Fly Girl: Miles & Miles of Open Water Butterfly

Fly Girl: Miles & Miles of Open Water Butterfly

Splash plunk… splash plunk… splash plunk…

A long open water swim for Adrienne Kramer sounds and looks different from nearly any other distance swimming. That’s because as the miles roll by – 1, 2, 3, 5, 6.2, 10 – she continues a steady but unhurried butterfly stroke.

Yes - you read that right. Mile after mile of butterfly - head lifting, two arms reaching, two feet splashing.

After a remarkable 2023 season of long-distance open water fly, the Fly Girl from North Carolina plans to do it all again (and more!) in 2024.

We sat down with Adrienne and her partner and safety kayaker, Lisa, to hear more about what she’s been up to, and the path that led to this distinctive kind of open water swimming.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity. Unless specified, all responses are from Adrienne. Enjoy!

Tell us about your 2023 open water swim season. You recently finished your 2023 open water swim season with a 5 miler at the St. Croix Coral Reef Swim …

That was the “dessert” swim. I started my 2023 open water swim event season in September. First I did a 2.4 miler at the Upstate Splash, and then the day after that I did the Bridges to Bluffs 10k. So that was hors d'oeuvres and appetizers. And then three weeks later was a 10 miler - Swim the Suck. That was the main dish. And then St. Croix 5 miler was dessert, except the weather was not very dessert-like.

Why is that?

It was very windy. It's ocean, so there's not a lot of current. But it still was kind of chaotic because of the wind. I saw a sea turtle, and that just makes it worth it.

Was 2023 your first year doing long-distance open water butterfly?

Adrienne: No - The Bridges to Bluffs 10k, I did that twice - last year and this year. And [there’s a localish] 2.4 mile swim I do every year. I've done it probably seven times, eight times, something like that.

Lisa: And she never swims any open water anything but butterfly.

Adrienne: Well, swimrun I did do freestyle. I'm not swimming butterfly with shoes and paddles – that's where I draw the line! And when I did triathlons, I did freestyle. 

But I don't enjoy freestyle open water like I do butterfly. It's much slower. But I don't care.

(Sidenote - Adrienne’s butterfly may be slower than her freestyle, but she still finished Bridges to Bluffs 10k in 3 hours!)

Adrienne in the water swimming fly with Lisa in the kayak

(Lisa in the kayak, Adrienne swimming)

What kind of response do you get when you show up to these swims and do butterfly?

Lisa: I get to hear all the great comments from people on the beach.

Adrienne: Half the time I can't hear it because I'm not done yet, but I hear that. I've been told it happens.

Adrienne: [I did my first 3 mile butterfly swim at Lake Lure in 2015.] I was back at Lake Lure for the same swim this spring. And after I got out, this guy came running over and he said, “I saw you here in 2015 doing that, doing it all fly, and I never thought I'd see you again, and here you are!” He just was [so excited]. 

Lisa: It was very funny. She gets that a lot when we go to events. They're like, “oh, my God. My friend was telling me about you.”

Adrienne: It's kind of like a legend. And then if they see me, it's no longer a legend.

Have you ever met anyone else who does long-distance fly?

A lot of people tell me that they know somebody, but nowhere I've ever been has ever had a fly swimmer. I'm always the first at all the things; at St. Croix I was the first to do all fly. People say somebody in Florida swims all fly, but I haven't seen them.

Why did you start using Snake & Pig goggles in 2023?

Before I knew about Snake & Pig, I was out for my first long training swim. It was my first three hour swim, and my eyes hurt so bad that I could hardly stand to finish that 3 hours. I would take my other goggles off and I wanted to cry, putting them back on. 

I mentioned it at masters swim practice, and people started bringing me options. Every day, I'd have by my lane some different things to try. One of the girls I swim with, she saw Snake & Pig at a swim run. So she asked me, have you tried these? I hadn't, so she loaned them to me for a weekend, and I did the next long swim in them, right out of the gate.

