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MIT junior Nick Sidelnik, whose mother went for a swim on the day before she gave birth to him, battled East River garbage and a persistent South African in the unofficial Manhattan Island Marathon Swim on Saturday, June 14.
"I was swimming before I was born," said Sidelnik, a native of landlocked Kansas, which ironically is a hotbed of competitive swimming.
Sidelnik, a middle distance and butterfly stalwart for the 9-1 MIT swimming team last winter, and 38-year-old Steve Klugman completed the unofficial 28.5-mile course in about seven hours, 45 minutes. Both swimmers attempted to sprint the final mile.
"Sprinting after 27.5 miles of swimming can get tough," said Sidelnik. "Since there was no official finish, people began to say we were the top two finishers, or that we tied."
Sixty-four swimmers competed in the chilly 62-degree waters (15-20 degrees colder than MIT's Zesiger Center pools) of the East, Harlem and Hudson Rivers. Each competitor was guided along the route by a kayak while a support boat provided food and water during the swim.
Due to heavy rains two days before the event, the sewage treatment system adjacent to the rivers was overloaded and the event was officially cancelled. But the swimmers showed up and the show went on anyway.
"No official starting line or finishing line was clearly defined, but we all jumped in the water and took off," Sidelnik recalled. He followed another swimmer's wake for several miles before sprinting to a seven-minute lead at the halfway point.
Turning into the Hudson, the race concluded with a 13-mile straightaway to the finish at the Battery on the southern tip of Manhattan. Sidelnik was bothered by symptoms of hypothermia and high waves created by a speedboat race, and Klugman closed the gap. The New York Times reported that Klugman edged out Sidelnik at the finish.
Sidelnik's competitive swimming career started at age 8 when he joined the Kansas City Blazers swim team coached by Pete Malone, who has trained four U.S. Olympians. Sidelnik competed for the Blazers for 10 years.
"I guess I stayed with swimming because it was the first thing I discovered I had a talent for," said Sidelnik, who is majoring in aeronautics and astronautics. Both of his parents are recreational swimmers.
Sidelnik supplemented his daily MIT 5,000-to-6,000-yard workouts with a 26.2-mile swim on April 19. That swim was both a training opportunity for Sidelnik and a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He and Christopher Lucas, who just received his MIT bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and computer science, raised $1,500 for the charity.
The spoils of victory in New York, Sidelnik said, included "a small glass plaque, my name in The New York Times and on CNN, and a good story to tell my friends." He will attempt to swim the English Channel in late July.