Although Lee Evans has been a swimmer his entire life, he never dreamed that he would compete in one of the world’s most famous races.
Evans, who just turned 50, swam the annual 4-mile Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swimming Race between Asia and Europe in 1:02:54 in August 2022, placing 14th in his age group and 179th among the 1,502 men entered.
The Liverpool native has lived in Bridgewater since he moved to New Jersey 12 years ago for a job promotion.
Evans, who leads the global regulatory team for the medical technology health care company Philips, his wife, Anita, and their three children —13-year-old Rhia, 12-year-old Jayen and 7-year-old Lotti — all like to swim.
You grew up, surrounded by water, in a maritime city. When did you learn to swim?
It was my father who started me. My earliest memory was from when I was 3. He put me in the water and told me to swim to him. He kept walking backwards, away from me, so I had to keep swimming. When I was 7, I got a place in swim clubs, and I began practicing before and after school and on weekends, too. For a short period of time, I was one of the best swimmers in the north of England.
Did you envision yourself as a professional competitive swimmer?
No, because I was average height and size for my age, but as I got older, others grew taller and bigger than me, and I eventually stopped racing competitively to focus on my studies. In fact, I stopped swimming from my late teens until I was out of college, and since then, aside from competing in some triathlons, I’ve been swimming only for fun and exercise.
I read that it was because of your father that you entered the Bosphorus race.
He had mentioned the race a couple of times, and I kept telling him that I would enter it, but I never got around to it. After he died in April 2021, I decided to do it.
It must have taken a lot of rigorous training.
I’d love to say that I was diligent, but I wasn’t. I swam 200 laps after work each night at Life Time in Bridgewater, and in the summer I got up early and swam 200 to 300 laps. When we went on vacation, I swam in the sea to keep myself in touch with the salt water.
What was it like swimming in the sea?
The Bosphorus is one of the busiest maritime passages in the world. They close it for two hours every year to hold the race. When I looked at the water, I thought that it would take me two hours, which would be a problem because you literally have to be out of the water in two hours so they can open the channel again. But then I read that there’s a current working in your favor that takes you approximately a mile an hour.
It must have been a very emotional and exciting experience.
We rode to the starting point on Istanbul’s Asian side on a ship, where we waited for about an hour-and-a-half for two other ships of swimmers to join us. I had a lot of time to study the water, and what I saw scared me: It was filled with jellyfish. And I thought, I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to get stung. And there was nobody to talk to because most of the other swimmers on my ship only spoke Turkish. But I finally found someone who said that they’d been doing this race for several years, and it had never been an issue.
What was it like actually being in the water with all those other swimmers?
It wasn’t difficult swimming — and dodging all those jellyfish took my mind off of things. I had read that there were a lot of swimmers through the years who had been disqualified, and I couldn’t figure out why until I saw the platform that marked the end of the race. It looks like a pool ladder, but you have to have stay in the middle to reach it. If you go too far out to the side, the current will carry you beyond it, and you can’t turn back because the same current will keep you going forward, which is where many disqualifications came from. It was a relief — and a little luck — that I reached it.
You used the race to raise money for Rural Communities Development International.
It’s a new nonprofit — I’m now on the board — and I’m excited to say that the $4,032 I raised is going to supply books, desks and chairs for a school that the group funded to be built in Ghana.
You make competitive swimming sound easy. Do you have any tips for people who want to get started?
It’s all about perfecting technique. Once you have the technique down, your energy output is less, and you can swim longer. The best advice I have is to take some lessons with a stroke coach.
Speaking of lessons, what did you learn about yourself during the race?
I used to consider 50 as old — that’s when you start looking for things to go wrong, and you start to slow down. I realized that is far from the truth and there are no limits. I don’t feel old, and the race gave me confidence that all goals are still attainable.
Now that you’ve conquered the Bosphorus, what other competitions are on your radar?
I’m planning to do the race again next year. I also recently investigated the challenge of swimming the English Channel. There’s a three-year waiting list for it, so I’m contemplating — not planning on — doing it, too.