Lisa had my old goggles just in case, but I wore the Snake & Pigs for a three and a half or four hour swim. And it was so much better. Such relief. 

I tried so many things. But once I put the Snake & Pigs on, I stopped looking. And now there's at least eight people on my team wearing them.

I can grin and bear it for 3 hours, but I knew I was going to have to go longer. And the ten miler took 5 hours and 20 minutes -- I knew I couldn't grin and bear that. I have a good tolerance, but not if I don't have to.

Snake & Pig fans at Adrienne's masters swim team

(Showing off blue Snake & Pig goggles at masters practice.
From left to right: Lisa, Misty, Adrienne, and Kathleen)

How did you get started doing long-distance fly? It’s such an unusual thing to do.

My favorite events in college were 1000 free and 200 back, but they would throw me into 200 fly if they didn't have someone to do it. They knew I could get through it. They never said, “that looks good”, and I had no instruction on it. Just, “you're in it”.

I had years of triathlons after college, and went back to master's swimming in the mid 90s, and started doing a little more fly. For some reason, my daughter, when she was four, went up to our coach and said, "I think my mom should do more fly. I think she should do 200 fly." I don't even know where she got those words because she wasn't swimming. She was kind of an intuitive kid.

And he said, I agree with you. [One day] he gave me my own workout, and it was seven 200s. And he said, I want you to do those all fly, take whatever rest you need. And I was like, okay. Six of them were patterns of broken 200s, and then the fourth one in the middle was a straight 200. He had the high school girls stop and cheer for me while I was doing my straight 200. It wasn't fast, but it was empowering.

Another few years went by, and we got a different coach. He said, you have the kind of fly that could go a long way. Have you tried open water? 

So I signed up to do a half mile event, and I did it all fly, and I thought that really wasn't hard. The next year, I tried a mile, and that went okay too. Then I got up to two miles and 2.4 mi because that's what we had around here [for open water events]. And I hung out there for a little while. And then Lake Lure was hosting a 5k. So I thought, that'll be my first three mile [butterfly swim]. And then I hung out there for a little while.

What made you decide to do even longer butterfly swims?

I started out doing St. Croix 2 miler, but I decided I wanted to do the longer 5 mi race, because they see more sea life – the shorter race is just along the shoreline and so there’s less to see. It's pretty, but it's not the same. So I signed up for that one in 2019. That was a big jump from two.

In 2022 a friend of mine was turning 30 and she wanted to do a big swim, Bridges to Bluffs 10k, and I told her I'd do it with her. 

And then this year (2023), well, I met the race director for Swim the Suck. She said, if you ever want to do this, let me know. 

I decided I was definitely going to do St. Croix 5 miler again in November 2023 for the first time after Covid. So if I was ever going to do Swim the Suck 10 miler, it made sense to do it the same year because I was training through to November for St. Croix anyway. 

What are some of the differences between swimming open water fly and open water freestyle that you've noticed?

Cold water is worse for fly. I get tight. With both arms coming out, there's a lot of exposure at once.

The other interesting thing is sighting, because I realized after doing a few swims with current that whatever I aim for, I hit. If I'm aiming for a buoy, I always end up right into it because I'm, without thinking about it, correcting every stroke --  because I see it every stroke. The first time we did Bridges to Bluffs, where we go under seven bridges, the first bridge I almost cut Lisa off in the kayak because she was on the side of me and I headed straight for the pylon.

A lot of people were wearing the mask-type goggles for open water swims, but they're heavy for fly where you have to keep lifting your head up. I couldn't even imagine.

With wind, sometimes I feel like I almost have an advantage if I can hit the timing right, as long as it's not chaotic waves. The eight mile mark of Swim the Suck was crazy. Lisa started going backwards in the kayak because of the wind. I turned around and said, is this a joke? I was taking about ten strokes and then bailing and going under for one, to do almost like a breaststroke recovery. I was going to come up for a breath and the water was right there in my face so I just dropped back under.

