There came a time during Emily von Jentzen’s swim of Lake Chelan in northern Washington when the waves started to blur between friend and foe; buoying her weight for the 55-mile swim, then dragging her tired body back, holding her in place.
Emily could have quit at that point. There aren’t many who would stick it out for the 36 hours required to swim so far in water so cold – about 55 degrees. But Emily was made to fight waves.
When the water turned against her in the pitch dark, and all she had was the mental image of the little girl she was swimming for, Emily kept moving. She kept the rhythmic pattern she’d grown up with, her arms pacing in and out of the water, pushing, kicking, fighting.
In 2010, Emily, now 30, became the first woman and just third person ever to swim the 30-mile length of Flathead Lake. In 2011, Emily was the first person to swim Lake Chelan.
Both swims served as personal goals for Emily in terms of long-distance, open-water trials, but they also each held greater meaning. While swimming Flathead Lake, Emily raised nearly $10,000 for Karmyn Flanagan, a 3-year-old girl from Missoula battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The 2011 Chelan swim was for Kalispell’s Katelyn Roker, who was fighting Stage-4 neuroblastoma. That swim took a serious physical toll on Emily, resulting in acute kidney failure and a promise to her parents that she’d take at least a year off from the ultra-endurance swims.
Even though 2012 passed without such an event, Emily wasn’t sedentary. She’s been training and regrouping, and she’s got a new goal in her sights: a record-breaking 70-mile swim in Canyon Ferry Lake near Helena planned for August. The swim will help raise funds for a 2-year-old boy who needs a service dog.
Emily also has a new nonprofit for her fundraising efforts, called Enduring Waves. It’s the evolution of an idea that began with a very simple premise: if she’s going to be logging the miles anyway, she might as well help kids as she does it.
A swimmer and competitor since she was a kid, Emily didn’t hit her stride in the water until she found distance events in high school in Washington. Still, she doesn’t remember placing first in many events.
“People just assume that because I can swim a long ways that I’m fast,” Emily said.
She said she never won distance events like the mile, but now realizes that she was only just discovering her real talent.
“(A mile) is a 50th of what I found was my niche of distance,” Emily said. “I could do something other people couldn’t do and it didn’t wreck me.”
After swimming in college at Central Washington University, Emily went on to participate on the University of Montana’s triathlon team during law school. After graduation, Emily moved up to Kalispell to work at the Flathead County Attorney’s Office, specializing in child welfare cases.
Katie Schulz trained Emily at the county attorney’s office and bonded with her over their shared love of helping children and raising black labs. While it was obvious that Emily was very capable in the professional sense, Katie said, it was soon apparent that her drive and determination colored everything she did, including swimming.
For instance, there wasn’t an adult swimming program in Kalispell when she moved here, so Emily started a U.S. Masters Swimming branch. She recently competed in the USMS nationals in Las Vegas, taking second place in her age group for the 10K race.
As a sounding board for Emily’s myriad goals, Katie eventually helped create Enduring Waves after both she and Emily moved on from the county attorney’s office to work with the Montana Attorney General’s Office. Emily is now one of five attorneys in the state who work in the Department of Justice’s Child Protection Unit, handling cases of child neglect and other family issues for Flathead, Sanders, Lincoln and Lake counties, as well as traveling to other locations in western Montana as needed.
“This girl is amazing,” Katie said. “I don’t know how the heck she does it. And in the meantime she’s training for this swim.”
It’s been like that since she was a child herself, growing up in Washington with four siblings. Her mother, Sue von Jentzen, remembers Emily naturally taking to swimming but working hard to get it right.
That’s how her teachers described her, Sue said, as well as her coaches.
“In elementary school, teachers remarked, ‘She works 110 percent on everything she does, I wish I had a classroom full of her,’ and ‘Your Emily is such a hard worker,’” Sue said.
She also developed a sense to protect others early on, and could often be found with her arm around her friends at school, literally and figuratively, Sue said.
While having focus and dedication are inherent to swimming 36 hours at a time, Sue said her daughter can become so single-minded about a goal that she can overlook the potential negatives.
