Interview: Diane McManus, Cross Bay Swimmer

Diane McManus is an elite athlete. Her accomplishments run the gamut from long distance swimming to marathon running. She credits the longevity and diversity of her long athletic career with stubbornness and curiosity – thoughts like, “Why couldn’t I do that?”
This Philadelphia native spent long childhood summers with her family in Saltaire, where she got her first taste of swimming in the cold bay. She’ll be back in the bay July 14 to participate in the Maggie Fischer Memorial Great South Bay Cross Bay Swim, which will take her on a five-mile journey in the water from Fire Island to Bay Shore.
Fire Island News (FIN): What is your relationship with Fire Island?
Diane McMaunus (DM): It goes way back. My grandfather had a house in Saltaire. It’s been in the family for years. For quite a long time we had this house and would go there every year as a kid. We’d stay for a month. Take swimming lessons there, in the 1950s. After my father passed away we still went there for long weekends of maybe a week or two. Gradually, the trips got shorter but I would try to get there as often as I could. I loved that trip across the bay. I have a lot of love for Saltaire. It nurtured a lot of good things as a kid. I would be out there on the dock watching the sailing races, eating ice cream. Go and take long walks all over the place. It was very loose and free. I even have a little poem about that on my fundraising page.
FIN: How did you get started in the Maggie Fisher event?
DM: I had gotten into this Masters swimming group in 2005. I actually had done an open water swim a few years earlier than that, which I was doing because I’d had a running injury and needed to do something competitive.
I was getting itchy to do something so I entered a one-mile swim. I got over the injury and got back to running more, so let swimming go for a few years. Then one day, I saw an announcement for a masters swim at my Y. I was curious. I wasn’t injured at the time. I wondered what’s this like? So I joined the group and the coach at that time was urging swimmers to enter this one-mile ocean swim in New Jersey. I live in Philly and this was in Wildwood. I thought, oh I don’t know! I’m not an ocean swimmer. As many times as I’d gone to Saltaire, I was always nervous in the ocean. I would do it, but I’d be relieved to get on land. But the coach kept saying, it will be fine, so eventually I said okay.
I was terrified of course, the washing machine sized waves, the possibility of sharks. When I started the swim, it was really rough and I thought, oh my God, I’m going to turn around. But when I looked back, it was too far! So I eventually, thanks to this woman on a surfboard who was volunteering, got to the first buoy. After that, I just felt comfortable. I got to the last turn, swam in and decided that I don’t have to be afraid of the ocean anymore. I was so excited!
Then I was visiting Fire Island at the time, and telling people about my ocean swim experience, and someone suggested I do the Cross Bay Swim. This was 2005. I said, how long is that? When I heard five miles, I said no way. I don’t swim that long.
But I kind of started thinking about it. It was a bee in my bonnet. I thought I wonder if I could do that? And that is the most dangerous sentence I say to myself when I hear of some challenge.
Sometimes I end up trying it out and that’s what happened with the bay swim. I decided to see if I could do this. I entered the swim. There was this wonderful woman who helped train me online who was a member of the USMS forum. She gave me some great advice and training. Her name is Donna Dunn. She had been a marathon swimmer herself. I did the whole business in the pool because I don’t live near open water, the kind of conditions in the Great South Bay. I knew that I could do this distance.
I knew nothing about nutrition. I brought some drinks and some food but I started out on a roll and the kayaker asked me, ‘Do you think you want to stop for food?’ I said, no, I’m feeling great! But then around three miles or so, I started feeling sick. By mile four I thought, I’m not going to make it. But I realized that stopping wouldn’t help me anymore than continuing to swim. I got to the beach finally and I saw the time was 3:25. I was surprised! I didn’t think I’d do that well. I wanted to come in under four hours because that was the cutoff.
A couple of years passed. In 2009 I went as a spectator to support a friend of mine who said, ‘If you swim it next year, I’ll kayak for you.’ By then I had gotten over all the suffering, sort of like having children, you go through all of the suffering until the child is born and then you’re so excited that you forget. The next year I swam it. I had trouble – I couldn’t find the kayak. I couldn’t see where he was. I had gotten off course so I had to reroute, I ended up at 4:20 or something. They were nice enough to let me finish.
I let a few years slide. In 2014, I started going back to Masters swimming. I got friendly with this guy who had a Masters swimming group in the Philly area who was a pro triathlete who trained swimmers.
Last year, I was training for the Great South Bay swim, and another race at the same time. I was training hard for both of them, and pushing the envelope. I felt so confident, and everything was going fine for the first two or three miles. But then the wind was pushing us toward the Bay Shore docks, and it was getting harder and harder to turn around. We got withdrawn and I was a bit crushed by that. The kayaker told me okay you did about six miles instead of 5.25.
This year, I’m registered again for the eight-mile swim and for the Great South Bay swim and I want to also sign up for this 5k swim in August. All of a sudden I’ve gotten into these distance swims. I don’t know where it will go! My goal is to do double digits and that will come.
FIN: Have you gotten any help?
DM: My coach John Kenny is awesome. He knows how to push and encourage. He himself has been a marathon swimmer. He was on the U.S. national team for open water. He’s done 25k swims. He’s really knowledgeable. He did a 10-mile swim in Virginia and won it by like a mile!
FIN: Were you always a swimmer?
DM: If you go to Fire Island you can’t not learn to swim – but I was a terrified swimmer as a kid! I was afraid to go into deep water. We had this hardcore swim instructor we all called “Uncle Pete.” If the bay was choppy, if the sun was out whether it was cold or not, we had swimming lessons. Unless there was a thunderstorm, there was no excuse. I look back on this now and I always fought him and wouldn’t go into deep water and he tried and tried. I have to think that maybe there’s a part of me, even though I was terrified of doing it, I think I was also stubborn. I think that stubbornness now helps me because when I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. I always swam though. Even before I got into running, I would do laps.
FIN: What is your running history?
DM: I got into running because I was going to do an Outward Bound course in the mid-eighties and one of the things they said to do was run. I had never been a runner. I tried it once and went around the block and I was exhausted. But then I thought, I’ve seen people running and they are so happy and they talk about running 10 miles like it’s nothing. I thought I’d never be able to do that. But then I thought, why not?
FIN: What’s your advice for aspiring athletes?
DM: There’s a track meet tonight. I’m going to go for fun. I don’t worry about competing. I’m usually last. I don’t care. You have to remember it’s supposed to be fun. There are so many good things that come from being part of this community of runners and swimmers. I went to a triathlon last week. Not to participate but to cheer on friends. I just enjoy being part of the atmosphere.
The Maggie Fischer Memorial Great South Bay Cross Bay Swim will be held on Friday, July 14 this year. Diane’s fundraising page is