Alumni Profile

A Swim for the Centuries

Former UConn swimmer Sarah Thomas ’04 (CLAS) blasts another world record in ultra-marathon swimming.

Sarah Thomas, covered in heavy-duty sunscreen, during her world-record–breaking marathon swim across Lake Champlain.

Ken Claasen

After a seemingly impossible nonstop solo swim across Lake Champlain in New York and Vermont, Sarah Thomas ’04 (CLAS) was awarded the 2017 Solo Swim of the Year from the Marathon Swimmers Federation. To be recognized as a marathon swim by the federation, Thomas’s 67-hour, 104.6-mile “Century Swim,” followed a strict set of rules ­— for instance, it had to be completed without a wetsuit and without touching another person or the support boat.
The swim capped a career so impressive that this March it earned Thomas an induction into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.

Thomas grew up swimming, was captain of her North Texas high school team, and walked on to the Huskies swimming and diving team her freshman year. It was apparent even during her UConn days that Thomas just couldn’t get enough of distance swimming. “There was never quite enough pool for her to get going,” recalls teammate Lindsay (Hansen) Rogers ’04 (CLAS).

During her time at UConn, Thomas was a member of the distance squad alongside Rogers and Michelle (Ulatowski) Marino ’05 (ED). The trio nicknamed “Distance Love” swam the longest event on the college racing docket, the 1,650-yard “pool mile.” That event, which takes most college swimmers around 20 grueling minutes, is a mere drop in the bucket for Thomas now.

She started swimming across lakes, reservoirs, and channels instead of pools a few years after college, in 2007, when a friend suggested she attempt the Horsetooth 10K, an annual event held in the Horsetooth Reservoir in Thomas’s adopted state of Colorado.

“I was so nervous before that first swim,” she recalls. “I really didn’t know whether I’d even be able to finish.” Instead, when she found some room to stretch out beyond the confines of concrete walls, “I felt like I’d finally found my niche,” says Thomas.

The open-water experience was more invigorating than anything she’d done before, she told espnW reporter Doug Williams. “It was exhilarating to be in the open water and not have to do flip turns. And the people that do open water are a little bit more laid back. No lane ropes, being outside. It all fits.”

From there she sought more difficult challenges. In short order she completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, which includes solo swims across the 21-mile English Channel and 20-mile Catalina Channel and a solo 28.5-mile loop around Manhattan. She also became the first person to complete a 44-mile double crossing of Lake Tahoe and a 50-mile double crossing of Lake Memphremagog in Vermont and Canada.

Thomas became a world-record holder for the first time last October when she swam 80 miles across Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona in 56 hours. That’s when the idea of attempting 100 miles began percolating.

Next up? She plans to attempt an 84-mile, four-way crossing of the English Channel in 2019.

—Elaine K. Howley

Sarah Thomas, prepares by first covering herself in heavy-duty sunscreen
Sarah Thomas, covered in heavy-duty sunscreen, during her world-record–breaking marathon swim across Lake Champlain.

Sarah Thomas, covered in heavy-duty sunscreen, during her world-record–breaking marathon swim across Lake Champlain, and below, after the race with husband Ryan Willis

Sarah Thomas, covered in heavy-duty sunscreen, after her world-record–breaking marathon swim across Lake Champlain, stands next to her husband, who is wearing a shirt saying 'trophy husband'


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