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OZ Mile Swim attracts elite talent to Beaver Lake, partners with world’s largest open-water race

ROGERS — Swimmers across the United States will converge on Northwest Arkansas for the Walmart OZ Mile Swim, an open-water race to be held Sept. 25 at Beaver Lake.

The race is both modeled after and partnered with the world’s largest open-water swim, The Midmar Mile in South Africa, which has over 15,000 participants each year, according to Bonnie Adams, race director of the OZ Mile Swim.

The partnership — Midmar’s first with an open-water swim in the US — is one of the most exciting parts of the event, Adams said.

“The Midmar Mile partnership means that the fastest female and male swimmers from the Walmart OZ Mile Swim will be offered the opportunity to participate in the Midmar Mile in February 2023,” Adams said.

Travel, room and board and entry expenses will all be covered for the Beaver Lake winners who make the trip to South Africa, according to Adams.

“Then, Midmar’s fastest male and female swimmers will come to the states and experience our race in the fall of 2023,” she said.

Since forming the partnership, the OZ Mile has added a few formidable, record-holding athletes such as Catherine Breed and Chad La Tourette to the list of swimmers from out of state.

“That has really helped us start to get some elite swimmers to come and swim,” Adams said. “There are going to be some fast swims that day.”

The swim will have four distinct waves of competition with awards for first, second and third place in each, as well as male and female overall.

There will also be separate team divisions for ages 17 and younger and 18 and older. A traveling trophy and a permanent trophy will be awarded to each winning team.

“We believe the race format offers an approachable event for everyone and more ambitious distances for advanced swimmers,” said Mike Spivey, president and chief executive officer of the Ozark Outdoor Foundation. The foundation supports outdoor recreation events in the region such as the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championship and the Joe Martin Stage Race.

Experienced swimmers can choose to participate in multiple waves of the competition if they qualify based on their age and speed. Each wave will swim one mile, so the fastest time could come from a few different waves, according to Adams.

Participants will meet the morning of Sept. 25 at Beaver Lake Dam Site Park, 348 Damsite River Road near Eureka Springs.

Spectators of all ages will be welcome to enjoy the Sunday morning race and festivities, which will include a full band, barbecue and free beverages, Adams said.

“I want spectators to see the entire swim. I want kids to have fun with it — a festival-type atmosphere,” she said.

“There are so many amazing things that this area offers athletes, and it is time to put us on the map for swimming events as well,” she said. “I want anybody to feel like, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ and challenge themselves to figure out what they need to do to come and experience what it’s like.”

THE OPEN WATER

Open-water swimming can be a particularly challenging mental and physical test, Adams and Breed agreed.

“It’s such a different experience than pool swimming. Some prefer it. Some say, ‘It’s not for me, thank you.’ And some really like them both,” Adams said. “It’s a different mental engagement and a different physical experience as well.”

“I think for me it’s less about time and more about accomplishing the feat,” said Breed, an open-water swimmer from Mill Valley, Calif. “Any time you do any sort of sport outdoors, you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. It’s a dynamic activity. You have to go into it without expectations.”

Breed came to open-water swimming after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was part of the swim team from 2011 to 2015.

“When it was time to graduate, I wasn’t ready to give up the sport, but I didn’t want to swim in a pool,” Breed said.

She grew up surfing, so being in the open water was a familiar feeling, she said.

Since then, she has swam the 20.8-mile English Channel from England to France and the 21.7-mile North Channel from Northern Ireland to Scotland. She also set the record for the fastest crossing of the 25-mile Monterey Bay from Santa Cruz to Monterey, Calif., which took over 12 hours.

Breed’s visit for the OZ Mile Swim will be her first trip to Arkansas. In addition to mountain biking over the weekend, she is looking forward to being an ambassador for the sport of open-water swimming, she said.

“I just like to swim a fast mile,” she said. “My goal is to have fun. What I love about what Bonnie is doing is that the swim is bringing open water to a place where it isn’t as popular.”

“My advice for those new to open water is go out there with a buddy and just enjoy it. Whether it’s five minutes or whether it’s an hour. The main thing that I preach is that it’s about having fun,” she said.

Breed will join a social meet-and-greet starting at 4:30 pm Friday, Sept. 23, at Red Barn in Bentonville as part of the event’s weekend festivities.

The event will be free and open to the public. Patrons can purchase an optional dinner ticket to eat a catered meal by Oven & Tap.

THE COMMUNITY

Organizers hope to see a few hundred swimmers of varying experience next month.

“This type of event on Beaver Lake has been a longtime dream of mine,” Spivey said. “I learned to swim in this lake and some of my best childhood memories are from this beautiful lake.”

The OZ Mile Swim represents an expansion and reiteration of a swim put on last year, according to Adams. Last year’s swim, called the Dam Mile, had about 60 participants who were mostly local swimmers, she said.

Adams, a swim instructor and founder of Swim OZ, a registered US masters swim team, also leads a group ranging from 18 to 30 people in a weekly swim at the lake.

The group has done informal open-water swims for three years, she said.

“Every week we’ve done it, we have someone new,” she said. “The swimming community is pretty diverse in Northwest Arkansas.”

The group can range from recreational swimmers to former Division I scholarship athletes to “bucket list swimmers” training for a triathlon, according to Adams.

Liam Meza is among the local swimmers who plan to compete in next month’s event. Born with Down syndrome, Meza, 26, first began swimming as a teenager competing in the Special Olympics while living in Illinois.

“He was a natural,” said Cindy Meza, Liam’s mother.

When the Meza family moved to the region several years ago, Liam Meza quickly found a local pool.

He has been involved with Swim OZ for over a year, typically swimming a mile five times each week, according to Cindy Meza. Meza wasn’t sure at first whether her son would enjoy the open water as much as the pool environment.

“I didn’t think he would want to, but he surprised me and said, ‘No, I want to do it,'” she said. “It’s been fun to see him evolve as an athlete, and now it’s been fun to see him be a part of the community.”

Liam Meza was the only person with a disability to swim the Dam Mile last year, his mother said. This year he has a teammate with disabilities planning to join the OZ Mile Swim.

“Last year, I was excited for our son to be out there with everybody else. He got out there and participated and was welcomed. He even came in second place in his age group,” she said. “This year, it’s going to grow. We’ve been a part of the community, and he’s friends with a lot of the people. It will be exciting.”

Walmart OZ Mile Swim schedule

September 23:

4:30-7:30 pm: Expo with swimmers and dinner option at Red Barn in Bentonville.

Sept. 24:

2-4 pm: Pre-event swim opportunity at the Beaver Lake race venue.

Sept. 25:

8am: School Wave (ages 13-18)

8:45 am: Elite Wave (ages 13 & over; swim time of 26 minutes or under required)

9:30 a.m.: Age Group Wave (winners awarded based on age brackets)

10:30 am: OZ Wave (no awards; participants ages 8-12 allowed; snorkels, kickboards, etc. allowed)

Source: Walmart OZ Mile Swim

Additional information

• Swimmers can register online at ozmileswim.com. The registration fee is $45.

• Twenty percent of the registration fees will be donated to the USA Swimming Foundation, which promotes the sport in the United States, and Dare2Tri, a nonprofit group that supports para-athletes who wish to become triathletes.

• Volunteers can sign up online for shifts Friday through Sunday at ozmileswim.com/volunteer

Source: Walmart OZ Mile Swim

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