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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014

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In Sports

Melodee Nugent.

In Sports

Nugent cruises across Lake Geneva in the 8-mile Swim for Freedom.

Swimming unfathomable lengths in open water


Mary Gorski has skied the American Birkebeiner, finished the Ironman Hawaii and run the 135-mile Badwater Ultra through Death Valley, in temperatures topping 120 degrees.

She's able to push herself step after step for well beyond 24 hours; yet it's the athletic feats of her friend, Melodee Nugent, she finds "unfathomable."
Nugent swims, and not in the short bursts of Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin. She swims miles, more than two-dozen of them in her latest race, the inaugural Extreme North Dakota Watersports Endurance Test.

The 45-year-old mother of three from Mukwonago was one of a dozen competitors who ignored the adage "people don't swim in the Red River" and completed the 27-mile course from Grand Forks, N.D., to Oslo, Minn.
For nine hours and 23 minutes, Nugent saw little but trees along the shore, murky water and her escorts in a canoe. Immersed with music from an MP3, in her own cocoon of effort, she extended herself to another realm of ultra athletics.

Humble, unassuming and focused, Nugent talks matter-of-factly about her achievements. Gorski lends the gushing perspective.

"Swimming is a wonderful sport, but endurance swimming of the magnitude that Melodee takes on is an incredible mental and physical effort," Gorski said. "It is a sport for someone who really has to be comfortable with herself because that is primarily who she is with during her competition.

"As someone who has prepared for running events like Badwater in Death Valley, I have an understanding of the physical and mental commitment needed for a 27-mile swim, but the idea of doing one is beyond me."

At one time, it would have seemed beyond Nugent, as well.

At Greendale High School, she swam the 100-meter butterfly and backstroke. After she married in 1993, she returned to the pool for exercise, and swam laps in the pool at the Southwest YMCA in Greenfield.

The masters swim group there introduced her to open water swimming and a one-mile race in Lake Amy Belle, near Hubertus.

Like a runner emboldened by their first 5k, Nugent stroked for more: a five-mile race in Lake Minnetonka led to the eight-mile Swim 4 Freedom in Lake Geneva, then the 15.5-mile US Masters National Championship in Morse Reservoir in Indiana, and last month, the END-WET in North Dakota.

Now, she views a three-mile race as "kind of short.'

"I'm not competitive," Nugent said, ignoring her victories and third-place finish in North Dakota. "It's more for myself. My first goal is to finish, then to place in the middle of the pack. I like the challenge."

To prepare for the Red River race, Nugent swam nearly 170 miles in June. Every weekday, starting at 4 a.m., she turned laps for three hours in the pool at the Wisconsin Athletic Club, before going to work as a biostatistician in the Department of Pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin. One Saturday morning, she looped around Little Muskego Lake for six hours, pulling an orange buoy and amusing anglers.

Swimming provides Nugent with her alone time, away from the activities of her children and the data of pediatric medicine. It's also the outlet for her need for routine, and a source of accomplishment.

"She's a very focused, motivated person," said her husband, Mike. "When she sets her mind to do something, she does it.

"She's not like blood-and-guts. She's very calm. It's like she's walking in the park. She doesn't go fast then slow. It's a constant speed."

Over the miles down the Red River, Nugent worked primarily with her arms, and her mind. As the finish neared but seemed far too distant, she began to count her strokes, then calculated miles based on the music: six songs equaled 30 minutes, which equaled a mile.

She rested every half-hour and refueled with gulps of Infinit sports drink, a customized mix of carbohydrates, electrolytes and caffeine.

Finally, the Oslo water tower broke the endless line of trees.

"I am absolutely proud of her," Mike Nugent said. "Less than 1% of the population on earth can do something like this. There are superstar athletes she could swim circles around.

"To her, it's matter-of-fact. This is what I do. She's really motivated.

"I thought the motivation was the 15-mile swim last year, but I was wrong, it was the 27-mile swim this year."


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