The Florida ocean currents were no match for former Juneau-Douglas High School and Glacier Swim Club athletes Cody Brunette, 21, and Kristin Jones, 23, during Saturday’s 12.3-mile Swim Around Key West.
Brunette had the overall fastest time in four hours, 12 minutes and eight seconds. Jones finished in 5:16:37.
“It was pretty awesome,” Brunette said. “The middle part was pretty calm but where the Gulf and the Atlantic met was pretty wavy. I tried not to think too far ahead or how much time I had already swam. I tried to just focus on what I was doing right at that moment.”
Brunette took breaks every 15 minutes during the swim to assess various challenges and strategies. Brunette planned to take the early lead and was the first swimmer past White Street Pier, and he never relinquished that advantage. The start and finish of the race is on the Atlantic side of the beach, meaning the shoreline was choppy.
“This whole beach side was rough to swim,” Brunette said. “I was trying to go fast but you can’t time your strokes with the waves and everything. So I was just trying to be calm and relax and keep my pace.”
The water temperature was in the 80s, a bit warmer than he was used to, and he had never swam farther than 8.2 miles around an Alaskan island.
“I kept thinking about it in 15-minute time frames,” Brunette said. “When the next one was, maintaining my stroke and deciding where I needed to go. I was just focusing on those little intervals and that was what got me through.”
The cause the duo was swimming for, Friedreich’s Ataxi Research Alliance (FARA), was just as powerful as their freestyle strokes. Brunette and Jones applied colored zinc oxide to paint a map of Alaska and FARA on each other’s backs.
“I was really happy that I won and everything but the main thing was the reason we were down there doing that race,” Brunette said. “It was so awesome, the entire Jones clan was on the beach, it was really neat.”
Jones’ brothers Ryan, 25, and Owen, 19, are confined to wheelchairs due to the genetic disorder Friedreich’s Ataxia. Jones herself was born with a 25 percent chance of having the incurable disease but testing has shown she is not a carrier and her younger brother, Trevor, 15, shows no symptoms. The gene can be inherited if both parents have a dormant form.
“I didn’t do as well as I hoped but I finished,” Jones said. “It wasn’t an easy swim for me, but to see Ryan there, pretty much he was the only thing that helped me get through it.”
Jones suffered from seasickness the entire swim and was unable to keep any nutrition down. Competitors had support boats or kayakers
“I was pretty sick during the swim,” Jones said. “But knowing he was there and waiting for me and expecting me to come out at the finish line that definitely helped me. It was pretty awesome. It was something I will never forget and I imagine he won’t either.”
The Swim Around Key West began in 1977 by Anna Fugina, who had suffered injuries from a car accident and used swimming as therapy to assist in recovery.
Improved health and swimming ability induced a love for the sport.
On July 4, 1977, Fugina decided to be the first to swim the circumference of Key West. Roughly 12 hours later Fugina finished and discovered that if she studied the tidal current the swim would be easier. In 1978 she finished in eight hours.
In total, 163 swimmers competed in this 37th annual swim and a record number 82 solo swimmers. Race organizer Bill Welizen finished his 55th circumference of Key West and Fugina swam as a team with her daughter Maria Pennella. Fugina finished this year in 7:32:09.
The current record for the Swim Around Key West is 3:31:28, set by Gabe Lindsey in 1999.
Brunette and Jones ended up raising $5,000 for FARA, well over their $1,000 goal. The national non-profit organization is dedicated to the pursuit of scientific research leading to treatments and cure for FA.
“It was way more than we hoped,” Jones said. “It was awesome.”
Members of Jones’ family were waiting at the finish, including Ryan with his two caregivers.
“He was on the beach when I came out of the water,” Jones said. “It was really hot. Right when I came out I told him I finished and he said, ‘Lets go cool off at the hotel.’”
In an excerpt from Jones’ account of the race, she wrote:
“Honestly, the reason I didn’t stop when the going got rough was because of the support I knew I had on land. I knew I had a reasonable excuse, and all of my supporters would understand if I needed to stop, but for some reason I felt that this was, perhaps, the most important reason that I could not quit. Friedreich’s Ataxia doesn’t offer a safety boat to follow alongside you throughout the race; people aren’t given the option of getting a nice, warm, comforting ride back to shore. Whenever I wanted to stop swimming during the race, I thought of all those afflicted by FA and that was enough to give me the boost I needed to continue stroke after stroke, just like FA’ers do. Not that seasickness can compare to FA, but as a metaphor it does just fine.”
Brunette now heads to the University of Virginia for summer classes and is pursuing a degree in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Bio-Medical Engineering. He is also pursuing another lake or open water swim and will continue to swim for the FARA cause.
“I already looked them up,” Brunette said. “I was all pumped up about winning the Key West swim. Now I am looking for more races. What is cool is that, just like pool racing, there are 5K and 10K open water races for U.S. Nationals and World Champs. I am starting to learn about training myself well for that level. I just want to see where I can go with this.”
There are two ways to donate to Kristin Jones and Cody Brunette as they continue to swim for the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance.
1) Send a check to FARA, 533 W. Uwchlan Ave., Downington, PA 19335 (indicate ‘Team Ryan & Owen Jones’ in memo area on check). 2) Donate online. Google “fara kintera” then Click “Team FARA – Home.”
• On left side of page Click ‘Sponsor a Participant’
• Search for ‘Jones’ and Click on ‘Kristin Jones’
• On right side Click ‘GIVE NOW’
Roughly one in 50,000 people in the United States have Friedreich’s ataxia.
While mental capabilities remain intact in those afflicted, their bodies can have a vast range of deteriorating symptoms, including loss of arm and leg coordination, muscle loss, energy deprivations, vision impairment, hearing loss, slurred speech, aggressive curvature of the spine, diabetes and serious heart conditions.
There is no cure for Friedreich’s ataxia. Symptoms can be treated with medicines, braces, surgery, and physical therapy.