After first-place finisher James Biles crossed the finish line in the Cream City Classic on August 11, he swam back out and grabbed a plastic water bottle that was floating in the Milwaukee River. He said, “We’ve got to leave it cleaner than we found it.”
His action reflects the philosophy behind the race, and made the organizers and sponsors proud. It made the partners proud, too. Wisconsin Sea Grant doesn’t often, if ever, help organize sporting events. But this was one we couldn’t pass up.
In the first swim held in the river in potentially 100 years, 68 people entered the water for a mile-and-a-half race. All but one finished, and nobody got sick.
Kirsten Shead, co-executive director of the Milwaukee Water Commons, explained the idea for the event arose from a survey of residents in the Milwaukee area. They were asked about ways the city could be better known as a “water city.”
“The idea was to highlight how far the Milwaukee River has come in terms of water quality,” said Shead. “It’s so much cleaner than it has been in the last 100 years, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s going to take all of us to get that waterway to a place where it’s fishable, swimmable and drinkable on a regular basis.”
Deidre Peroff, Wisconsin Sea Grant’s social scientist who helped with the race, said the idea of a race in a river that has had pollution problems raised a few eyebrows. “At first, everyone was like, ‘Oh this is crazy, who would want to swim in the river?’ But then it changed to being this inspiring story. There’s all the pictures of swimmers hugging and smiling, and excited that they got to do it.”
Shead concurs on the success of the race. “The images of the event are just so iconic – seeing people swimming up into the city along former industry sites, current industry, condos, apartments and restaurants. The beauty of that was not lost on the crowd. We had spectators along the whole route, cheering.
“Overall, the swimmers gave really good reviews on the water. They said it was comfortable, it was enjoyable, it felt clean, it didn’t stink, it wasn’t gross – all those things that we were hoping for . . . . Everything went swimmingly,” Shead said.
The organizers, which also included Milwaukee Riverkeeper and the Milwaukee Harbor District, did their homework to ensure a healthy experience for the swimmers. They picked a section of the river that’s historically the cleanest because of water that mixes in from Lake Michigan. They also paddled the route and had a test-swim to ensure no harmful structures were lurking beneath the surface. Water quality tests conducted beforehand showed no problems.
It is currently illegal to swim in the river, so they obtained a special permit to hold the race. They also worked with the police and fire departments. A skimmer removed debris the night beforehand. During the event, the Coast Guard shut down the river to boat traffic, kayakers patrolled for safety and eight lifeguards lined the route, ready to jump in if needed.
Peroff staffed the registration table and was able to question a few racers on why they participated.
“I talked to this father-son team. The son said, ‘No I never thought I would do this. No way’ while the dad said he’d always wanted to swim in the river since he was a kid. He grew up close to the river. It was always so polluted and with all the trash, looked disgusting. He was told to stay away from the river, so he was happy to see how far we’ve come with cleaning it up and the fact that we could even think about doing something like this.”
Will there be a Second Annual Cream City Classic? Both Peroff and Shead say yes.
“It’s a quirky event, it’s a cool location, and we think we can continue to highlight some important issues in Milwaukee such as water quality and water access,” Shead said.