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Swimmers take the plunge for charity fundraisers honoring teen

James Ferguson swims in the Great South Bay

James Ferguson swims in the Great South Bay near Windsor Avenue in Brightwaters on Tuesday, gearing up for the Maggie Fischer Memorial Swim on Friday. Credit: James Carbone

Intrepid swimmers will take a plunge for charity Friday as they descend from the dock of the Fire Island Lighthouse to swim 5.5 miles, all the way to Gilbert Park in Brightwaters to honor a teen who was killed just days before the 20-year-old race that is now named after her.

“This swim is a true, tough, outdoor activity,” said Bob Fischer of Brightwaters,  an organizer of the benefit named for his daughter, The Maggie Fischer Memorial Great South Bay Cross Bay Swim. More than a 100 people have registered to participate. The race starts at 7 a.m.

Enthusiastic swimmers hail from across the nation. Around half of them are local, Fischer said.

“Most of them have some sort of connection with Long Island, either through youth or family,” Fischer said. “But they’re also serious swimmers, because this is one of the longest swim races in the country.” 

One of the serious swimmers is James Ferguson, 63, of Brightwaters, who has participated in the event nine or 10 times. Ferguson, who swam competitively in high school and college, said he also has swum around the Statue of Liberty, under the Brooklyn Bridge and from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, about 1½ miles.

“But the longest, the most difficult swim is the Maggie Fischer,” he said, due to its length. “You have to encourage yourself to keep on going and going and going. It’s not easy.”

Ferguson recorded his best time on the course last year: 2 hours and 58 minutes. The race has a four-hour time limit - after that, swimmers are picked up -- and each swimmer has a support kayak that goes along.  

Commack resident Dan McBride, 52, plans to join the race for the 12th time. He agreed with Ferguson on the swim’s mental challenge.

“By the time you get to that 3-mile mark, and you were wishing it was a 5-mile mark, and you got almost another half to go,” he said. “It doesn’t even become physical anymore.”

Weather conditions will be tough on Friday and bad weather has forced the event to be moved to another day in the past, Fischer said. He expects remnants of Hurricane Barry passing by to “throw a curveball” at the event, meaning more wind and waves, making the swim even harder.

Beyond the athletics, many come out in support of Maggie Fischer, who was killed in a car crash in August 1999 just days before she was to participate for the first time in the swim. She was 17.

“It’s very emotional,” said Ferguson. “When she passed away, we were devastated.”

Maggie, a lifeguard, had taught his two daughters how to swim, he said, and they were inspired by her to become lifeguards. The daughters also participate in the swim in Maggie's memory.

McBride was Maggie’s high school swim coach when she died. It changed the way he viewed his students, he said.

“As a result of [her death], I don’t take getting to know the kids personally for granted,” he said.

And to overcome the mental challenge of swimming for such a long time, McBride thinks of Maggie.

“As soon as it starts getting hard, you swim for Maggie,” he said.

Last year, the swim raised $106,000 for two charities, the Hospice Care Network Children's Bereavement Fund and the Maggie Fischer Scholarship Fund.

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