That brings Sue back to the shores of Lake Chelan, where she couldn’t bring herself to board the boat that tracked Emily through the dark, rough waters. Had she been on the boat, Sue said, she would have used a grappling hook to drag Emily out of the cold and back to safety.
“She decides that she can do things,” Sue said. “What other people say, like negative comments or just that’s silly you don’t want to do that, that doesn’t affect her. If she decides to do something, she’s got tunnel vision.”
As it turns out, some of Emily’s parents’ worries were founded. After the swim, Emily’s lower back was barking, but she assumed it was from holding her head up out of the water to spot during the swim.
But the pain didn’t recede for a week. After driving from Ellensburg, Wash., to Kalispell, Emily finally went to the emergency room, where she found out she was in acute kidney failure due to taking too many pain relievers too often during her swim and not hydrating enough the day after.
It was enough to scare her parents into making her promise to stay out of the water for a while, Emily said, but it didn’t stop her drive to swim.
“Two, three, four months goes by and you kind of get this itch,” Emily said. “I missed being in intense training.”
And thus the idea to swim 70 miles in Canyon Ferry Lake was born. She plans to swim in August, without a wetsuit, and should she end up successful, the swim will break the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame’s record for longest lake swim. The record currently belongs to Abdel-Latiff Abo-Heif of Egypt, who completed a 60-mile professional solo lake race across Lake Michigan in 1963.
But true to form, the bigger goal for this swim is to help a child, Carter Hasselbach of Helena. Carter is 2 years old and was born with severe trachea malasia, a disorder that causes all his cartilage to be floppy and obstruct his breathing.
Carter’s mom, Amy Hasselbach, said Carter’s lungs are typically in various states of collapse due to the malleable cartilage and his trachea is closed unless he’s breathing in. He lives on oxygen at night, since the relaxation sleep brings also collapses his breathing processes.
With 50 hospitalizations, countless needle pokes and upwards of 70 X-rays under his tiny belt, Carter is terrified of hospitals. He’s spent time in Seattle and Denver, Amy said, and he dissolves to a panic at the mere suggestion of a doctor visit or the airport.
“Airplanes take you to Denver and Denver causes pain and pokes and takes you away from mommy,” Amy said.
The family found salvation for Carter’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)-like symptoms in the form of a standard poodle puppy called Minnie. Now five months old, Minnie is attuned to Carter’s moods and health, bringing him comfort and relief from his anxieties.
“Minnie has brought him a sense of calm that is just amazing to watch,” Amy said. “We would have never guessed that a dog would bring him just so much security.”
When Emily and Katie heard that Carter’s family needed help raising money to train Minnie, they knew the combination of helping a child, training a dog and getting to swim would be a good one.
Emily is set on breaking the swim record, and isn’t perturbed by the chatter that she’s attempting something most endurance swimmers, including men, haven’t done. Her ability to focus and think of Carter will carry her through the water, Emily said, the same focus that carried her through school and landed her in her dream job.
“All the things I’m doing in my life are things I’m very passionate about,” Emily said. “It doesn’t feel like work.”
“I was out on the boat in Chelan on the first night. I’ve never been in such blackness,” Katie recalled. “The waves, oh my lord.”
It was brisk, the water about 10 degrees colder than she had expected, and Emily still had 30 hours to go. She struggled into a neoprene shirt to fight off the chill, bobbing in the waves. When the frustration took hold, Katie watched her stop struggling, gather herself in a calm and finally pull the shirt on.
Then she kept swimming.
It’s just something she’s been built to do, Emily said, and giving back is something her parents have engrained in her since childhood. People often ask her why she braves the water for near-strangers, why she puts her body and mind on the line for people she’s hardly met.
“Why wouldn’t you?” Emily asks in response. “I’m going to swim anyway; why wouldn’t I be expected to give back?”
For more information about Enduring Waves and to donate, visit www.enduringwaves.com. To keep tabs on Emily von Jentzen’s training, follow her blog at www.enduringwaves.blogspot.com.