Val Rode tightened her swim goggles and jumped into Stillwater Lake at Camp Minsi in Pocono Summit, Pa. It was the last day of summer camp, and her goal was to swim a mile to complete the requirements for the Mile Swim BSA award.
“It brought out the competitive side of me,” says Rode, an assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 1600, in Allentown, Pa. “I will not be shown up by the guys!”
The mile swim award, featuring Poseidon’s steed, the seahorse stitched in red on a white background, is a coveted patch to display on your swimsuit or backpack. It marks the completion of one of Scouting’s most physical challenges, swimming nonstop for a mile, typically in over-the-head open water. (The mile swim can be done in a pool if open water isn’t available.) Unlike merit badges, this award can be earned by adults as well as Scouts.
“The mile swim is certainly a big accomplishment, and it can be a little intimidating, but it’s not a race; you can go as slow as you want,” says Devin Sproed, Camp Minsi’s waterfront director.
A school physical therapist from Salem, Ore., Sproed has been a BSA camp waterfront director and instructor for more than 11 years. For safety at Camp Minsi, he notes, there’s always a rowboat following along with a spotter, keeping an eye on you as you swim.
You can use any stroke you wish, though the front crawl might be the quickest way to complete the swim, which typically takes an hour for most swimmers, Sproed says. “Every year, I challenge myself to do it in 45 minutes, and I’m happy if I make it under an hour.”
Get in Shape
It helps to be in shape and have good cardiovascular endurance, says Sproed, who recommends all adults wanting to train for the mile swim get their physician’s approval before starting a new workout routine.
Walking and jogging are great ways to build your cardiovascular fitness, but obviously nothing beats swimming for getting ready. You should practice in a pool three times a week for 30-45 minutes and do some intervals to build endurance, suggests James Kegley, a former world-class marathon swimmer.
Start training at least four to six weeks before you go to camp. Here’s an example of a solid training session for beginners:
Warm-up: 200 yards at an easy effort, resting as needed.
Endurance: 400 yards at a comfortable pace, resting for 90 seconds between 200-yard stretches.
Interval: 200 yards, with the first 50 at a fast pace and the second lap at a moderate pace, and rest for 60 seconds between 100-yard stretches.
Cool-down: 100 yards at an easy pace.
Each subsequent week, increase the length of your endurance and interval segments by 100 yards. By the sixth week, you’ll be swimming more than the 1,760 yards that makes up a mile in an open-water swim.
“Get in a little practice swimming in a lake or ocean,” Kregley says. “Open-water swimming is a completely different feeling. It’s a mindset. You’re not following a line in a pool.”
He recommends swimming two strokes out of every 10 with your head up and focused on a landmark, like a big tree or house, to stay on course.
At Camp Minsi, mile swimmers have an advantage — a large yellow buoy a quarter of a mile out in the lake for their target.
What if I Get Tired?
“If you need to catch your breath, just flip on your back and do the elementary backstroke,” Sproed says. “You can also do the sidestroke or breaststroke to rest while doing your spotting. And, remember, it’s not a race. Have fun!”
Kregley, who has done open-water swims across Italy’s Gulf of Naples, in the Suez Canal and in the frigid waters of Canada, says open-water swimming offers rewards even greater than a cool patch: “It’s you, free, in nature. And that’s an awesome feeling.”
1. Explain how regular exercise contributes to good health and why swimming is one of the best forms of exercise.
2. Tell what precautions and procedures a swimmer and escort must follow for distance swimming over open water.
3. Under the supervision of a currently qualified certified BSA aquatics instructor or equivalent, participate in four hours of training and preparation for distance swimming (one hour a day maximum).
4. Swim one mile over a measured course that has been approved by the trained instructor who will supervise the swim.
Jeff Csatari is the author of The 14-Day No Sugar Diet.