26th annual Flowers Sea Swim attracts nearly 800 competitors

Nearly 800 swimmers churned up the water off Seven Mile Beach between The Ritz-Carlton and the Royal Palms resorts on Saturday for the 26th annual Flowers Sea Swim.

The one-mile race, which attracts swimmers from on and off the island, got under way just before 2:30 p.m. At 17:46, Olympian Jordan Wilimovsky, 24, of Malibu, California, hit the finish line, winning the event. The top female swimmer was Olympian Stephanie Horner, 29, of Quebec, Canada. She finished in 19:04.

A good part of the field was simply out for fun. Even many of the serious swimmers took the opportunity to enjoy their surroundings.

Two-time Olympian Kate Ziegler, who held the world record in the 1,500m freestyle for five years, said she appreciated swimming through Cayman’s clear waters. More than 20 Olympic swimmers took part in this year’s event.

“It is paradise to swim here,” Ms. Ziegler said. “Besides the joy of swimming for such a great event, it was a wonderful seeing the fish while swimming through the water. I was swimming along and I felt, ‘I am the luckiest person.’”

The first sea swim Frank Flowers put on as a fundraiser drew 60 swimmers. Last year, the field hit 1,000. Organizers said it has been recognized as one of the top 10 open water swims in the world.

Mr. Flowers said that is what he expected when he launched the event.

“We had a vision and a dream,” he said. “And with the support of government and the people, anything can happen.”

The sea swim raises tens of thousands of dollars for charity each year. This year’s recipient is the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre.

At this year’s event, Mr. Flowers was presented the R. Max Ritter Award by Dale Neuburger of United States Aquatic Sports, the agency that represents the national governing bodies for each of the Olympic aquatic sports. The group’s website says the award is presented to the individual or organization that has “contributed the most to the advancement of understanding and good will among nations through international participation in amateur aquatic sports.’

“I think all of you know what incredible vision and leadership Mr. Flowers has brought to this event,” Mr. Neuburger told the crowd of swimmers and supporters at the post-race awards ceremony.

What was once a “little secret” of the Cayman Islands has become an internationally recognized event, he said.

Mr. Flowers said he was humbled to receive the award.

“I’ll use it to promote swimming in Cayman,” he said.

He and his family have been doing that for years, which likely accounted for the widespread impression among participants on how well organized the race was.

His daughter, Dara Flowers, said it takes months of work to put on the event.

“It does take an entire village,” Ms. Flowers said. “We start about eight or nine months out. We have an entire army of people, over 200 volunteers.”

Jack Siebold, 63, who came from Newark, Delaware, with his wife and another couple, said he was impressed by his first encounter with the sea swim.

“Very nice people, well organized, totally awesome,” Mr. Siebold said after finishing the swim. “We’ll do it again.”

Before the race, Mr. Siebold said he was drawn to the sea swim for the same reason many others expressed.

“If you’re going to do a distance swim,” he said, “why not do it in the Cayman Islands?”

At the start area, swimmers enjoyed access to free water and other drinks, as well as free, reef-friendly sunscreen that was being slathered on by volunteers with the Cayman Islands Cancer Society.

Marieke van Belzen, 37 and Alice Aherne, 36, said it was important to provide skin protection to the competitors. It was a visceral experience.

“Your sweat, their sweat,” Ms. van Belzen said.

“It gets very liquidy,” said Ms. Aherne, laughing.

Shade was at a premium as Cayman had its first day of sun in several weeks. A few swimmers took refuge in The Ritz-Carlton’s poolside bar.

Dean Max, 50, of Deerfield Beach, Florida, was having a pre-race Coors Light with some friends. He got involved in the swim 12 years ago because one of his business partners in his Cayman office is a member of the Flowers family.

“Nothing beats this swim because nothing beats the beauty of it,” he said. “It’s such an amazing place. For people that like to do adventure swims, it’s great.”

Dara Flowers and father Frank Flowers Sr. get ready for the family’s annual sea swim on Seven Mile Beach. – Photos: Taneos Ramsay

Julia Legenstein, 23, was sitting next to Mr. Max. She said usually 15-20 of her fellow employees at the Brasserie restaurant compete in the race, even though she’s not a swimmer.

“I usually jog and do yoga,” she said. “This is more just to enjoy myself, spending time with my co-workers.”

She lifted her drink.

“Two beers and a shot and I’m ready to go,” she said.

The race attracts a broad spectrum of abilities.

Fiona Nadaraja, 49, said she could not swim a standard stroke of freestyle last November when she started preparing for the swim. She had watched from the beach over the years as her children took part in the event and finally decided it was time to get involved herself.

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“My goal was to swim freestyle the whole way and I made it,” she said, beaming and with a medal hanging from her neck after the race. “I felt comfortable because there was every ability [of swimmer]. I’d encourage anyone who’s a non-swimmer. It’s a sport for everybody.”

She was standing next to her coach, Jacqui Retief, 35, who swam along with her. Ms. Retief is an accountant and part-time coach and trained several swimmers for the race.

“I had a couple others that did it for the first time,” she said. “Everyone finished and they did good times. I’m so proud of everyone.”

In addition to the one-mile swim Saturday, the Flowers family also sponsors a 5K and 10K swim on Monday.

Kelly Westbrook, 41, of Durham, North Carolina, said she does one distance swim somewhere in the world each year. She competed in 10K swim in the Red Sea last year and was preparing for Monday’s 10K Flowers swim.

It’s her second time doing the Cayman event. She brought her two daughters who are 10 and 12, to do the one-mile swim. She decided to return, she said, because she enjoyed what she called the unique atmosphere of the Flowers event.

“I had so much fun,” she said. “It was such an awesome community. The spirit of the race was very alive and celebratory of life. It’s inspiring to see so many different people swimming.”

Dara Flowers said that is a big part of what the event is about.

“It originally started as a swimming event for fun,” she said. “Now, it’s a labor of love, giving back to the Cayman community.”