Anchorage’s Jordan Iverson has been swimming for 25 years. A youth swimmer, then competitive club and high school swimmer, Iverson even earned a swimming scholarship to Northern Michigan University.
But in the years after she competed collegiately, the 30-year-old has ventured into the world of open water swimming, recently diving headfirst into one of the most challenging swims in the discipline.
Earlier this month, Iverson secured the first crown jewel in her quest to make Alaska swim history when she completed the 28.5-mile 20 Bridges swim in Manhattan in 8 hours and 1 minute.
Her completion of 20 Bridges marked the first in a three-part series of open swim challenges that fewer than 300 people around the world have accomplished. She aspires to complete the triple crown of open water swimming over the course of the next year by swimming the Catalina Channel in California in September and the English Channel in the United Kingdom in June 2024.
In New York, she first hopped in the 64-degree water at 7 p.m. Saturday, then swam around the island of Manhattan before emerging Sunday at 3 a.m.
“I’m really pleased with how my body has recovered after this New York swim,” Iverson said. “I thought my shoulders would be really fatigued and stuff, and they were a little sore for probably the first 44 hours, but after that they felt totally fine.”
Her introduction to open water swimming came in 2016, when a girl from Sitka told her about a local open water swim race called Change Your Latitude that features a range of distances, from 1K to 10K.
“I never had really ventured into open water swimming or anything, but when I was done with college, I was timing at one of the local Alaska master swim meets and started talking to this young girl that was sitting next to me,” Iverson said. “She just really made it sound like a great event, so I ended up going down there that August and swimming in that race.”
She’s returned to the race in Sitka every year since and has expanded her repertoire of races as she’s gained more experience.
“The last couple years, I’ve started doing some more open water races out of state, and then put this triple crown of open water swimming on my list,” Iverson said.
She has competed in 10 open water swim competitions since 2016, including a 10-mile swim in Tennessee called Swim the Suck and a 10K in North Carolina called O’CRUD when she was a traveling nurse in the Lower 48.
“Last year I did one in Arizona that was four days — and roughly 40 miles total over those four days — called SCAR, which is in the Salt River,” Iverson said. “Each day, you swim across a different lake.”
In a couple of weeks, she’ll head to Ireland to participate in an open swim training camp called Cork Distance Week that specializes in training for channel swimming.
When she returns home, she’ll head back down to Sitka to participate in Change Your Latitude again before attempting the Catalina Channel at the end of September.
It was a natural progression to open water for Iverson, who started in the pool when her parents put her in swimming lessons around age 4 or 5.
Shortly after that, she joined the Northern Lights Swim Club and competed in club swimming year-round through high school.
She also swam for Service High School, where she was a member of state champion relay teams. After graduating in 2011, she attended Northern Michigan University and graduated with a degree in oncology in 2015. She currently works at Providence Hospital as an oncology nurse.
Acclimating to open water from a pool
Over the course of an open water swim, Iverson said, several factors make the experience different from swimming in pools.
“In a pool, you’re just following the black line up and down, you’ve got the walls to push off of, so you kind of get a little bit of a break every 20 seconds, roughly,” she said. “In open water swimming, every day is throwing something different at you.”
Depending on the distance of the race and whether a swimmer is competing solo or part of a tandem, they each have their own kayaker who paddles alongside to provide support, including nutrition in the form of feeds. Most competitions also have a power boat with crew members and official observers to keep track of their swims, feeds, weather and sea conditions, and ward off other boats.
She said she generally doesn’t eat until she’s an hour in, then again every half-hour. She prefers nutritional powder with some water and some energy-boosting gel.
“He would just flash a blue glow stick at me when it was time to feed, and then I would just roll over onto my back to be handed the feeds, drink them down and then hand that back to him and continue on swimming,” Iverson said.
Swimmers are not allowed to have any contact with a boat, hang on to the kayak, or touch anyone on either the boat or in the kayak. Failure to follow these rules results in disqualification.
In the Manhattan swim she just completed, Iverson and Arevalo started in more shallow water, but there was also “boat traffic going every which direction.”
She especially enjoys the Change Your Latitude swim in Sitka because of the tremendous water clarity and the exposure to wildlife that comes with it.
“The swim starts at a fish hatchery, so when we first go into the water, you’re pushing through and swimming with thousands of salmon,” Iverson said.
The closest wildlife encounter she’s experienced so far came in Sitka one year, when a sea lion got within 10 meters of her.
“People that live in Sitka and swim there year-round have had the lions actually come up and bump noses with them,” she said. “They’re not being aggressive or anything, they’re more just curious and checking you out and seeing what you’re doing in the water with them.”
When she swims the Catalina Channel this year and the English Channel next year, Iverson said that she’ll have to be wary of getting stung by jellyfish since they frequent those waters.
“There’s probably a high probability that you’ll get stung by jellyfish during those crossings, but so far I haven’t had to deal with any of that,” she said.
While she acknowledges that shark attacks are a real threat and possibility, they’re still such a rare occurrence in open water swimming that she isn’t too worried.
“It’s probably stupid, but I feel like if I get eaten by a shark that it was just my time to go,” she said. “There’s so many other safety measures put in place, and we have the kayaks right there next to us and boats that are pretty close too.”
A drive to make history and inspire others
While her parents still have their fair share of concerns, she says “they’ve been very supportive and encouraging” throughout her journey.
“They’ve crewed for me now on a couple of swims,” Iverson said. “They did the big one in Arizona last year, and they did this one in New York last weekend.”
Iverson was inspired to pursue the triple crown after taking part in last year’s SCAR race, when she realized her fellow participants were “significantly more accomplished.”
“They had done some of the historic open water swims that I have always kind of thought were not realistic for me to do and not in my wheelhouse,” she said. “After doing so well at SCAR last year, that made me realize that I was capable of doing these kinds of crazy things too.”
That sparked her effort to attempt what no Alaska woman has achieved before, according to records kept by the Marathon Swimmers Federation.
“I knew I wanted to do the English Channel because that’s kind of like the holy mecca of open water swimming,” Iverson said.
To become the first woman from the state to complete the open water swim triple crown is a major goal, and so is inspiring more Alaskans to get into swimming.
“I want to be a role model for people to see how important swimming is and where it can take you because it can really take you all over the world,” Iverson said.