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Photo by Stephanie Slezak

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Marathon Swimmer Calls Ahwatukee Home

Claire Russell finds joy and fulfillment swimming in open water

Article by Alison Stanton

Photography by Stephanie Slezak and provided by Claire Russell

Originally published in Ahwatukee City Lifestyle

Claire Russell learned to swim when she was a little girl growing up in England.

At the time, Russell didn’t realize that what started as a casual activity would eventually lead to her becoming a marathon swimmer, conquering some of the coldest and most challenging bodies of water on Earth.

Russell was inspired to try open water swimming in 2007, shortly after enjoying a winter dip in a heated outdoor pool.

“It was a particularly windy day, so it was whipping the water as I was swimming. I thought it must be a bit like this swimming the English Channel,” Russell says, adding that she quickly reminded herself that a heated pool was not the same as an open body of chilly water.

After doing some research, Russell learned there was a lake five miles from her home where she could experience open water swimming.

Intrigued by the idea, Russell gave the sport a try, and was delighted to discover that she loved it.

While swimming solo across the English Channel was inconceivable at that point, Russell did feel confident enough to attempt a relay with three other swimmers. From then on, the swims became longer and more challenging.

“A group of us in the U.K. were preparing to swim Windermere, which is the largest lake in England and notoriously cold,” Russell says, adding that she was pleasantly surprised to discover how tolerant she was to frigid water.

“I went on to swim an ‘Ice Mile,’ which is a mile in water below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.”

In 2018, Russell swam the English Channel on her own, and in 2022, she swam around Manhattan Island in New York.

“My faith has been a very important part of this journey. I appreciate now that the initial thought came from God and He has been working in me over the last 16 years,” she says, adding she finds strength from this Bible verse:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you: and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” (Isaiah 43:2).

After Russell’s husband Robin was transferred from Germany to Phoenix for his work, she immediately got busy researching local places to train.

“Canyon Lake and Saguaro Lake are just over an hour’s drive. I have swum every week through the winter, with a handful of likeminded friends, followed by shivering and laughter,” she says.

Speaking of friends, Russell genuinely enjoys the camaraderie she experiences with other open water swimmers.

“There is a strange juxtaposition about open water swimming. You spend hours alone in the water, with no walls, no chlorine and no lines to follow. But it is enormously social during the time spent before and after a swim, whether it is a short cold swim or a six-hour long training swim,” she says.

“It’s a sport done with friends from all walks of life that share a passion for the water, and cake! It is almost compulsory to eat cake post swim.”

This September, Russell plans on swimming Catalina Channel in California, which will complete the “Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming.”

Russell, who is a retired diabetes specialist nurse, recently started working part time in the Walgreens pharmacy to help pay for the estimated $6,000 needed for the fees, support vessel, kayak and other costs.

She is also open to working with a sponsor who could help fund the swim, which could last as long as 20 hours.

Russell encourages anyone who is interested in open water swimming to do plenty of research before jumping in a local lake.

“There are certain safety considerations to open water swimming, especially in the cold. It’s important to have someone experienced with you to talk you through what to expect, what is normal and how to stay safe in and out of the water,” she says, adding that this is a great time of year to start.

“The temps are around 62 degrees Fahrenheit at the moment and are rising. Get in before it’s too hot!”

“It’s a sport done with friends from all walks of life that share a passion for the water, and cake!"

  • Photo by Stephanie Slezak
  • Photo by Stephanie Slezak
  • Photo by Stephanie Slezak
  • Photo by Stephanie Slezak