Though a fast-growing sport in Europe, open water swimming occupies a pretty small circle in the country. That has been slowly but steadily changing in recent years, with the Swimjunkie Challenge. Created by former Philippine national swim team member Betsy Medalla in 2015, it is the only open water swimming series that offers long distance destination swims in the Philippines.

From 120 participants in its first year, which was held in Caramoan, Camarines Sur, this year’s installment has an estimated number of 250 to 450 participants in every race. The first one happened on May 6 at the Verde Island Passage in Lobo, Batangas (2.5km and 5km), and the second one was supposed to happen last Saturday, June 10, in El Nido, Palawan (4km and 8km), though it has been postponed due to inclement weather. The last leg will be held on August 19 in Caramoan (5km and 10km).

Swimjunkie Challenge’s growth is indicative of a growing interest in the sport, though it has mostly been from international swimmers; last year, 35 foreign participants flew in for the El Nido leg and 40 for the 10km Caramoan one, which Medalla says is groundbreaking for a young and locally based race series; fifteen-time Ironman race winner Belinda Granger, who hails from Australia, flew in to join her first 8 km open water swim at the El Nido leg. “Swimjunkie Challenge is also the first Southeast Asian race series that was personally invited to join the Global Swim Series, which is an international open water race circuit that features around 130 swimming series and whose network covers over 30 countries.” But its rising profile is starting to get attention among Filipinos; some local personalities who have joined at least one Swimjunkie race include Dennis Valdes and Tessa Prieto-Valdes, Mike Tan, and Gretchen Fulido.

“In the past, open water swimming was limited to three, at most four races a year, and race organizers would consider themselves lucky is they could convince more than 50 people to register,” Medalla says. “If the race is longer than 4km, no more than 20 would show up.”

Of course, one needs to be more than just a hobbyist when joining the Swimjunkie Challenge. Most participants are multisport athletes and executive and competitive swimmers, and those who want to sign up for the 10km race must at least have competed previously in a 2.5km open water swim. “We’ve had swimmers who initially started with the 2.5km race, then continued training to join the longer races, and we actually provide them a training manual for the 10km race for free.”

Medalla also sees Swimjunkie Challenge as a way to promote local beaches. In fact, it was during her 2014 record-making 7.2km swim from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand in Cape Town, South Africa—she’s the first Asian to achieve this feat—that she got the idea of putting together an open water swimming race in the Philippines. “I looked around at all those freezing finishers [who came] from all over the world for this famous race,” she told Mabuhay Magazine in an interview last year. “And that’s when I decided I was going to start an open water swim in the Philippines, since we have one of the world’s longest coastlines.”

There’s also an environmental aspect in her desire to raise the sport’s profile. In showcasing the beauty of Philippine beaches, Swimjunkie Challenge is also a rallying cry for more people to become involved in protecting the seas.

In putting together Verde Island Passage leg, which has been an annual fixture for Swimjunkie since 2016, Medalla has the support of her childhood friend and retired Olympic swimmer Akiko Thompson, whose hometown is in Lobo, Batangas. “VIP is the center of the center of marine biodiversity in the world,” Medalla says. “It’s necessary for us to protect it, but with the mountains of Batangas containing gold, there’s constant pressure on the towns along VIP to accept mining activities. And of course, the runoff from these activities inevitably ends in the ocean. So Swimjunkie is also an opportunity for us to educate the people about the importance of VIP and to think of more sustainable means to generate money for local communities.”

“Open water swimmers can only swim in clean and safe seas, so the cause takes on a new life with them. Every new participant is potentially a new clean and safe seas ambassador. If we can get people active, swimming and enjoying the outdoors, and at the same time supporting the incredible marine environments we have here in the Philippines, then we’re all winning.”

 

To register for the Swimjunkie Challenge Caramoan 10k race, go to http://regonline.activeglobal.com/swimjunkiechallengecaramoan10k2018. Registration is open until June 30. For more information on the Swimjunkie Challenge, visit its Instagram and Twitter accounts or email swimjunkieph@icloud.com.