It may be the same 2.4-mile open water swim held annually in Wando River in late spring, but the Lowcountry Splash has proven to be different, unpredictable every year -- due primarily to factors of tidal current, wind, water temperature and surface conditions, and obstacles in the river, from barges to fishing boats.
Saturday's ninth annual Splash started like none other. Held near the end of low tide, many of the 412 swimmers who jumped into the Wando at Hobcaw Yacht Club eventually stood up and walked, waist deep, to the starting line. Some closer to the shore even stood, as if at a running race, at the line before the start.
But that turned out to be the easiest part of the race, because as swimmers neared the Cooper River bridge, they were greeted head-on with 1- to 3-foot choppy waves that only got worse as they stroked closer to the aircraft carrier Yorktown and finish line at the Charleston Harbor Marina. Unlike swims in recent years, there was little help from an outgoing tide as it approached slack tide, the lull between high and low tides.
"Out of the nine years we've put on the race, this was the roughest conditions we've had (though one year the swim was canceled due to severe conditions)," said Splash Director Mark Rutledge. "Once we got to the bridge and past the bridge, it got pretty rough. It was smacking you around pretty good."
He added that he had expected that more swimmers would have been plucked out of the water because of fatigue, but organizers said only two did not finish.
Times reflected the conditions. Top finishes were up about five minutes slower. Mid-pack and back-of-pack times were 10 to 20 minutes slower, respectively.
Regardless of the finish times, one thing didn't change. Local teen swimmers dominated, and winners were determined by mere seconds. Overall winners Dirk Bell, 14, of Mount Pleasant, and Caty Hueske, 15, of James Island beat competitors, including past winners who are fellow teammates and rivals.
Bell, who has only been swimming for two years, was competing in his first open water swim and didn't have a race plan until he starting swimming. He drafted off his teammate Jonathan Lierley, who won last year, until the finish stretch and sprinted past him to win by just six seconds. Bell's time was 40 minutes, 40 seconds.
For female champion Hueske, Saturday's win was a natural progression. She finished third in 2008 and second in 2009. And she squeezed out first by two seconds with a time of 44:53.
The Lowcountry Splash is nicknamed "the bridge swim" and has a special category, called "Over/Under," for who have those who have the fastest combined finish time from the Cooper River Bridge Run and the Lowcountry Splash.
The male winner, again, was barely a teen. Porter-Gaud runner Brent Demarest, 14, beat out perennial power Tom Mather (who helps coach Porter Gaud) by nearly six minutes. Demarest ran 37:51 and swam 41:49, for a combined time of 1:19:40.
The female winner was 31 years older than Demarest. Mary Dore, 46, of Charlotte, took the prize with times of 43:41 in the Bridge Run and 47:51 in the Splash.
Dore, who ran for University of Arizona in the 1980s, says her swimming discipline stems from her desire to continue running, which she has found is hard on her joints. The former triathlete summed up the extra effort needed for open water swmming.
"All in all, if you're going to be an open water swimmer, today's conditions are something that you have to expect and you just deal with it," she said.
Saturday's swim was the first time organizers used a computerized system, using FirstEvent.com's Jaguar Timing system. The system got rid of a major headache for organizers who in past years struggled to get results that were both fast and accurate and comes when the event appears ready to surpass the 500 mark.
Registrations for Saturday missed last year's record of 481 by just 10, but Director Rutledge noted that many swimmers were siphoned off by two major events in the region this week, a half ironman triathlon in Aiken and a masters swimming meet in Athens, Ga.
Rutledge says he has high hopes to make quantum leaps for the 10th anniversary race, which he hopes to have on May 28, 2011, the Saturday before Memorial Day. Part of those plans is to get the event sanctioned with US Swimming and to get up to 800 swimmers. The event raises money for the Logan Rutledge Foundation, which supports swimming programs for young children in the Charleston area.
Lowcountry Splash Results
OVERALL: Male -- Dirk Bell 40:40, Jonathan Lierley 40:51, Zachary Lierley 41:29. Female -- Caty Hueske 44:53, Summer Santos 44:55, Cheryl Reinke 45:11. OVER/UNDER: Male -- Brent Demarest 1:19:40. Mary Dore 1:31:32. AGE GROUPS (top male and female only: 14-under -- Matthew Adams 41:33. Haylee Hanling 46:38. 15-19 -- John Stringfield 42:26. Lindsay Moore 45:52. 20-24 -- Martin Kata 42:03. Amanda Dunnigan 46:53. 25-29 -- Richard Rose 44:48. Ashley Reker 47:06. 30-34 -- Jay Carmine 44:41. Laura Serfert 50:13. 35-39 -- David Lee 45:54. Suzanne Arndt 49:51. 40-44 -- Todd Pletcher 43:18. Doranne Hipp 53:42. 45-49 -- Jimmy Plair 47:28. Mary Dore 47:51. 50-54 - Everett Mercer 49:12. Dara Wilbur 47:46. 55-59 -- Trenholm Walker 45:37. Jill Vanderfleet-Scott 47:40. 60-64 -- Robert Scott 52:13. Dana Brown 55:52. 65-69 -- Bucky Mock 1:02:10. Carol Quinn 1:20:15.