Changes to Steamboat’s Bald Eagle open water series expand participation
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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Rebecca Mabius arrived in Steamboat Springs as aquatics director of Old Town Hot Springs a year ago, she wanted to think of ways to revamp its open water swimming series at Bald Eagle Lake.
She thought back to when her college friends encouraged her to take on her first open-water swim through a river in Tennessee.
“We had a friend who was a pilot, just to make sure we didn’t get hit by anyone, and we swam down one dock to the next dock, I just thought, ‘I like this, I like this more than hitting walls all the time,’” Mabius said. “It was true swimming. The word ‘free’ is what comes to mind.”
Every Monday in July, Bald Eagle Lake hosts an open water swimming series from 6 to 7 p.m., which is open to all levels to race distances of one-half to one mile.
But this year, the series also includes a 30- to 45-minute, pre-race training clinic by swim instructor Noelle Wilhite to help swimmers gain the confidence they need to enter the open water. Wilhite competed for the University of Illinois as a swimmer but also gained experience as a part-time coach for competitive swimmers and triathletes in Chicago and Palo Alto, California, before moving to Steamboat.
Wilhite started competing in triathlons after college, and as a former collegiate swimmer, she recognized how different the sport could be.
“When you’ve been swimming competitively for so long, it’s hard to be excited for it for 20-plus years,” Wilhite said. “It kind of opened up a new part of the sport for me.”
Wilhite came to Steamboat in August 2017 because it’s a ski town with a large swimming scene at Old Town Hot Springs. When she and Mabius were brainstorming how to make the Bald Eagle Series more accessible, they realized there was a need for basic instruction since many Steamboat residents are aspiring triathletes, or just getting into swimming.
“Those people are really committed and focused,” Wilhite said. “You see people come in nervous and in two to three seasons doing Ironmans. It’s a life skill and public safety skill; it’s not an easy thing to learn. As an adult, I have huge respect for people who want to take that on as a skill.”
The clinics teach the basics of how to put on a wet suit to proper stroke mechanics and sighting, which is key to swimming in water that you can’t see in.
Sighting is where a swimmer looks above the water toward the target, or buoy, to keep a straight-line path. Without this skill, swimmers take more time to get to where they want to go.
“You have no vision, people swim over you, you lose goggles,” Mabius said. “This will help people improve and ease their minds.”
In addition, Bald Eagle will host a special series on July 30, which features the traditional half-mile and one-mile races, followed by stand-up paddleboard races and a two-person, one-mile relay.
“We’re trying to make this diverse — trying to get more of the community involved with it,” Mabius said.
The changes have had an impact. On Monday, July 6, the first day of the series, 22 people came out to swim, whereas only 10 came out last year.
All classes are open to the community for $30, which includes the clinic and race. The entire race series, four Mondays, is $100.
“A good comparison would be like a track and field or trail runner,” Wilhite said. “It’s away a more immersive experience with nature, a more peaceful, meditative experience, but a lot more physically demanding, no wall to take a break at.”
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