The Making of a World Champion, Part 2

Blog - Melena hankins
Mom of four, Aqua-Tots Swim Schools franchise owner and World Masters Champion Swimmer Malena Hankins knows what it takes to overcome. From her first swimming competition in Ecuador at the age of 14 to her first place World Masters Swimming competition in South Korea in August 2019, this swimming champion reflects on one of her greatest swimming accomplishments to date, the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim — which she conquered, we might add, while 3 months pregnant with her fourth child.

Hear from Malena in her own inspiring words:

After almost 9 months of planning and training, I completed a goal that I have had my heart and mind set on for over five years — the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a 28.5 mile counterclockwise swim around Manhattan Island and one leg of The Triple Crown of open water swimming, a list that also includes the Catalina Island Swim and the English Channel Crossing. This swim took months of planning and training, consisting of a qualifying swim of over 4 hours in sub 60 degree water, countless hours and miles in the pool each week and several 4, 5 and 6 hour swims on the lake. This training pushes the limits of your body. Mild hypothermia sets in when swimming for over 8 hours in 65 degrees and a complete depletion of your body’s energy stores takes place. And this was just training!

The day before the race, my husband and kayaker John and I arrived to a rainy, flooding New York City. We received an email informing us that I should consider the water conditions compromised due to the amount of flood water washing New York City “yuck” into the waters I would be swimming through. I was already prepared with antibiotics to combat such a scenario, but needless to say, I was beyond nervous and found it difficult to sleep, and 4:30 am came very early the next morning.

By 5:20 am, my team was in place. My coach Megan would be my support on the boat, in charge of my feeding schedule, mixing energy drinks, keeping up with my stroke count and helping John stay on the best possible course. John went and prepared all of the necessary equipment he would need to make it through the first hour of the swim before reloading from the boat. I arrived at 6:00 am to get checked in and mentally prepare for this swim that I had to complete in less than 9 hours and 30 minutes.
John and the kayakers paddled to the south cove of Battery Park on the Hudson River, the swimmers entered the water and by 8:10am, NYC Swim blew the horn and the swim was underway. We were swimming directly into the flood tide until we got around the southern tip of the island and around the Staten Island Ferry docks. At 8:40 am, I swam under the Brooklyn Bridge, and I wanted to experience the iconic landmark, even from the water, so I rolled over to backstroke for about 15 feet and take it in. Though I didn’t see the others, I swam past distant landmarks that people travel to see including the Empire State Building, the Chrysler building, the UN building and Yankee Stadium to name a few.
As we turned onto the East River, a flood tide pushed us up the river, and by 3 hours into the swim, I reached the Harlem River where the tide began to change to an ebb tide where the current was in my face. All of the webinars that we watched the days leading up to the swim indicated that the East and Harlem rivers would be the more challenging parts of the swim, and I was feeling and doing great. Short of navigating through smelly water in the Harlem River, we made it to the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge in a time that far exceeded my expectations.

This bridge operates like a gate and opens and closes to let Amtrak trains into Manhattan Island, and it crosses the mouth of the Harlem River where the river joins the Hudson. I was feeling extremely good until I made it to this point and felt the turbulence that was about to pound me for the next three hours as I made the final 12 miles down the Hudson.

There is no way to prepare for the mental battle that the turbulence and pounding in the Hudson had on me, especially as I was nearing a point of exhaustion. There was a strong current pushing me down the Hudson, but there were also 20 mile per hour winds pushing me into the Manhattan shoreline and kicking up the most turbulent water that I had faced on the swim.
We passed under the George Washington Bridge, and I began to swim directly towards the New Jersey shoreline just to steer clear of a water treatment plant in a cove 200 yards inward. If I had gotten trapped in there, I would have an exhausting swim against the current to get back out and away from the Manhattan shoreline. Simply put, I needed to remain 120 – 150 yards away from the shoreline, and there was a very strong current pushing me directly into that shoreline. To top it all off, the current and wind swept water would hit me, go in and hit the sea wall and then come back and hit me from the other direction. All of the fighting began to take its toll on me.

Seven hours into the swim, I felt like I wasn’t making any ground and my left shoulder started to give out on me. I rolled over onto my back and started backstroking while my support crew gave me energy drinks, chews and Motrin to fight the inflammation in my shoulders. This was the very first moment that true doubt crept into my mind. At that moment, I truly doubted that I could finish. With tears in my eyes, I rolled back over and started the fight again as my husband cheered me on, “You are going to do this, Malena! Come on, Honey! You’ve got this!”

Within minutes a wave flipped John from his Kayak, and though I was scared to death, that was the fire that I needed to square my shoulders and take it the rest of the way home. That made me realize that I wasn’t the only one fighting the elements that we were up against. I could do this!

We knew from the beginning that there was a Norwegian Cruise Line ship that was set to back out from the 79 Street Peer at 4:15 pm, and I should be safely past that peer by then. Unbeknown to me, at 2:40 pm the harbor master announced over the marine radio that John had on his life vest that the ship was going to back out early. I was still two miles away from the ship at that time, but by 3:20 pm when I was 200 yards away from it, the ship began backing out, and my crew started to tell me to hold up. For five minutes I tried backstroking up the Hudson River with a 3 knot current pushing me directly toward the ship. This is the moment that I knew my body was going into hypothermia while trying to swim against the current and stay away from this boat.  I exhausted all of my energy stores and literally felt my body temperature begin to drop.

Imagine swimming against the prop wash of a boat motor just to keep from being swept into a ship that is two football fields long. Once the nose of the ship made a wide turn into the channel I was cleared to roll onto my stomach and go again. At 7 hours and 15 minutes into the swim with my body completely exhausted and moving into hypothermic shock, I still had approximately 5 miles and at least 45 minutes to go. Nothing but sheer determination and the support of a great crew took me home.
As I made it down the final mile swimming near the Battery Park seawall, a growing crowd of people began cheering me on. As I turned into the platform and touched the ladder that meant I had finished I completely broke down. With tears flowing down my cheeks and my body violently reacting to the effect of hypothermia, I found out that I had finished my goal in 8 hours and 5 minutes. The NYC Swim staff quickly put thermal blankets on me and soon after I was stripped of my swimsuit and put onto a massage table so that I could get blood flowing to my extremities and my core body temperature back up.

After the race, I had time to reflect on all of the training, the event and the support I received along the way, and I was often reminded of the question so many people would ask: Why? Here is the best answer that I can come up with. God gave me the ability to swim and the tenacity to endure, and if I can use my God-given abilities to impact others, then that is what I am going to use my gifts to do. Through my swim I raised $2,250 to support drowning prevention. I was part of a field that raised over $150,000 to support drowning prevention through Swim Free. My Facebook page for this event reached over 1000 people that were touched with a week of drowning prevention awareness and hopefully inspired to recognize their own goals and work as hard as possible to achieve them. I take no responsibility for my gifts or my abilities, but the decision to put them to use is what I am called to do.