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A Wynnewood Resident Takes on the Ocean— and Himself

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Photo by Tessa Marie Images

As Jeffrey Rake found recovery, swimming was his way forward. 

Even with the pandemic looming, there was no summer break for Jeffrey Rake. Up with the sunrise, he’d head to the pool at the Haverford YMCA. Or he’d make the trip to Ocean City, N.J., or the Chesapeake Bay, where he’d swim for a couple of hours before driving home to Wynnewood. The Marathon Swimmers Federation defines his sport as a “nonstop, unassisted open-water swim of 6.2 miles or longer.” For Rake, it’s also a sort of therapy.

As a child growing up in Southern California, he swam and played water polo. That ended after he was hit by a car before his freshman year at University of California San Diego. “I was never a superstar,” he admits.

Rake is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. A recovering alcoholic, he returned to the water a few years ago. Things went south for Rake after the hospitality company he worked for closed its New York office in 2005. He lost his job, and the recession followed soon thereafter. “My life kind of spiraled,” he says. “Both the physical and other aspects of my health deteriorated.”

As alcoholism gripped his life, Rake gained over 40 pounds, developed high blood pressure and sarcoidosis, suffered from chronic reflux, and was mildly asthmatic. He was also suffering from depression. “I recognized I really needed to eliminate some of these lifestyle choices,” says Rake. “It was a lot harder than I thought.”

Over the course of four years, he joined mutual support groups before checking into a treatment center. He lost weight, his sarcoidosis and reflux abated, his blood pressure returned to normal and he was able to go off anti-depressants. He also got his career on track and has since launched XBD Hospitality.

With so many things clicking, Rake has returned to the water, setting his sights on longer distances. Last year, it was the chilly waters of Quebec, where he placed second among men over 50 in a 7.5-mile race. That would be a warm-up for his first solo open-water swim in California. With pools shut down in spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had to get creative, rigging a resistance bungee in his mother-in-law’s pool.

Once public pools reopened, he was all too happy to put in the hours. But their smooth, tepid depths were not the open ocean. “To this day, I can’t just jump in the ocean and not be just a little bit uncomfortable,” Rake admits.

“You’re trying to see internally how far you can push yourself,” says Dan Simonelli, a marathon swimmer, a coach and an official observer for the sport. Based in San Diego, Simonelli runs Open Water Swim Academy, where he coaches a range of swimmers. Though the season was cancelled due to the pandemic, Simonelli was still able to ratify and observe solo races like Rake’s.

In late September, Rake covered 12 miles from Coronado’s Glorietta Bay Park to Gator Beach. Simonelli was beside him for every stroke in a kayak, helping Rake with his feedings every half hour, observing his progress, and looking for signs of hypothermia and other safety issue. Rake was wearing just a Speedo, goggles and a swim cap, so the threat of hypothermia is real.

Heading out in the morning, Rake got an assist from a tidal current before hitting the open water. “The challenging part is keeping your focus, not letting negative thoughts overtake you,” says Simonelli.

For those who can overcome the mental hurdle, being out in the water is “a moving meditation,” Simonelli says. “When you’re out there, there’s this sense of freedom and vulnerability. You’re a speck in the middle of the ocean, and you’re vulnerable.”

Clocking in at five hours and 11 minutes for his California swim, Rake now has his sights set on swimming the English Channel, which averages 21 miles wide. Another goal is the Cook Strait between the north and south islands of New Zealand—over 13 miles at its narrowest. He’s also helped others with their swimming technique. Endurance athlete Michael Vandergeest competes in 50- and 76-mile ultra-marathons, working with Rake at the Lower Merion High School pool. “When I have a goal or a feat or a race or something that I’m working toward, and I have a clarity of purpose in my life, I tend to think a little clearer and my life seems to just fire on all cylinders,” says Vandergeest. “For me, accomplishing these athletic feats builds self-esteem.”

Around his neck, Rake wears a New Zealand greenstone called a pounamu to remind him of his goals and the necessity of equilibrium in life. “I have to make sure I’m trying to make the same progress in other aspects of my life, as well,” he says.

To that end, Rake has started giving back. During his last swim, he raised $5,000 for the Herren Project, an addiction recovery nonprofit. He’s also coaching youth swimmers at the Y and adults at French Creek Racing in Norristown. “Helping them make
those little breakthroughs—it’s gratifying,” he says.

Rake also hopes the story of his recovery helps others. “To show them that, after 50, I was able to completely change my life—that’s the message I’m hoping to get across,” he says. MLT