Olympic swimmer Elizabeth Beisel, 29, is on a mission to complete a swim that is not just historic but also very dear to her heart.
Beisel, who is a two-time Olympic medalist, will attempt to swim from Rhode Island to Block Island in honor of her late father. The swim is 20km, or 12.4 miles, in the open Atlantic ocean. The distance is 50 times longer than her signature 400m medley event, winning silver in at the 2012 London Olympics.
For Beisel, who grew up in Rhode Island, this is a swim she’s dreamed about since she was a little girl. If she finishes, she will be the first woman in history to do so.
"No woman has ever done it before, which is kind of crazy to me," she said. "Even when I was little, I was like, that'd be so cool if I was the first girl to do it. So, 20 something years later, here we are, and no woman has done it yet.”
Swimming with a purpose
Block Island holds memories of Beisel’s dad, Ted Beisel, whom she cherishes now more than ever.
"I have so many memories of being [on Block Island] with my dad flying kites, just going around the island," she said.
Ted Beisel was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in 2020 on Christmas Day. After a brave yet brief battle with the disease, he died in July 2021.
“The one thing that I want to say about him is that he never complained once,” Beisel said. "The man was fighting a deadly cancer … he was positive up until the very last day, and it's just a testament to who he was as a human being and who I hope to be like one day.”
I will be able to do this because of him, and the strength that he's going to give me.
In February, as a way to cope with her father's diagnosis, Beisel said she decided to complete the swim. She thought the swim would give her dad something to look forward to while he was fighting cancer, she said, but also had a bigger mission in mind.
Beisel reached out to Swim Across America, a nonprofit organization that hosts charity swims across the country to raise money for cancer research, prevention and treatment. Together they formed Block Cancer – Beisel’s fundraising platform for her Block Island swim.
"He didn't want the swim to be about him whatsoever. He wanted it to be about everybody who was fighting cancer,” Beisel said. "It gave my dad a lot of joy to kind of see Block Cancer come into fruition and turn into what it is now.”
Beisel started her fundraising goal for cancer research at $5,000. She has now raised over $100,000 for cancer research. Beisel said all of the money will be given to local Rhode Island hospitals, including the hospital where her father fought his battle with cancer.
"The number is so overwhelming,” Beisel said. “As sad as it is, cancer is going to touch all of us in some way at some point. And, you know, for me, to be able to have a platform where I can bring people together … it's kind of a beautiful thing.”
Training for history
Beisel began training in March for the 20km swim. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, indoor swimming pools are not currently open in the state of Rhode Island. Beisel trained solely on land until June, when the ocean water was warm enough to swim in.
Since June, Beisel has tried to swim 5k to 10k a day and work out at the gym. Her training can take anywhere from two to four hours a day, she said.
“Training is completely different,” Beisel said. “This is a completely different beast like, I am no longer trying to be the fastest swimmer in the world. I'm just trying to go for a very long swim and sustain that pace for a long time.”
Beisel has a team of trainers that have helped map out the swim based on the weather, tides and currents. She will begin the swim at 6:45 a.m on September 25. and, if all goes according to plan, she will finish the race in six or seven hours.
When Beisel makes it to shore, she plans to be greeted by friends and family waiting to celebrate.
"The idea of this one was to have my dad waiting for me in Block Island. And me being able to swim ashore and see his big ear-to-ear grin and give him the biggest hug,” Beisel said. “But I'm also going to remind myself that this is for him, and he will be with me the entire way. And that's going to make it even more special because I will be able to do this because of him, and the strength that he's going to give me.”
Beisel, who has swam on the world’s biggest stage and won Olympic medals, said this will be the most memorable swim of her career.
"This is hands down by far the most meaningful swim I will ever do in my life. And I don't say that lightly. Because I've been fortunate enough to compete at the highest stage of my sport,” she said. "It will be very emotional, but beautiful at the same time, and hopefully, I can help change somebody else's life."
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on September 7, 2021.