Adrienne at St. Croix Coral Reef Swim 2023

(Adrienne at St. Croix in 2023)

What have you got planned for 2024?

This year I did sister races - Bridges to Bluffs 10k (for the second time) and Swim the Suck 10 miler (my first 10 miler). Both of those are in the Tennessee River, 

But there's a triple crown. The third one in the series is called Hobbes Island, and it's two and a half miles upstream and then two and a half miles downstream. They say the difficulty is somewhere between the 10k and the 10mi, depending on the current.

Because they're all in a group, they have gold, silver and bronze awards. If you do them all in one year, it's a gold. If you do them in two years, it's a silver. Spread it out over three, it's a bronze. Lisa thinks I should do gold. If I do Hobbes Island in 2024, then I've definitely got silver because I did the other two last year. I haven't decided yet if I'm going gold or silver. It would be cool to do gold fly. 

How do you stay motivated through those really long swim events?

Adrienne: The 10k and the 10 mile, I had to have my own kayaker, so Lisa was right there with me. We made a fun playlist for the ten mile.

Lisa: We put anything on the list that we could correlate to fly. Every time she had her feeding, she'd get fly music from the waterproof speaker.

Lisa & Adrienne’s Spotify playlist: Psych Up to Swim

  • Learning to Fly – Tom Petty
  • Time for Me to Fly – REO Speedwagon
  • Fly – Nicki Minaj, Rihanna
  • Fly Away – Lenny Kravitz

Lisa: When we trained, I often didn't have music. For this ten miler, we did it primarily for Adrienne. But when the conditions were so ridiculous, I switched to reggae and Bob Marley in the kayak to help keep me chill and get through it.

What was your training like, getting ready for those long swims?

Master swim practice, 3 days a week, for 1:15 hr. I do most of the sets fly. The two guys in my lane were so good to me adjusting for my needs.

Saturdays would be a long, open water. We'd go explore some lakes.

My longest training swim last summer, I did 4 hours, and then we took a two hour break, and then did another hour and a half. That second swim was really challenging because the lake traffic had gone up considerably, and it was hot, and I was tired. I always want turkey sandwiches after these long swims. I don't know what it is.

What do you eat on those really long swims and races?

Mostly we were using baby foods. The toddler stage four pouches and Huma gels.

I have a lot of food sensitivity, so real food works best for me. But I was getting tired of the sweet. So for the ten mile, we added instant mashed potatoes made with broth for the win. Those tasted so good: they weren't warm, but just having something salty and not sweet was a welcome change. And then I have a water bottle and Skratch electrolytes. I usually take a sip of electrolytes right off, then I eat, and then I finish with water.


Adrienne's feed station in the front of the kayak

What is all the training and racing like for you as the kayaker, Lisa?

Lisa: I love taking photos and video of her. It's such a beautiful stroke to watch. And I like the long distance events because I'm never alongside her in the other races. In the shorter ones, you don't need a kayaker with you. So once we started training long, it was like, this is so cool. It's like being right next to a dolphin or something.

Lisa: It's a pretty stroke to watch. It's a pretty stroke to hear in the water. I mean, everything about it is beautiful.

Adrienne: And it's fun for me, too, because she's right there the whole time in the race and in the training.

Where can people find you two online?

We have a new thing we started called Age Like a Renegade, where we're teaching peri and postmenopausal women how their bodies change and what they can do about it. It applies what we've learned from Dr. Stacy Sims and others to the everyday woman who isn't getting the same access that we are because we're in the sport world. (; @agelikearenegade)

I became a NAMS certified menopause practitioner, and am a physical therapist. Lisa has a social work, massage, and personal training background. So between the two of us, we cover the bases.  

Lisa on the left, Adrienne on the right, this time without swim caps!

 (Lisa & Adrienne NOT on the water!)

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Swimming Doesn't Have to Hurt

Snake & Pig goggles are uniquely comfortable, even for the longest swims.

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