Photos courtesy Tessa Marie Images
French Creek Racing has become a year-round haven for open-water swimmers like 66-year-old Madelaine Sayko.
The first time Madelaine Sayko broke the 30-second mark for swimming 25 meters, it was a watershed moment for her. High-fives, jubilance and celebration followed from her cohorts at French Creek Racing. “It was just one second better than my previous best, but I earned that second,” says the 66-year-old Radnor resident. “After that, I started thinking about all the other seconds—and second chances—in my life that I’d had but maybe didn’t appreciate.”
One of them was surviving 9/11. Sayko was standing on the concourse on her way into work at the World Trade Center that fateful day when the second plane hit the opposite side of the building. Then there was surviving her first open-water swim in what the uninitiated would figure is a nasty Schuylkill River. Muddy, murky … She was terrified. “I thought evil dead people were going to reach up and pull me under,” says the self-described “adult onset swimmer.” “Now, I don’t think that at all. No limits. One guy here is 82; one woman’s 73. They’re fantastic swimmers.”
Sayko is among the many French Creek Racing devotees. She’s also a volunteer and club ambassador. Spending her career in organizational management, she now works for Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon. She came to French Creek Racing during the pandemic, and it’s changed her life. She recently gave a guest sermon at her church. She titled it, “Everything Is Different: Eight Lessons I Learned from Swimming.”
An open-water competitive organization based in Bridgeport, French Creek Racing was founded in 2012 by John Kenny, a professional triathlete, a five-time U.S. national open-water champion and a seven-time national team member. Its members compete in triathlons and other major events. FCR races draw up to 300 participants. The organization has about 20–30 regulars, and it also offers lessons and regimented practices.
Warmer weather expands swimming options. Beginning April 1, members hit the Schuylkill on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, entering near Valley Forge National Historical Park in the shadow of Route 422. Members also swim at Upper Merion Township’s outdoor pool in King of Prussia, at Wynnewood’s Kaiserman JCC, in Delaware’s Newark Reservoir, indoors at Villanova University and in the heated outdoor pool at Broomall’s Lawrence Park Swim Club. “Everyone can find somewhere close to home,” says Kenny.
“We get all walks of life. Experiencing it is the biggest thing. We try to make it fun—in a fun environment with lively people. If you enjoy yourself, you’re more likely to come back.”
—French Creek Racing’s John Kenny
The only constraints are pool and lifeguard availability. As a remedy, many members are already certified in lifesaving. Sayko is getting certified—“as a lifeguard, not for insanity,” she says.
Initially, swimming outdoors in the winter at Lawrence Park sounded insane to Sayko. But she’s come to love it. Her first time swimming in Broomall, there was a huge snowstorm. Members shoveled off the deck and hopped in. “Nothing’s more fun than swimming in the middle of a snowstorm,” Sayko says. “It’s the oddity and uniqueness. We took a break and made snow angels.”
FCR also hosts races in Hopewell Lake at French Creek. Running May–August, its six-race open-water series covers distances of up to 1,600 meters. “There are a lot of options for someone to get involved, and anyone can do it. Some shy away, or say, ‘I’m too old. I’m too overweight.’ Or they say they have no motivation or no time,” says Kenny, who’s 42. “But we get all walks of life. Experiencing it is the biggest thing. We try to make it fun—in a fun environment with lively people. If you enjoy yourself, you’re more likely to come back.”
A Pennsylvania state high school champion in the pool, Kenny swam at Cornell University and spent 10 years on Atlantic City’s beach patrol. He’s competed in open-water swimming at the Olympic Trials, the Pan American Games, the Pacific Championships, various World Cups and more. “I’ve been doing it forever,” he admits.
Kenny is a Type A personality. Perhaps open-water swimming requires it? “Partly true,” Sayko says. “But you’re also more childlike in the water. It brings out the kid in everyone.”
Sayko was a frequent runner and cyclist whose knees began to give out. At the time, she was largely a loner in her recreational pursuits. She learned she couldn’t survive alone, and her identity and self-esteem have gained significant traction with FCR. “I’ve done triathlons wearing FCR outfits, and people stop me and say, ‘Oh, John Kenny and FCR,’” she says. “At pools everywhere, people stop me and say, ‘Oh, you’re that lady who swims outdoors.’”
“It’s a holy moment to swim outdoors when the sun’s coming up, OR in the middle of a snowstorm—or to see the sun light up the river’s stream.”
— Madelaine Sayko
Kenny acknowledges the social component, which took a hit during the pandemic. “At first, a lot of people were doing it by themselves—the return was gradual,” Kenny says. “It built in 2022, and we’ve continued to build it back from there.”
Since the pandemic, anecdotal evidence suggests that outdoor swimming and participation in triathlons have grown. “I do a lot of reading about outdoor swimming around the world,” Sayko says. “Europe opened a lot of outdoor pools. With COVID, it was hard to get into gyms, and you couldn’t have contact with others. Outdoors, athletes could still be engaged.”
For Sayko, there’s something about water that’s comforting, peaceful, rhythmic—especially the river, though it provides a different experience than a pool. “There’s a muddy river floor below—and critters,” she says. “But I think of the river as even more peaceful, though you also have to be conscious of how strong the water can be.”
Despite her job at the church, Sayko doesn’t describe herself as religious. “But it is a holy moment to swim outdoors when the sun’s coming up, or in the middle of a snowstorm—or to see the sun light up the river’s steam, or someone else’s bubbles in front of you,” she says. “When you watch the seasons changing from the water, it’s an incredible experience every time.”