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Swimmer safe after going missing in waves during Lake Erie awareness race

A 41-year-old man swimming across Lake Erie with a group of more than 40 swimmers ages 11 to 58 was rescued Sunday afternoon by the Canadian Coast Guard.

Michael Kenny of Cambridge, Ont., said he was just past the halfway point of the swim between Sturgeon Point Crystal Beach, Ont., when he became separated from his safety boat.

"I sort of looked around and said, 'Well, I'm sure they'll catch up.' But by that time we had got so far apart and with the huge waves, I knew they couldn't see me. I couldn't go back, the waves were high. So I just kept swimming and swimming until the Coast Guard came along and told me I had to get out," Kenny said.

Hours after his rescue, Kenny was seated with fellow swimmers and race officials at a Crystal Beach restaurant. His face was slightly burned, and his appetite was healthy. He described his reaction when he saw the Coast Guard's rescue craft.

"In my mind the race was still on," Kenny said. "I knew that if I got in that boat, my race was done. I wanted to stay in the water, but they wouldn't let me."

Kenny reported no injuries, with one exception.

"Just my pride," he said. "I do feel responsible for all these swimmers not finishing the race. Because I was missing they called the race, and sent people out looking for me."

Joshua Reid, race director, said the water's turbulence made many of the swimmers and support crew sick to their stomach. Reid also said the lead swimmer was less than a kilometer from finishing when he called the race.

"Embrace the Challenge — Erie Crossing" featured a dozen solo swimmers and several relay teams leaving from Sturgeon Point in Hamburg and headed to Crystal Beach. The race was delayed by one day due to the weather and water conditions, said Reid. Sundays morning's 7 a.m. start was pushed back to 9 a.m.

"The waves were six- to eight-feet high and one of our swimmers (Kenny) got separated from his boat," said Sherri “Sam" Mason, a SUNY Fredonia professor who helped organize the event and was one of the solo swimmers.

Fredonia 'microbeads' prof charts swim across Lake Erie

Each swimmer had to be accompanied by a motorboat, according to the event's rules.

Mason said part of the swim was designed to increase public awareness of pollution in the Great Lakes and other causes. A team of 11- and 12-year-old swimmers competed to raise awareness for their local hospice.

The pollution cause took on even greater significance when President Trump tried to eliminate funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the federal Sea Grant programs.

Mason's work often involves collaborating with the U.S. Geological Survey and Sea Grant.

“I’m swimming for the very people I work with,” Mason said before the event.

Congress subsequently allocated funding for Great Lakes programs in its spending bills, but Mason said current political and economic winds continue to threaten the vitality of the Great Lakes in ways not seen in a generation.

“We’ve been pushing that bar uphill to the point where we can swim across the Great Lakes,” Mason said.

Mason said losing that momentum and backsliding a half-century to a time when Great Lakes waters were so polluted they caught fire can’t be tolerated.

“Water is necessary for life,” Mason said. “And we have the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world in our backyard.”

The open water swim from Sturgeon Point to Crystal Beach, Ont., was supposed to be about 12.5 miles.

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