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The longest mile

On his first Cross Channel Swim 35 years ago, Joe Sullivan swam with Roy Webster, the event’s founder, and seven others. On his 33rd consecutive swim this year, he’ll swim with 550.

September 3, 2005

Joe Sullivan’s first Cross Channel Swim was in 1970.

He’d heard about the event, spearheaded by orchardist Roy Webster, and drove from The Dalles and met up with seven other swimmers. They were ferried in a local resident’s boat from the Eddie Mays Inn dock (located where the Hood River Inn now is) across the Columbia to a dock east of the Hood River Interstate Bridge.

Sullivan made it back across the river in 18 minutes, the first of the swimmers to climb out of the water at Eddie Mays.

Sullivan, 59, has participated in every Cross Channel Swim since then. The event has changed so much over the years it bears little resemblance to the first one he participated in. A capacity crowd of 550 swimmers now boards the Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge at the Hood River boat basin dock to be ferried across the river, where they jump off in flights of 10 for the swim to the Hood River Inn.

But Sullivan’s enthusiasm for the Cross Channel Swim has remained.

“It’s such a great event,” he said. “It’s all good.” Sullivan had moved to The Dalles in 1970 after he got out of the Navy. He was working a summer job at the public pool when he heard about Roy Webster and a group of people who gathered each Labor Day to swim across the river.

“I thought, I’ve been swimming all summer, I should do that,” Sullivan recalled. Webster, a Pine Grove orchardist who had started an annual tradition of swimming across the Columbia in 1942, was 69 when Sullivan met him on that first swim.

“Roy was in fine form,” Sullivan recalled. Although Webster, and later a few friends and family members, had been doing their annual swim for years, it wasn’t until 1967 that the swim became a community event run by the Chamber of Commerce. The very next year it had to be canceled due to bad weather. Sullivan’s first swim, in 1970, was postponed a week due to cold weather and strong wind.

The Cross Channel Swim started to gain momentum in 1971 when television reporters from Portland showed up and covered the event for the evening news. Only 14 people completed the swim that year, but the next year 71 swimmers took the plunge — many from outside the area. Within a few years, nearly 200 people were participating and the swim had gained a reputation around the Northwest that continues today. The event is now known officially as the Roy Webster Columbia River Cross Channel Swim.

Sullivan didn’t plan on a 35-year run at the swim. But he enjoyed himself so much year after year that he couldn’t imagine not participating. He’s seen just about every weather and water condition over the past three and a half decades.

“We’ve had a little bit of everything over the years,” he said. “But the weather doesn’t stick in my mind so much as the people.” He’s become good friends with a few long-timers like himself, who maintain a friendly rivalry. He also enjoys seeing the many families who do the swim together year after year.

“We all have circles of friends throughout our life,” he said. “This is one of them for me.” His own grown children have done the swim a dozen times.

Some of Sullivan’s fondest memories are of chatting with Webster himself during and after the swims. Despite a vast age difference, and seeing one another only sporadically, the two men became good friends over the years. Sullivan attended Webster’s funeral when he died in 1997 at age 96.

“I have not met anyone like him,” Sullivan said. He was always very gracious and enthusiastic. I’m really pleased they keep his name right there in front of (the swim). It doesn’t exist without him.”

For Sullivan, the Cross Channel Swim also helps him stay in shape. His career as a real estate appraiser keeps him busy — including traveling frequently around the region. (Sullivan lived in The Dalles until two months ago, when he moved to Tualatin.) But he swims nearly every day — and, for several months each year leading up the annual swim, the goal of stroking as effortlessly as possible across the Columbia gives him motivation not to miss a workout.

The Cross Channel Swim is not a race, but Sullivan has been the first across on several occasions. Despite approaching his seventh decade, he crossed the river last year in 18 minutes — matching the time of his first swim 35 years ago.

With a little luck — and a lot of swim strokes — Sullivan will be crossing the Columbia each Labor Day for many years to come — and loving every one of them.

“This swim was designed for me,” he said with a laugh. “I breathe on the right side. The bridge is on my right side. It’s my lane rope.”

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