Take me to the river

Swimmer endures all 352 miles of the Allegheny for charity

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By her own admission, Katie Spotz was no swimming star at her high school in Mentor, Ohio. In fact, she was one of the worst on the team.

"I'm slow," she said. "But endurance I can do."

Steadily, incredibly, Ms. Spotz, 21, demonstrated those endurance abilities by swimming the entire length of the Allegheny River, finishing at the Point yesterday just before noon. She is believed to be the first person to swim the whole river.

Ms. Spotz was greeted by cheering friends and family as she approached Point State Park, followed by her safety kayaker, James Hendershott. A few feet from solid ground by the fountain, she popped her head out of the water and flipped off her goggles with a wide grin.

She then climbed onto a River Rescue boat, ending a 352-mile journey that began July 22 at the river's origin in Potter County.

"I can't believe I'm here," she said, her black wet suit dripping.

Neither can her parents.

Home after graduating from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., Ms. Spotz floated the idea of swimming the Allegheny to her mother a couple of months ago.

Mary Spotz responded, "No you aren't, Katie."

Then rubber flippers and other distance swimming paraphernalia arrived at the house, purchased on eBay, and Mrs. Spotz knew her daughter was serious.

"Maybe she'll find a job," the mother said she hoped, but to no avail.

Eventually, Mary Spotz came to accept her daughter's latest adventure, heartened by the fact that it was for a good cause.

Katie, who started running marathons at 18, once biked across America and has competed in a half-ironman triathlon, is using the trip to raise money for the Blue Planet Run Foundation, which provides poor communities access to clean drinking water. Her Web site, www.swimforwater.com, links to a donation page for Blue Planet, a nonprofit group formed in 2004 that often combines endurance sports with fund raising.

"It's mind-boggling to think that 1 billion people are currently without the most basic human need," Ms. Spotz said.

"Water is extremely important, and I'm happy that this is helping."

With a plan and charitable cause in place, Ms. Spotz recruited a college friend, Mr. Hendershott, 20, of Covington, Ga., to kayak along for the trip. He was responsible for carrying supplies and keeping an eye out for boats.

They began in Raymond, Potter County, where the Allegheny is a mere stream. The pair hiked 27 miles to Coudersport before it was deep enough to swim.

Ms. Spotz usually swam between 12 and 15 miles per day as the river meandered westward, then north into New York, before emptying into the massive Allegheny Reservoir. That brought one of the trip's most difficult days, Ms. Spotz said, when the duo could not find fresh water and she had to swim for eight hours without hydrating. Eventually, they boiled water and took emergency water tablets.

Near Parker, Armstrong County, they lost their kayak after not tying it up high enough during the night. After borrowing another kayak, Mr. Hendershott retrieved his about a mile and a half downriver.

For the most part, though, the trip went smoothly. The pair would usually camp on a flat spot along the river for the night, subsisting on oatmeal or pancakes for breakfast, trail mix throughout the day, and pasta and canned meats for dinner. Ms. Spotz said she is most looking forward to eating fresh fruits and vegetables, which would spoil too fast for them to bring along.

The monotonous 10-hour days in the water wore on Ms. Spotz, but the rigors of endurance sport for her are commonplace, even comforting.

"There's some days that I would like not to be looking at cloudy water, but I do have an imaginative mind," she said.

"I get in my own little world when I swim. Endurance events are sort of like an active form of meditation for me. It brings me peace."

The closer the pair got to Pittsburgh, the more traffic they encountered, disturbing that peace. Large boats were especially annoying, Ms. Spotz said, because of their disruptive waves.

But the more populated sections of the river also brought new friends, some of whom allowed the travelers to spend the night on their yachts. A few folks Ms. Spotz and Mr. Hendershott met along the way even gathered at the Point yesterday, along with a couple of relieved parents.

Mr. Hendershott is heading back to Warren Wilson, while Ms. Spotz is returning home to continue the job search. A business and economics major, she's not sure what field she will enter.

But she already has her eye on December 2009, when she plans to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, from Senegal to French Guiana -- also raising money for Blue Planet. If she completes it, Ms. Spotz would be the youngest person to accomplish the feat.

After fretting for a month about her daughter on the Allegheny, Mary Spotz shook her head at the thought of the high seas.

"That's even worse," she said.

Daniel Malloy can be reached at dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731.


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