Up to the Challenge

The event, a benefit for the Montauk Playhouse’s planned aquatics center, drew 146 entrants
Rod McClave, who retired this year as a pro triathlete, led the Montauk Playhouse’s 5K ocean swim wire to wire. Craig Macnaughton

The East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad came in for unrivaled praise Saturday morning as swimmer after swimmer exited the ocean at Montauk’s Ditch Plain.

The event, a benefit for the Montauk Playhouse’s planned aquatics center, drew 146 entrants who could choose from among three distances — 5K, one-mile, and one-half mile. The 5K and half-miler drew 35 competitors each. There were 76 in the one-miler. Swimmers in the 5K, which looped between Ditch Plain and the Atlantic Terrace motel, said the conditions were great. They had to contend against a bit of a sweep heading west, but, conversely, benefited from a push on the way back.

Jim Arnold, the race director, had hoped Rod McClave, the perennial winner in the longest races here, would have some competition this time, but the 40-year-old professional triathletic retiree has hardly slowed down. He emerged from the water in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 17 seconds (a 20:44 per-mile pace).

Thomas Brierley, the newest, and, at 18, the youngest member of the Ocean Rescue Squad, who’s soon to join Marymount University’s varsity triathletic team, was the runner-up to McClave, in 1:10:12. Then came the women’s winner, Taylor Armstrong, 20, a Rice University swimmer from Tauranga, New Zealand, whose time was 1:10:43. She was followed not long after by Lori King, the fifth-place finisher, of Rockville Centre and Amagansett, in 1:12:01.

Armstrong and the 39-year-old King, who will attempt the 22.5-mile Catalina channel crossing in mid-August, met at the Ocean Rescue Squad’s Red Devil swim at Fresh Pond, Amagansett, last year.

“I’m good at walls,” said Armstrong, who was to fly to New Zealand that day, “so this was different. There was no black line, but even so, I always could tell where I was. . . . I love Lori. . . .”

As for King, she said she’d spent a considerable amount of time acclimating herself to cold water swimming this past year, in anticipation of the Catalina attempt, “though the water temperature there now is 67 degrees.”

She’s to leave for the coast on Aug. 12, “and on the 14th I’ll get in the water.”

Tim Treadwell and Tom Cohill, East Hampton swimming coaches, have been working with her this summer. King added that Lynne Cox, one of the world’s best-known long-distance cold water swimmers, said she’d try to come along on the support boat. King was going to try the crossing last year at this time, but Cox advised that she spend more time training in cold water.

“I’ve gained 16 pounds,” said King. “I had to. . . . I’m on my taper now.” Concerning Armstrong, she said, “She beat me in the Red Devil swim last year. She’s amazing . . . at the top of her game.”

King also sees Marina Preiss, a recent East Hampton High School graduate who’s soon to go to San Diego State, as a top-notch long-distance swimmer. Collegians usually take to the demanding sport after college, she said, adding that the Olympic distance, 10K, was “equivalent to the marathon.”

McClave, King, and many others that day were touting the Ocean Rescue Squad’s Amagansett half, mile, and 5K swims, which are to be held Aug. 17.

“All the money raised from those races goes to the Ocean Rescue Squad, which really needs everyone’s support,” said McClave, who added that “this is by far the safest swim like this that there is, thanks to the Ocean Rescue Squad.”

Rich Kalbacher, one of the volunteers, said the group far exceeds U.S.A. Triathlon’s suggested ratio of one guard per 50 swimmers. There were about 60 Ocean Rescue Squad members overseeing the swimmers that day. “We try to do as much as we can,” said Kalbacher. “We’re in radio communication with each other, and there are three Jet Skis.”

Further concerning McClave, William Garry, an international age-group triathlete himself, who did the one-miler with his daughters Kira and Katrina, said, “He was at the level of Tom Eickelberg [who recently four-peated as the winner of the Montauk Sprint Triathlon] when he was younger.”

The one-miler was won by Martin Herrmann, 44, of Westport, Conn., in 24:39. Andrew Winthrop, 18, of East Hampton, was the runner-up, in 25:04. Angelika Cruz, 44, of Montauk, was eighth, in 26:33, after which came Garry, 54, of Montauk, in 27:15.

Kira Garry, 21, who holds Yale University’s steeplechase record and is the senior captain of its women’s cross-country team, was 16th, in 31:01, and her younger sister, Katrina, who’ll be with her on Yale’s cross-country team this fall, as a freshman, was one second behind.

“Swimming’s tougher than running,” Kira said in reply to a question. “My shoulders will be sore tomorrow.”

The Garrys, Brierley, Winthrop, Teague Costello, Paige Duca, Lucy Kohlhoff, and Amanda Calabrese, who won the half-miler, in 12:31, were among a number of lifeguards who competed Saturday.

Cohill added that there were “10 to 15 Hurricanes [the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter’s youth swim team] here, either swimming or volunteering.”

Cohill, who is the Y’s aquatics director, said he hoped Montauk would be able to have a pool of its own in the near future. “We’re maxed out at the Y,” he said. “We’ve got kids from Manorville, Hampton Bays, and Southampton who make the trek out even in the summer.”

As for swimming in general, he said that “at a young age it should be about learning the skills and having fun. I don’t agree with parents and coaches who want to push them to swim fast too early. There’s a 70-percent burnout rate in youth athletics.”

“Dick Monahan [the town’s eldest lifeguard at the age of 72] ought to be their role model. He’s still competing in national and regional meets.”

Monahan himself said that, actually, he hadn’t taken up swimming seriously until he was 41, prompted by “a midlife crisis. . . . I asked if I could train with the 16 and 18-year-olds at the Huntington Y, and they let me. Soon I was coaching the 8-and-unders. I set an Empire State Games record in the 1,500 for 45-to-49-year-olds in 1985, which held up until ’92. By that time, I was the head coach at the Huntington Y.”

He retired to Montauk (from a job at Con Ed) at the turn of the millennium, a decision he’s never regretted. “It’s paradise. I love the way people come together in Montauk. You can’t buy this happiness. I don’t care how much money anyone offers me for my house, I’ll never leave. . . . I don’t coach anymore, but I stay involved through lifeguarding, and swimming keeps me in shape. Tom’s my coach, one of the best I’ve ever met in my life. It is a lifetime sport.”

He last took (and passed) the demanding ocean lifeguard test two years ago.

“The older I get the faster I was,” he said in parting.

Maureen Rutkowski, who heads the Montauk Playhouse Community Center’s foundation, and who has an office at the center now after having worked out of her house for the past 14 years, has said the foundation’s goal is to raise the remainder of what’s needed to construct a 25-yard, five-lap pool at the Playhouse “by the end of the year.”