figured everybody enoyed it, and you have to win to enjoy it!”
    “This is the Ocean Rescue Squad’s main fund-raiser,” said Richard Monahan, a national-class age group swimmer who was working the beach that day. “It raises money for the equipment we need and so that we can continue to guard other swims.”
    Before plunging in, Jennifer Ford, a stand-up paddleboarder with Paddle Diva, plugged the next Paddlers 4 Humanity event, an 18-mile Montauk-to-Block Island open water paddle on Aug. 27. Ford oversees fitness workouts on paddleboards throughout the town, at such spots as Georgica Pond, Cove Road in Sag Harbor, and Hand’s Creek on Three Mile Harbor. On Aug. 27, she said, the paddlers are to leave from the Montauk Lighthouse at 6 a.m.
    Among other charities, Paddlers 4 Humanity events benefit the East Hampton Day Care Learning Center, the Long Island Communities of Practice, the P4H East End Catastrophic Fund, the Montauk Playhouse Community Center, and the Retreat.
    Kevin McCann, who ran up the beach with Ford, after doing the one-miler, said, “It was fun — no jellyfish, the water’s warm. . . . This young lady,” he said, turning to Ford, “beat me.”
    “It’s a great event,” continued McCann, who lives not far from Fresh Pond Park in Barnes Landing. “If I can stand at the end, and not drown, I figured, ‘Why not?’ What John Ryan has done for this town has been huge.”
    Both his children, one in Argentina now, the other on Wall Street, began in the elder Ryan’s junior lifeguard program, said McCann, who was a lifeguard himself when growing up in Atlantic Beach, “between Long Beach and Rockaway.”
    “Lifeguarding is a big character builder,” McCann continued. “It’s about more than swimming. The caliber of kids we have here is wonderful. It’s a great community. You’re endorsing John’s work when you come out for these events.”
    Matt O’Grady, 50, of New York City and Sag Harbor, the winner of the two-miler, in 44 minutes, said “the course was perfect today, though there were some sea lice. But once you figure they’re not going to go away, you get used to them.”
    When McClave’s name came up, O’Grady said, “He’s my swim coach — my inspiration. He would have finished a couple minutes quicker.”
    “He’s younger, though,” he added with a smile, “I’d like to beat him.”
    “I survived — I think I drank half of Gardiner’s Bay,” Conner said on exiting the water, and then, to Charlie van der Horst, a University of North Carolina medical school professor who is a member of a group of 16 runners he coaches every Wednesday evening at the high school track, Conner added, “It’s not nice getting old.”
    But van der Horst, 59, preferred to look on the lighter side of life. “This is a sportsman’s paradise!” he said. “And one of the reasons is John Conner. It’s not the land of couch potatoes.”