Cook Strait separates the North and South Islands of New Zealand. It connects the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean, and is near the capital city of Wellington.
It’s beautiful. It teems with dolphins and whales. It’s also got some of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters in the world.
There’s no reason you or I would even think of swimming Cook Strait.
But you and I are not Liz Fry.
The 1976 Staples High School graduate is a long distance swimmer.
Not just any one of that hardy breed, though. Liz has already completed the “Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming”: the English Channel, California’s Catalina Channel and circumnavigating Manhattan Island.
She double-crossed the English Channel (England to France, then back). She’s swum 2 of the Great Lakes, and in Japan.
But — until earlier this month — Liz had never swum Cook Strait.
There were plenty of reasons why, even beyond the danger and distance. Liz is not a professional swimmer. With an undergraduate degree from UConn and a master’s from Fordham, she’s got a thriving career in finance. She works with global markets on tax initiatives.
Fortunately, today’s technology allows her to work remotely. So — even though training and preparing for a long distance swim takes a spectacular amount of time and effort — Liz is able to pursue her passion.
She loves the physical challenge of fighting tides, jellyfish, hunger and pain to get from Point A to Point B (though the route she takes is seldom the shortest).
Liz also loves to travel. She sees new places, meets new people and learns new cultures. “I’m living the dream,” she says.
New Zealand, though, was a dream deferred. Liz first hoped to swim the strait in 2012. But Superstorm Sandy hit, and its aftermath took precedence.
Four years ago, she applied for one of the few Cook Strait slots. High winds and treacherous seas limit the number of attempts.
She was chosen for a final spot this season. It’s fall now Down Under, with air temperature already dropping to the 50s.
Liz’s entourage included her sister Peggy, a 1975 Staples grad now living in Seattle who has served as crew chief on previous swims; Peggy’s husband, and Staples ’83 friend Debbie Masso.
In late March they all gathered in Wellington. As 50-mile an hour winds blew — with gusts up to 80 — Liz trained in a nearby pool.
Word came that she might be able to go soon. She adjusted her eating and sleeping schedules. But she would not find out until 7 p.m. Friday that she’d be swimming early the next morning.
Liz was accompanied by a large “mother ship,” and a smaller Zodiac. Peggy was in that boat. She fed her sister, and kept her upbeat.
Liz swam with Nora Toledano — the first Mexican woman to complete 6 of the famed Oceans 7 open water channel swims. Cook Strait would be her last, after the Molokai Channel, English Channel, Catalina Channel, Tsugaru Strait, the Strait of Gibraltar and the most brutal: the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland, ice cold and filled with jellyfish .
New Zealand mark Liz’s 6th of the 7 famed swims. Only the North Channel remains.
The pair left from a rocky shoreline near Wellington. Their destination — Arapawa Island, a small spit of land — was 18 miles away as the crow flies.
But Liz and Nora are not crows. Strong currents and gnarly conditions added quite a bit to their route.
The swimmers made good headway. At the 5-hour mark, they were about 5 miles from shore. Liz figured they were 2 hours away.
But within minutes the water temperature dropped from the 60s to 57. Currents picked up. It took 4 1/2 hours for the women to complete their swim.
The last hour was the toughest swimming Liz has ever done. Normally, she was fed every 45 minutes. But the waters were so strong, it was too difficult to eat.
Still, she felt joyful. “I was working hard,” Liz notes. “I could see the shore coming closer.”
Finally, she and Nora were there. They hauled themselves up a sheer wall. Together, they had conquered Cook Strait.
I’m exhausted just writing this. I can’t fathom what a long distance swim feels like.
Yet Liz knows. “I love it!” she exults. But it’s more than just the satisfaction of overcoming extreme physical and mental challenges.
“I’m fairly introverted,” Liz says. “Swimming has helped me come out of my shell. I’ve met incredible people, and helped others meet their goals. I’ve seen the most beautiful places. And it’s fun!”
What was not fun was the trip back. She arrived home. Her luggage did not.
Which raises the question: If Liz Fry can swim from North Island to South Island, why can’t Air New Zealand put her bags on the right plane?
But — true to form — she is undaunted.
Liz is already looking forward to another “Sound” swim: Westport’s Point to Point, at Compo Beach.
It was one of the first “long distance” ones she did.
She’s “shore” come a long way.
(Hat tip: Debbie McGinley)