Elizabeth Fry ’80 (CLAS) has a habit that’s been hard to break. She keeps entering large bodies of water and setting swimming records. Most recently, in August 2011, she took 24 hours and 41 minutes to complete a two-way crossing of the English Channel. She finished the 21-mile return trip two hours faster than her outbound journey and, at age 52, became the oldest person to have accomplished this round-trip swim between England and France.
In addition to last summer’s record-breaking effort, she has completed five one-way crossings and several relay team crossings of the Channel, as well as numerous other long-distance swims.
Fry is one of 12 women nominated for the title of 2011 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year by the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA), and she finds herself in good company. Among the others nominated are former U.S. Olympic swimmer Diana Nyad; Brazil’s world marathon swimming champion Ana Marcela Cunha; and Keri-Anne Payne of Great Britain, a 10 km open water champion and 2012 Olympic qualifier.
A 1980 graduate of UConn with a degree in chemistry, Fry is hardly ‘old,’ but her age does set her apart from what might be thought of as typical for a world-class athlete. However, unlike many other sports that are dominated by the young, long-distance swimming seems to reward tenacity born of years of experience.
Fry grew up in Westport, and arrived at UConn as a 17 year old freshman with aspirations to excel academically. It may be that being the middle child in a family of five children gave Fry her sense of purpose. “It was survival of the fittest,” she says.
Or it may have been the influence of her parents. Her mother was a teacher who, according to Fry, “excelled at teaching and never lost her love of learning new things;” her father, a post WW-II immigrant from Great Britain, had a successful career on Wall Street despite not having earned a college degree.
Although she’d been a competitive swimmer while growing up, Fry didn’t have any particular aspirations to continue spending time in the pool when she arrived in Storrs. “When I arrived on campus, Title IX had only been passed a few years before, and there still wasn’t much emphasis on women’s sports. My goals were all about getting an education, and I hadn’t even thought about swimming,” she says. “But someone I knew spotted me and invited me to an informal meeting of the swim team. It turned out that I knew a lot of the people there [from age group swimming events], and I ended up joining the team.”
What Comes Next
Upon graduation, Fry went to work in the chemical industry while also studying for an MBA in finance at Fordham University. It wasn’t until she decided to join a local group of Connecticut Masters swimmers at the Westport “Y” that the competitive fires were lit once again.
“I started to make these extraordinary friendships with the other swimmers, most of whom were closer to my parents’ age than mine. I was also traveling a lot for work during that time, and once I started to get in shape by swimming, I also took up running because it was something I could do easily when I was away from home.
“I hated running for the first five miles,” she says, “but once I got past that point I loved it. A friend encouraged me to try the New York Marathon in November 1991, so I did. I ran to raise money for Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in memory of my mother, who had passed away the previous spring. My finishing time qualified me for the Boston Marathon, and my friends made me go!” Since then, she has run 11 marathons all over the world, including Seattle, Paris, and London.
Swimming remains her first love, though, and among her accomplishments is an unprecedented 35-mile Ederle Swim from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, N.J. and back. She was the first person to make the round trip, and her time of 11 hours, 5 minutes last June set the standard for both men and women.
One of Fry’s favorite activities is serving as volunteer director of the 25K Swim Across the Sound, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the St. Vincent’s Medical Center Foundation which assists patients and families affected by cancer. This swim across Long Island Sound from Port Jefferson Long Island to Captain’s Cove in Bridgeport has grown to be one of the largest open water events in the U.S.
Fry is quick to talk about the importance of her family, friends, and crew when describing her success as a competitive swimmer. In fact, when asked about the highlights of her swimming career she immediately points to her family.
“One of the most meaningful swims was my first solo crossing of the Channel in 2003,” she says. “My dad was 80 years old at the time, and he was waiting for me when I came ashore. He’d been back to England a couple of times, but this was special. We celebrated my crossing and he also got to spend time with his sister. He passed away just a few months later.”
In 2009, she and her sister Peggy, one of her staunchest supporters, put together an English Channel relay team of cancer survivors and relatives to make the crossing. Fry says, “Completing that swim with Peggy in the water with me, in honor of our mother, was really something I treasure.”
While Fry’s accomplishments are impressive by any standard, she is humble when she talks about herself. “I don’t ever get in the water thinking about setting a record,” she says. “I walk in thinking how blessed and lucky I am to be able to do this.”
Voting for the WOWSA award, takes place online at www.openwaterswimming.com through Dec. 31.