KALISPELL, Mont. — A Montana attorney fought through headwinds, high waves and exhaustion to become the first person to swim the length of the West’s largest freshwater lake and back, a 56-mile feat that took 40 hours.
Emily von Jentzen, 34, set off at dawn Saturday from Somers on the northern shore of Flathead Lake, a 200-square mile body of water in northwestern Montana.
The attorney from nearby Kalispell was accompanied by a support crew in a boat that gave her food and kept other vessels away, but otherwise didn’t assist her.
Strong headwinds began to rise in the middle of the first day, slowing her down and putting her hours behind her schedule. She told the Daily Inter Lake that she cried in frustration, and that her exhaustion led to strange and negative thoughts.
“I am going so slow, and everyone’s going to laugh at me,” she said she recalled saying to the support crew at one point.
She made up her mind to at least make it to the halfway point, the town of Polson on the south shore. There, John Cole, a 35-year-old pediatrician, was waiting to swim with her on the return trip.
Cole’s positive attitude when she arrived encouraged her to start the long swim back in the dark, she said.
On Sunday, huge swells began to form, battering the swimmers and making the water so choppy that their support crew became sick and had to be replaced.
“To have those big waves when we were both exhausted was really challenging,” she said. “I don’t think we could have done it without each other.”
A crowd of 50 people greeted the two swimmers when they arrived in Somers at 10 p.m. Sunday, about 10 hours behind their projected finish.
Von Jentzen and Cole had trained together for 10 months for the swim. They spent four hours a day in a pool during the cold winter, then donned wetsuits to train in the lake when the weather began to warm.
Von Jentzen was the first woman to swim the length of Flathead Lake in 2010, and the first person to swim the 55-mile Lake Chelan in Washington state in 2011, according to the Flathead Beacon.
In 2013, she swam 30 Montana lakes in 60 days.
The Flathead Lake double-crossing raised money for a 5-year-old boy with a congenital heart defect and a 4-year-old girl with cancer. Von Jentzen has raised about $50,000 for six different children through charity swims and her nonprofit organization, Enduring Waves.
By accompanying Von Jentzen on the return trip, Cole became the sixth person to swim the length of Flathead Lake.