Open-Water Swimming Meets the Practice of Law

by Miriam Hiser

I am truly happiest in, on, or under the water!

My earliest memories are of swimming the full length of a pool at four (apparently, I had begged for swim lessons and my mom — who never imposed any limits on her four kids — complied) and of swimming from my grandfather’s boat to shore on Lake Michigan perhaps a year later.

Our family spent several summers at family cottages in Mackinaw City and I would stay in the water as long as anyone would let me. The rule was that I had to go to bed when the Mackinac Bridge lights came on — meaning it was getting dark, which in Michigan summers happens very late.

When I rediscovered open water swimming in 2008, I quickly realized that the bedrock traits of my legal practice synced perfectly with it:

  • Relentless pursuit of success.
  • Unwavering focus on the goal.
  • Strength; discipline; preparation.
  • Knowing when and how to adjust course; developing a core team; and adjusting quickly to the unexpected.

All of this and more had propelled me through 20 years of legal practice, and served me well when I was selected from the lottery for the 2008 Escape from Alcatraz triathlon.

Not wanting my first experience with an Alcatraz crossing to be on race day, I found a local group, Water World, that specialized in small-group Alcatraz swims. Heading out on the boat for my first crossing with six other folks, I knew that one of two things would happen when I first jumped in by the Island: I’d either think “get me out of here now” or “leave me and send food!”

Alcatraz crossing

The “send food” won and the picture of me getting back into the boat after our crossing shows the sheer exhilaration I felt having completed my first Alcatraz.

Moving from Alcatraz Swims to the English Channel

After a few months of having to shiver on the beach to warm up after swims, my new best swimming friend Suzanne and I learned that we could get showers and a sauna at the South End Rowing Club. We both joined, and it was there, several years later during a post-swim warm up, that another friend concocted the idea of an all-female South End English Channel Relay.

“That swim did come with some great fears that we each had to overcome: the sheer expanse and challenge of the English Channel has to be experienced to be understood. But by my third one-hour swim leg, realizing I was seeing the French shoreline with each crest of the waves I was swimming through, I began to sing to myself.”

It seemed nuts to me, but I went along with it, and in 2011, after a lot of hard training, we swam from England to France! That swim did come with some great fears that we each had to overcome: the sheer expanse and challenge of the English Channel has to be experienced to be understood. But by my third one-hour swim leg, realizing I was seeing the French shoreline with each crest of the waves I was swimming through, I began to sing to myself and haven’t really stopped since, every time I jump in the water.

Since the Channel swim, I’ve only become more embedded in the South End swimming community. Around 2014, swimming alone late afternoons at the club, I started running into four Irishmen, also club members, and eventually gathered the courage to ask to join their swims. Now the “Irish Pod” is the biggest swimming “pod” at the club.

As I built up endurance in the water, I began to think that I could swim the length of the Mackinac Bridge, across the Straits of Mackinac. In 2017, I finally located a boat captain who was willing to escort me (I found out later that the captain thought I had no chance of making it — but he was nothing but smiles at the end when I did). I knew no one who had done this particular swim, didn’t know the currents or where to start and end a swim, so it was just sheer determination that got me to jump off his boat, swim to shore on the Upper Peninsula, then start back south. After about two and a half hours, I landed at Old Mackinaw Lighthouse.

2017 was my parent’s anniversary, and the 60th anniversary of the Bridge, and with some great stroke of fortune a professional photographer was at the beach when I landed and photographed my coming ashore. He suggested that we send the pictures to a local paper, and the result was a sweet write up about my parents and my childhood love of Mackinaw.

Swimming the Straits of Mackinac

Since 2017, I’ve swum the Straits two more times, and around Mackinac Island twice. I plan on many more of both, and will keep swimming Alcatraz until I reach 100 crossings (10 to go), at which point I’ll keep swimming it but stop counting.

My Other Great Love: Running

My other great love has always been running. Like swimming, I was never on a team, never competed, but just loved doing it and being outdoors. When Covid put much of my professional world on “hold,” I started trail running with a good friend, who himself was an accomplished long-distance runner.

Trail running in the Marin Headlands and the parks and hills of Sonoma got me through Covid mentally in one piece, and early on I decided to aim for my own ultra-marathon. I signed up for one in February 2021, thinking Covid would be “over” by then, but when the time approached and it was still “here,” Suzanne told me that if I would drop out of the “official” race and not drive to Arizona during Covid, she would arrange a solo ultra for me in the Bay Area.

To this day I can’t believe that a group of South Enders took a full day of their time just so I could do my first ultra, a 31-mile run that started in Olema and ended at the North Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. (The South End, despite being called a rowing club, is also a swimming, running and handball club).

One charted the course for me and took a bus to mile 17, where he jumped in and ran with me to the finish. My boyfriend (a South Ender, naturally) dropped me off at the start and was waiting at the finish, another South Ender jumped in at mile 9, and ran with me to mile 17. Suzanne provided her own “roving” aid station, complete with cowbells, and other South Enders showed up to surprise me at Tennessee Valley and the GGB.

It was the thrill of a lifetime when I hit the Bridge and saw unexpectedly probably 10 South Enders, complete with a “finish line” flag! I’ve done another three 50ks since then, and plan on running them as long as I can still stand, but nothing will ever top that first one.

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