Makayla Ludwick, a 19-year-old lifeguard at both Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach, has been a swimmer for most of her life.
But the 17.5-mile swim from the Navarre Beach Pier to the Pensacola Beach Pier was unlike any challenge she’s taken on yet.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County competitive swimmer and Gulf Breeze native swam through hunger, jellyfish stings and stingray scares to complete the long distance-swim July 17. It took her 10 hours to complete.
The idea came about after talking with club swimming teammates last summer, but the group ran out of time and had to go back to school.
“In the middle of the summer this year, I was like ‘Oh, I forgot about this. I want to try it,'” Ludwick said. “I picked a really calm day to do it and we went with the current and it just worked out.”
Throughout the journey, Ludwick took only three 10-minute breaks to swim on shore. During that time, she ate applesauce for energy because it’s easily digestible. Otherwise, she stopped once an hour with her support kayak, manned by fellow lifeguard Owen Sise, to drink Gatorade but remained in the Gulf.
“‘Man, I’m hungry.’ That’s really what (my thought process) was for a long part of it. I was like ‘Man, I’m really hungry and tired.’ My arms really hurt like halfway through. Around mile 10, I think it was the hardest,” Ludwick said. “It’s really hard to keep your mind straight when you’re swimming for that long.”
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Originally, the duo thought the swim would be only be about 15 miles after they did a quick Google search of the distance between the two beaches. But they forgot to factor in the curve of the beach and the distance to and from shore for breaks, so the swim ended up totaling around 17.5 miles.
Ludwick said she didn’t train specifically for the swim from Navarre Beach to Pensacola Beach, but she had been training throughout the summer because she plans to go back to school to compete.
She’s not normally a distance swimmer, though, and usually competes in the backstroke as well as the 500-meter and 200-meter freestyle. Previously, the longest swim Ludwick completed was a 7.5K, or almost five miles.
During her journey, Ludwick suffered five jellyfish stings and she still has marks on her arm from one of them. But the most harrowing part of the swim was the wildlife in the stretch of Gulf Islands National Seashore that she had to get through.
“There’s not a lot of people down there (so) there were so many stingrays hiding in the sand and as I would swim over them, they would get scared and swim away,” Ludwick said, adding she feared they would sting her. “That was the worst stress for me because I was just like seeing things swim underneath me and that’s kind of terrifying if you’re not expecting them.”
Sise, a 21-year-old from Pensacola, had the responsibility of watching out for the stingrays, as well as for other dangers like navigating around swimmers and making sure there weren’t any fishing lines in Ludwick’s way.
“I have a feeling our perspectives of it were pretty different because when you swim that distance, it kind of melds together and it did meld together for me, but I was spending a lot of time trying to make sure we stayed close to shore and at one point there were like 17 stingrays I was watching out for,” Sise said.
As she neared Casino Beach and saw the lifeguard towers, Ludwick said Sise began cheering her on in the final stretch.
“It was really exciting to watch her pick up the pace because she realized it, too, and just stated hauling towards that pier,” Sise said. “It was definitely a championship moment. It was a really exciting thing to be a part of and to watch someone go the distance, literally.”
Normally, kayakers are not allowed between the lifeguard towers on Casino Beach because it’s a swim-only zone. But for this special occasion, Ludwick’s supervisor radioed the lifeguards in the towers not to whistle at Sise.
“As I passed through the pier, not only was I stung by so many jellyfish but I was greeted by all of my coworkers and it was really special,” Ludwick said.
What does one do after a 17.5-mile, 10-hour swim in the Gulf? Ludwick said she ate almost an entire large pizza by herself and then went to bed because she had to work early the next day.
“(My body) felt really awful, like truly, truly, very bad,” Ludwick said.
But fortunately, it was a green flag day the next day, which means calm conditions.
“As long as I’m watching the water, it’s a good day,” she said.
Madison Arnold can be reached at [email protected] and 850-435-8522.