Durham’s Heidi Williams swims way to national championship

Masters swimmer Heidi Williams of Durham during practice in the Edison Johnson Pool.
Masters swimmer Heidi Williams of Durham during practice in the Edison Johnson Pool. The Herald-Sun

Heidi Williams didn’t always swim outside the lines. And she didn’t always stroke through the briny deep with the sharks, the jellyfish, rolling waves and dangerous currents capable of carrying a swimmer out to sea.

That all changed 15 years ago when the former collegiate distance swimmer broke away from the chlorine-infused water, incessant flip turns and monitoring black lines at the bottom of the pool to avoid zigging or zagging out of her lane.

These days the Durham resident watches coastlines and shorelines to navigate undulating waters with multiple personalities. Earlier this month she sliced relentlessly through the tricky channels of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to claim a United States Masters Swimming national championship.

“I’m still kind of on cloud nine,” Williams said.

If there was a down side, the admittedly uber-competitive athlete said, the national championship took place at the beginning of the race season, and she won’t have a race of that significance the rest of the year. But she’s found a way to console herself. She’s going to take a race vacation to St. Croix in November.

Williams competes with Durham Area Masters Aquatics, which has close to 100 members, 30 of whom are regular swimmers. The serious swimmers practice in the morning, at night, and on weekends. They use the Durham Parks and Rec pool in Campus Hills, the pool at the Edison Johnson Recreation Center, and sometimes at Duke University.

It’s a demanding workout schedule for a woman who awakes at 4:30 a.m. daily to walk her dogs before heading to Duke Medical Center for her day job as a surgical technologist, at which she logs about 55 hours weekly in the operating room.

Williams has been swimming competitively for 38 years. After a year-round swimming club experience in high school, she walked onto the University of New Mexico swim team her freshman year.

She transferred to Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania for a scholarship, and competed in the 1,000-meter and 1-mile freestyle.

She moved to Durham in 1990, and started swimming masters – 18 and older – with DAMA. Some colleagues encouraged her to transition to open water events.

“It’s totally different from swimming in a pool because you have to learn to navigate. In an ocean you have to deal with current. If there’s wind you have to deal with waves,” Williams said.

“It was really amazing because it opened up my eyes to a whole new way of swimming,” Williams said.

She has raced in Bonaire in the Caribbean Sea, Bermuda in the Atlantic Ocean, Lake Michigan in Chicago, and lakes, reservoirs and rivers around the country.

Does she worry about sharks out there in the ocean?

“Sure I do,” Williams said, recalling one time getting off course well away from shore and thinking, “Wow. This is where the big sharks are.” Visibility is clear, but the water is so deep it’s impossible to see what’s farther below.

And then there’s the jellyfish.

“If you get stung it’s not that big of a deal, but I’m more worried about that than I am about sharks or predators,” Williams said.

A fresh water swim in Florida had its risk.

“My coach was worried about alligators,” Williams said. “I think there’s less risk of swimming in these waters than there is in everyday behavior, say, driving.”

Unlike indoor swim meets in which a swimmer must achieve a qualifying time, there is no such hurdle for US Masters Swimmers, though some races require documentation that a swimmer has participated in a race of that length for safety reasons.

“I won some national trials before, so I was certainly hopeful” heading to the three-day event in Chattanooga, Williams said. “I was hoping to be maybe top 10 overall, and top five in women.”

She had not done a lot of river swimming before, so she had to recalibrate her mind set.

The first event was a 1-mile fun race with 134 competitors. Williams entered to get acquainted with the river's unforgiving currents. She finished 12th overall, sixth among all females, and first in her 45-49 age group with her fastest mile ever, 13:27.

Day Two was the 2.4-mile national championship with 223 participants. It was a demoralizing experience for Williams. She recorded her fastest time ever in the event at 36:30, but finished 80th overall, 32nd for women, and third in her age group.

After that disappointment, “I just planned on getting after it,” Williams said. “I was definitely nervous about the 9.2-mile,” which was the longest race she had tackled to date. She was gearing up for a 3½- to 4-hour race.

“At the start, there was no stopping me. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me, but I knew it wouldn’t take 3-4 hours as expected,” Williams said.

She crossed the finish line 17th overall, fifth among females, and first in her age group to win the national championship. Her time was 2:15:55, so fast it eclipsed her typical 6.2-mile race time.

Williams said having her husband, Jeff, assisting her from a kayak, helping to navigate and providing drinks to hydrate, was an exhilarating bonus. It was the first time he had performed that role after years of watching her from shore as she disappeared into a mass of indistinguishable, bobbing swim caps.

After 25 years together, thinking she knew everything there was to know about him, “I was not expecting to develop a different relationship” on another intimate level, Williams said.

You might say in this evolving love story, a river runs through it.