Battling waves, wind and 72-degree water, 34-year-old Julie Madison completed a trio of Sarasota-area challenges with the April swim.
| 11:40 a.m. May 12, 2022
Julie Madison was just making her way around the southern tip of Longboat Key when she first heard the cowbells.
And then the cheering.
Madison, 34, was making her way through a grueling challenge to swim around the 11-mile long island, battling hypothermia, wind and waves when she saw her husband driving a boat and ringing cowbells, and Garry Fenimore, the leader of the AMI Hogfish, on shore cheering her on with a group of bystanders.
“It was a really great surprise and that definitely helped get me through the last couple miles,” Madison said.
Although Madison powered through the water by herself, she was never alone during her 23.17-mile swim. Over the course of the more than 11 hours in the water, four teams of two kayakers each stayed by her side, feeding her juice and high-calorie foods, helping her with navigation and making sure her temperature didn’t drop too low.
“Me and my team had been planning this for four months, and I pretty much told them that as long as the conditions were doable, I wanted to go and do it,” Madison said. “I wasn’t waiting for the very best day to do it, I was waiting for manageable conditions.”
That manageable day turned out to be April 21, when Madison and her kayak teams set out for a life-changing journey. She had circumnavigated Anna Maria Island in December and Lido Key in 2017. Once she made it around Anna Maria Island, which is about a 17-mile swim, she knew she could do Longboat Key. She started at the beach access at 3495 Gulf of Mexico Drive.
“I just kept pursuing it,” Madison said. “The Hogfish from Anna Maria Island were super excited about my Anna Maria Island swim, so they asked me what they could do and what was my next big thing, and I said I wanted to do Longboat Key, and they were like, ‘Well, we would love to help you.’ They were fantastic. They did most of my support for that swim. … The kayak really helps with navigation, because especially the day I did it, the back end of the island was very choppy. There was a good section of the swim that there were one, two, three foot waves, so I couldn’t see very well.”
She relied on her kayak team to keep her on the right track and to keep her safe from boat traffic. They tried to stay no more than 100 yards offshore to shelter Madison from the 15-20 mph winds. The water was about 72 degrees.
“That's (temperature) the lowest level of what I can tolerate for that amount of time,” Madison said. “I did wind up getting mild hypothermia with about eight miles left in the swim. My teeth were chattering. My lips were blue. I was definitely really consciously battling to stay warm enough to be able to finish the swim. I didn't really know that I was going to finish the swim until I got about a mile out.”
Her team was feeding her juice and coconut water every 20-30 minutes to keep her caloric and electrolyte count up because her body was burning so much just to stay warm. She started to add chia seeds for recovery protein as she got closer to the end and the end began to emerge into her sights. She finished her swim after about 11 and a half hours.
“It was extremely surreal,” Madison said. “It was a life-changing moment for me. Because I can, I've done swims that are hard and that are difficult and kind of on that level, but I'd never really had a team with me for that, and their excitement for it was so palpable. It really just filled my heart with joy just to see my kayakers starting to really smile. I could hear the people on the boat and then I could see the people at the finish line. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I'm gonna do this.’ And this was a team effort. I'm an extremely strong believer in team stuff and that, for me, was the highlight, just to finish with them and for them afterwards to be like, ‘You just did that. We can't wait for what we're gonna do. That was really cool. Now we want to go do something to push ourselves.’ That's the coolest thing, to hear, ‘You just motivated me.’ I have friends who are Iron Men and they’re really strong athletes in their own right, so to hear that from an athlete is just so cool.”
A love for swimming
Madison fell in love with the area about seven years ago after swimming around Lido Key. Shortly after that, she and her husband got a condo on Longboat Key. She now lives in Cortez but is still only a short drive from the beach.
As for swimming, she fell in love with that long ago. Madison has been a swimmer pretty much her whole life, she said, and first got into the water with her mom at about a year old. From there, she was on swim teams though high school, but took a three-year break after graduating because she felt burnt out. She saw herself headed in a direction she didn’t like, so she took up lap swimming again. The first few months were humbling.
“I still consider myself an average athlete with an over-average drive … I was like, ‘This is gonna get better. I just have to get through this,’” Madison said. “I did a lot of pool swimming for the next two years … I was like, ‘I will do my very, very best. I will go as long as I can, as hard as I can, and that'll start getting me on the right track.’”
Another swimmer noticed her doing laps and invited her out for open-water swimming. At first, Madison was skeptical — who wants to go out there and potentially run into animals? But she decided to try it once. She swam in the Connecticut River when it was about 58 degrees. The river was so fast she barely went anywhere, like she was on a giant, watery treadmill.
“I was like, ‘This is amazing,’” Madison said. “I think what really drew me to it was the power that was in the water and for me, water symbolizes change, and I was just in that process of changing and defining myself. I was like, ‘If I let this water mold me, I will change into who I want to be.’ So I committed the next year to swimming with groups that could teach me what I needed to know about open water swimming and to be able to do that safely by myself.”
Now she regularly swims long distances in open water. Recently, on a recovery swim from her Longboat Key effort, a ray about two and a half feet across swam right under her, just after she had convinced herself to keep going on a swim she just wasn’t feeling that day. But she just kept swimming, and made something amazing from it.