Sunday, May 16, 2010

Woman with a cause: Mimi Hughes will try to swim the length of the Ohio River to raise awareness about women's issues

Woman with a cause: Mimi Hughes will try to swim the length of the Ohio River to raise awareness about women's issues: "Woman with a cause: Mimi Hughes will try to swim the length of the Ohio River to raise awareness about women's issues"

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Mark Rauterkus said...

By Maria Sciullo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Kay CampbellMimi Hughes: "The first few days are miserable because I'm rusty, but usually I learn to disassociate."Mimi Hughes figures there are bigger challenges in this world than trying to swim the length of the Ohio River.

Such as raising green awareness. Fostering goodwill between the United States and Russia. Serving as a role model to empower women and girls. The last is why Mrs. Hughes is coming to Pittsburgh this week to begin a 981-mile journey.

"I'm learning so much for this swim, more so than any of the others," said Mrs. Hughes, 53, a reading specialist from Huntsville, Tenn.

The swim serves as a fundraiser for Women Across the World (, an organization that, according to its website, "promotes awareness and funding for organizations providing girls and women an education in life skills and academics."

Her swims usually are driven by "frustration," she said, and her desire to draw attention to issues she feels she lacks power or political clout to change.

"Why the Ohio? Sometimes, like a wooded path or a mountain stream, a river compels me to follow her," she said. "My family and friends often ask why I can't be compelled to go to a mall or the movies ... I don't know. Maybe a genetic mutation."

The idea of raising women's consciousness attracted her attention, Mrs. Hughes said, because of struggles she still sees in her town in rural northern Tennessee. It's a place where one of her daughters began working for a large corporation several years ago, obtained a college degree in the meantime, and was promoted -- yet still makes her original starting salary.

Beyond that challenge, of course, is the Ohio River swim itself, but Mrs. Hughes has faced down this particular tidal wave before.

When she enters the waters at the Monongahela Wharf at 9 a.m. Saturday, she will be accompanied by at least one crew member in a kayak and buoyed by a boatload of experience.

"The first few days are miserable because I'm rusty, but usually I learn to disassociate," said Mrs. Hughes, who expects to cover about 20 miles a day, swimming eight hours a pop.

"I can't tell you [exactly] how I do it; I might just recite the Lord's Prayer or a stanza of a poem. I kind of develop a mantra because it can be terribly boring."

Strong Women, Strong Girls of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that develops leadership skills among young women, is the host for her sendoff, which is open to the public. Because of other activities at the Point that day, she'll have to enter the water at the wharf, where Venture Outdoors also is holding its annual family event later that morning.

"We've made posters and we made a flag for her [guide] kayak out of one of our pink shirts," said Lynne Garfinkel, executive director of SWSG Pittsburgh. "She'll have to swim an extra 100 yards [to reach the head of the Ohio] but she said she's glad to do it."

It's exhausting to consider the list of Mrs. Hughes' accomplishments. She once swam the length of the Tennessee River -- 652 miles -- in 2003 to call attention to pollution. She swam three freezing miles across the Bering Strait from Russia to the United States in 1997 to raise awareness of social and environmental issues.

Mark Rauterkus said...

part 2

Similar concerns spurred her in 2006 to swim 1,800 miles through numerous countries along the Danube River, followed by a 400-mile event in the Drava and Mura rivers in central Europe.

She's never been to Pittsburgh but has been doing her homework with help from locals. George Metz, a teacher from Ambridge who races canoes, read about her planned Ohio swim on a paddling website and has been in contact with Mrs. Hughes about accompanying her on the first day.

"It just blew me away when I heard about what she does," he said.

Day 1 presents two locks and dams, Emsworth (at Mile 6) and Dashield (Mile 13). They're impossible to swim through, which means Mrs. Hughes must leave the water, walk around on land, then re-enter the water where it's safe to do so.

Mark Rauterkus said...


"It sounds easy, but I've been in hellacious situations. I had to get out and go around the Iron Gate dam [on the Danube], and it was not designed to go around."

The cliff walls surrounding the Iron Gate are sheer and imposing. It took Mrs. Hughes more than two hours to detour around it, walking in her bare feet and wet suit.

There are 19 locks and dams along the Ohio but none present the challenges of the Iron Gate to bypass.

The Ohio River flows past Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, becoming a tributary to the Mississippi River at Cairo, Ill. The water quality may be questionable, but she'll swim through it.

The main health concerns could be exposure to fecal matter and E.coli bacteria, which could be present if sewage overflows into the river after heavy rains, said Jeanne Ison, spokeswoman for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, which monitors water quality for the entire river. Bacteria isn't a constant danger, Mrs. Ison said, "but she'll just have to be more aware after a heavy rainfall."

Mrs. Hughes has faced icky waters in the past.

"Before the Danube, I got a hepatitis shot and I always just want to eat as healthful as possible to build up the defense system, but in general, I find it's better if you just don't know [what's in the water]," Mrs. Hughes said.

"Any time you're in a race that's in a lake or ocean, there are issues with the cleanliness," said Fox Chapel's Paula Bennett, a four-time participant in the Ironman triathlon world championships.

Ms. Bennett occasionally trains in the Allegheny, but noted that open-water swimming in the Ohio is similar.

"I don't think it's going to be scenic, by any stretch of the imagination ... she will have spotters, obviously, and boats for safety, but there will be deadheads [sinker logs] and lots of junk in there."

Mrs. Hughes realizes she will not be the only creature in the water. Although she had hoped in vain to glimpse a sturgeon in the Danube, she did "freak out" on the Drava after encountering a 4-foot-long snake.

"You run into a lot of sticks," she said, but she was startled when her hand touched what she thought was a large stick and it flinched and swam away.

"It was just inches from my body. I kind of walked on water for a while afterward," she added, laughing.

She'll do her best to stay in the deepest part, or channel, of the river. Here, the water is usually calmer, with fewer debris. Still, weather can pose a risk, like the time a freak snowstorm on the Danube caused flooding.

Mark Rauterkus said...


"It was flowing at 17 kilometers (10.5 mph) for the next few days, and that was the closest I'd ever come to drowning on a river."

A Serbian documentary crew captured Mrs. Hughes "swimming faster than a barge," she said, as the water rushed her along.

Mrs. Hughes was not a lifelong athlete. When her four children were young and taking swim lessons, she thought it might be good to jump in, too.

"My first time in an official pool, I went something like 10 yards and thought I was going to die," she said.

Twenty years and a few rivers later, she's up for more challenges.

Volunteers from Pittsburgh to East Liverpool, Ohio, and beyond have contacted her online to offer onsite support, lodging and donations to Women Across the World. Jackson Kayak, a family-owned Huntsville company, has donated a kayak for use by spotters during the swim.

The craft will be raffled off, with proceeds benefitting the Central Asia Institute (, which promotes community education support for girls in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mr. Metz, the Ambridge teacher, said he's happy Pittsburgh is going to be the starting point for such a lofty goal.

"It's unbelievable that she could go that far, and I wanted to be a part of that."

Mrs. Hughes also will speak at 4 p.m.Thursday at the B.F. Jones Memorial Library in Aliquippa. Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478.

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