Meet Kristen Bergmann, a Bay Village mental health therapist who in the summer swims two miles in Lake Erie two or three times a week.
A competitive swimmer since she was 5, Bergmann grew up in Peoria, Illinois, and swam freestyle and sprint backstroke for Miami University. Twenty-one years ago, she tried open water with Marianne and Doug Brogan, fellow Bay Village residents who swam almost daily from Columbia Road Beach.
The expanse of open water was unsettling after years of flip turns and lane lines in the pool.
“I wasn’t totally freaked out, but I also know I was not comfortable in the beginning,” said Bergmann. “You can’t always see your hands. You wonder, where am I? Are there boats around me?”
Bergmann’s friends think she’s crazy, but her husband’s gotten used to her swimming in the lake. He likes how happy it makes her. And the older of her two daughters, ages 10 and 12, wants to try it this year.
There’s no official schedule, and swims depend on daylight, weather and waves. But a core group of swimmers swim regularly on summer mornings, in fluorescent-colored swim caps, dragging bright orange buoys for visibility. They normally swim west from Columbia Road Beach, a little stretch of beach at the bottom of some concrete stairs, with a waterfall and no lifeguards.
(Contrary to popular opinion and Facebook, Columbia Park is not a dog beach. Dogs legally must be on leash.)
If you want to join the swimmers, try 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday.
Triathlon groups also take to the lake for training, once a summer swimming from Columbia Road to Bradstreet’s Landing in Rocky River.
Aside from triathlons, there are few open water races on the Ohio shores of Lake Erie. The Ohio Masters group has hosted an open-water race at Edgewater Beach each July since 1990, when the Brogans got the idea from the 1989 Aquatic Convention in Oregon. The race is now named the Brogan Open Water Classic and includes 1/2-, 1- and 2-mile events.
Bergmann — who also kayaks and boats and stand-up paddleboards in Lake Erie all summer – even swam across Lake Erie with a relay in 2016.
She explains why she loves swimming in Lake Erie and what she thinks about the fish.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you like open-water swimming?
To be able to just swim outside is awesome. When it’s calm, it is just amazing. I think you get both the perspective of how small you are, but also that you can make progress. I do like it when it’s calm. And just the sky.
My favorite now, for the past two years, I’ve been swimming in September. I swim as the sun comes up. Last summer we saw waterspouts. They were enough away that we were completely safe. They looked like a finger that came out of the clouds and hit the water. It was like, wow.
Do you worry about boats?
Several years ago, there was a boat that went by. They didn’t even acknowledge me. I was like, I hope they saw me. I worry more about the jet skiers. They’re looking for boats, not people. Kayakers and paddleboarders. I don’t worry about them at all.
What about fish?
You’re lucky to see the tail end of them. Usually they’re swimming off. I did run into a dead fish once. That was gross. I did run into an old Christmas tree once.
What do you do to stay safe and not get sick?
I swim with other people, for safety and camaraderie. I wear a bright pink cap and drag an orange safety buoy, which I got maybe two years ago. I wear ear plugs, which I don’t do in the pool. If it’s been a really hard rain, I don’t go In for 24 hours.
My primary care physician thinks I’m nuts. We did a relay across the lake. And she was like, are you going to take antibiotics?
You swam across the lake? That’s so cool!
We swam from Point Pelee, Ontario, to Vermilion. Six of us swam in one hour increments, and we each did three legs.
Do you alternate strokes? Breathe on either side? Wear a wetsuit? Lift your head a lot to sight where you’re going?
I almost always swim freestyle. I’ll do a little bit of backstroke to stretch out my arms.
I only breathe on my left.
I hate to swim in a wetsuit. I stop wearing it once the water is 70 degrees.
I’m not too bad about spotting. Somehow I swim straight. I’m pretty good at staying on course. What I’ve learned over time is to relax and not sight so much. In the races if you’re looking all the time, that slows you down. If I find myself sighting too much, I then count strokes, try to make myself look only every 100.
Do you do triathlons?
No. I don’t run.
But you did swim across Lake Erie, from Canada to Ohio, in a relay. How cool was that?
Six of us swam from Point Pelee, Ontario to Vermilion. We each swam in one-hour increments, and it took us 17 hours. And we raised money for the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation.
Do you think the popularity of open-water swimming is increasing?
Yes. You’re just seeing more races and more popularity. There’s a race in Chicago called Big Shoulders, a 5K at Ohio Street Beach. I did it for the first time 10 years ago, when there were 600 people. This year it sold out in four hours , in March, with 1,200 people.
But we aren’t seeing the popularity yet in Cleveland.
Maybe soon? I hope so. Do you think Lake Erie in general is experiencing a renaissance?
Yes. The reputation for it being dirty has kind of gone away some. I definitely notice more kayakers and paddleboarders.
What they did at Edgewater is fabulous, with the Thursday night Edgewater Live and the beachhouse. There’s a much nicer feel down there. I think we are doing a much better job of making the lake accessible and enjoyable.