LAKE GEORGE Gwenne Rippon began dredging up memories of her mother to gain a better sense of self through her family history.
The process has taken her journey on another route now, with memories of Diane Struble’s historic 1958 swim sparking more interest in Lake George as a potential conquest for swimming adventurers.
The 32 mile-long lake has long caught the eye of endurance swimmers and provided the water for events such as the Lake George Open Water Swim on Saturday and the upcoming Lake George Triathlon Festival next weekend.
Any given morning in the summer you can find people training in the lake for long distance swims.
Some, like Jerry Ferris, who swam the length of Lake George in 1983 and has also swum the approximately 22 mile-wide English Channel, think the lake could be seen as a notch on the belts of endurance swimmers.
Ferris noted he is one of fewer than 10 swimmers to complete the Lake George length-long swim, but more than 2,500 have swum the English Channel.
“Maybe one in 10 channel swimmers could do the Lake George swim. It’s a much more challenging swim. Psychologically it’s not the same,” Ferris said Wednesday at an event at the Lake George Historical Association’s museum at the Institute of History Art and Science on Canada Street in the former courthouse.
A swim in fresh water is much more difficult than salt water, he explained, because people are more buoyant in denser salt water than in fresh water. Also, the lake is about 10 miles longer than the Channel is wide.
At the event, people shared their long-distance swimming experiences and first-hand memories of Struble and her swim.
On Aug. 22, 1958, a Friday, at 10:29 a.m., the 25-year-old single mother of three was coated with 5 pounds of grease to protect against the cold water and set off from about a half mile above the lake in Ticonderoga Creek. A monument called “Diane’s Rock” now marks the starting point.
Rippon, who lives in Schuylerville now, doesn’t remember much first-hand about the swim other than camera flashes and WWSC radio’s Freddie Carota coaching her, at 4 years old, and her two sisters, ages 5 and 2, to cheer for their mom.
Overnight temperatures had dropped to just above freezing and the water was about 60 degrees. As Struble finished what amounted to 41 miles of strokes through the choppy water, a crowd of about 10,000 waited near Beach Road for her and 200 boats followed behind. She arrived at the Marine Industries Dock in the village at 10:12 p.m. Aug. 23.
She was a single mother, raising three daughters after separating from the man she married just out of high school.
Those 35 hours and 33 minutes in the water landed Struble in the national spotlight and established a legacy.
Struble died in 2006 at age 73. “Fear” was never in her mother’s vocabulary, Rippon said, even as she battled cancer.
Mayor Robert Blais said he was 22 and just starting a law enforcement career at the time of the swim.
“The rooftop of our patrol car was actually buckled in by the people who were standing on it,” Blais said.
Others told stories of meeting Struble later and one woman said she was 8 years old at the time of the swim and enrolled in swimming lessons the next fall with Struble as the inspiration.
Blais said traffic was backed up on Route 9 all the way to Glens Falls the night she came in.
“It is still one of the greatest days in the history of Lake George,” he said.
The museum has a new exhibit devoted to Struble in the room on the second floor this year, along with other lake-themed exhibits. The exhibit includes a piece made by artist Marisa Muratori that highlights points along Struble’s swim. The exhibit was funded by a grant through Stewart’s.
“It was wonderful to hear all the different stories. It was really fun for me to hear some of the memories because we never had an official memorial, a public one for my mom,” Rippon said. “It was fun to hear the excitement of people wanting to swim the lake now. It’s kind of built some excitement around that whole idea, moving it forward and getting some support for these people to do it.”
Rippon said she’s working on launching a website about long distance swims on Lake George where people can share memories of her mother’s historic feat. She said she envisions it as a place people can go for resources on how to get started if they want to swim the length of the lake.
Ferris, 75, said he started swimming in his 40s to change his lifestyle.
Before his Lake George swim, he had slimmed down from around 300 to 200 pounds — just from swimming, with no dieting. It’s a sport people can get into at any age, he said.
“It sticks with you your whole life,” he said.
He was one of three people in the room who had swum the English Channel. The others were David Dammerman and Bethany Bosch.
A signup sheet circulated the room for people interested in swimming or offering support—in the form of boats to follow swimmers, for example—for an event in the future that would coordinate people who want to do an organized swim of the length of Lake George solo and those who would like to swim the length in a relay. That effort is in the early stages of organization, said local swimmer Robert Singer, who is part of an adult swim program at the Glens Falls YMCA.
Anyone who wants to get involved in adult or masters swimming can contact YMCA Aquatics Head Coach Dennie Swan-Scott at 793-3878.
Follow Amanda May Metzger on Twitter @AmandaWhistle and read her blog at poststar.com/app/blogs.