Distance swimmer knows how to channel inner strength

Dammerman, 47, former college swimmer.
David Dammerman of Saratoga Springs swims through the northern part of Lake George accompanied by crew member Chris Bowcutt in a kayak. Dammerman swam the 32-mile length of Lake George two weekends ago.
David Dammerman of Saratoga Springs swims through the northern part of Lake George accompanied by crew member Chris Bowcutt in a kayak. Dammerman swam the 32-mile length of Lake George two weekends ago.

Lake George is so clear that in some spots you can see the rocks on the bottom, even — under the right conditions — at night.

Below a spectacularly clear-blue sky two Wednesdays ago, it was plainly obvious what makes these waters draw thousands of people year-round. Kids splashed in the shallows, baby ducks paddled under the bridge that takes you to the Sagamore Resort and a huge steamboat carried vacationers north from Million Dollar Beach.

But Lake George is not without its dark mysteries.

David Dammerman of Saratoga Springs, inspired by a 25-year-old mother of three who swam the length of the lake almost 60 years ago, decided he wanted to explore them.

So at 5 p.m. on Saturday, June 21, he stepped off Diane’s Rock in Ticonderoga. Less than 19 hours and over 32 miles later, he stepped out at the southern end of the lake, having swum the length of it.

The mission was part scouting report, part promotional event . . . but mostly it was a grueling personal exploration of a man’s limitations and his ability to handle the challenges of what, for most, is just a fun place to dip your toes.

The fact that Dammerman, a 47-year-old former collegiate swimmer, broke the record for fastest solo traverse from the northern tip of the lake to the southern was almost incidental. What he found was that, even if you have textbook technique, a comprehensive gameplan and the requisite fitness, a feat like this isn’t possible unless you trust yourself.

“ ‘Dark periods’ are normal,” his post-swim notes read.

“The way to fight that is to know and expect that it will happen and to trust that you’ll come out on the other side,” Dammerman said by phone on Friday morning.

A little history:

Dammerman is only the seventh documented person to have completed the Lake George solo swim.

The first was Diane Struble, the mother of three who was in the water for all of 35:30:00 in 1958, actually swimming a circuitous 36 miles to avoid the islands that dot the narrow lake. For that, thousands greeted her on shore, and she wound up on national TV. A two-paragraph story in The New York Times referred to her as a “sturdy swimmer.”

The most recent before Dammerman was 43-year-old Jerry Ferris, who finished the swim in 29:15:00 in 1983.

The record (21:26:00) broken by Dammerman was established by John Freihofer in 1981.

The Lake George Historical Association convened last year to commemorate Diane Struble’s accomplishment, and that’s where the seed was planted for Dammerman and his crew to replicate it.

An organization called the Lake George Open Water Swim will host its Marathon Swim in September. Dammerman and his crew served as a scout team for that event.

You don’t just jump off a rock into Lake George and expect to swim the whole thing because you feel like it. Dammerman had a support team of four, manning a powerboat and kayaks with lights.

They coordinated with emergency medical services so that if there was a problem, they would be able to get to shore at points easily accessible to the EMS.

Dammerman also was able to feed on a solution of carbohydrates and electrolytes, with a little bit of protein, every half-hour.

During the “dark periods,” “you have to trust the training,” he said. “You can survive, so you go every half hour with a feed. Then all you can do is make it to the next stop. I counted to about 1,800 strokes and kept things moving, half-hour to half-hour.”

That’s about 72,000 strokes total.

Three years ago, Dammerman swam the English Channel, so he had experience, but the two feats do have some differences. There’s better buoyancy in the saltwater of the channel, but the current can make hitting the closest exit point in France tricky.

“In Lake George, nobody’s moving the end on you,” he said.

Conditions can change on the lake, though. There are cold spots, some over 30 degrees below body temperature, and “it doesn’t take much wind to ruin a swim.”

That said, the rewards are myriad.

He didn’t encounter any jellyfish, of course, like he did in the channel, but did see turtles and fish. He also didn’t stick his hand through any bags of trash.

“I was just hoping there were no needles in there,” Dammerman said of his English Channel crossing.

“The water [in Lake George] is so beautifully clean. Even at night I could see rocks on the bottom in some of the shallower spots. It’s such a beautiful place.”

The dark periods, when he thought about quitting, came 6-7 hours in, and again when he was still 4-5 hours from the southern shore. “It was kind of cold and dark and lonely.”

When he got out, all he wanted to do was lay down in the warm grass. After a day and a half of being “physically tired and mentally cloudy” while recovering, his mobility gradually returned and the pain went away.

But two weeks later, Dammerman said he’s still a little worn out.

Imagine what Diane Struble, who swam when stroke technique wasn’t as efficient and athletes weren’t nearly as in tune with nutrition, must have found in that water.

“She fought the fight,” Dammerman said. “That’s insane. That’s crazy. She may not have been as fast, but that makes the feat even more of a test of motivation and stubbornness.”

There’s a metal plaque, oxidized to bluish green, with Diane Struble’s name on it at the launching point in Ticonderoga, not much more than a low-lying boulder with some green brush growing out of it.

In September, Dammerman and a few dozen others — some solo and some to start relays — will step off it and see what they can find on the other side of the lake, and of themselves.

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