By Dave Ongie, News Editor
The choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean were disorienting for Science Hill graduate Morgan Misenar as she methodically swam her way around Key West on June 26.
Occasionally a remora (suckerfish) would mistake her for a shark and latch onto one of her legs, and she passed the time during the 12.5-mile race by watching jellyfish and other sea life bob and dart around her. When it was all said and done, the 20-year-old swimmer from Johnson City crossed the finish line in a time of 4:31:14, making her the third-place finisher overall and the second female to cross the finish line in the 45th annual Swim Around Key West.
Prior to the race, Misenar had only been on one open-water swim, and that was just for one-mile during a Swim Across America event off Kiawah Island off South Carolina. Needless to say, Misenar was thrilled with her performance, and credited staying in the moment for helping her endure the marathon swim.
“I really didn’t pay attention to my time, because I knew I would become completely thrown off, but I really tried to make sure I was present and aware of my surroundings and tried to take in everything,” Misenar said.
Misenar started swimming competitively at the age of 12 with the Barracuda Swim Club. She developed into a standout at Science Hill, setting conference records in the 100 and 200 freestyle. As a senior, she was an all-conference performer and was named female athlete of the year.
Misenar credits Science Hill coach Chris Coraggio – who also coaches the Barracuda Swim Club – for helping her become such a versatile swimmer. Although she specialized in shorter “sprint” events in high school, Coraggio’s extensive training gave her the cardio work she needed to seize an opportunity that presented itself when she arrived at Florida Southern College as a freshman.
“I went to college, and no one was able to fill the spots in the 1,000 and the mile,” Misenar recalled. “My coaches looked at me and said, ‘You’re tall, you look like a distance swimmer, and you have background training in distance swimming. You’ll be a distance swimmer.’ ”
By chance, one of Misenar’s coaches at Florida Southern had competed in the Swim Around Key West in 2019, and hearing about the grueling event piqued Misenar’s interest. So she signed up to race in 2020 only to have the event scrubbed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Misenar rolled her entry over to this year, and when things started to open back up, the race was on and Misenar started preparing in earnest.
“Thankfully everything worked out this year,” she said.
While the race itself was an isolating experience at times, Misenar’s strong finish required a strong team effort. The length of the race makes it necessary for each swimmer to have a support person in a kayak following nearby.
Misenar could not have had a better teammate than her father, Dr. Garik Misenar, who has competed in four Ironman races and the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.
“He was very crucial in being able to successfully complete this race,” Morgan said. “I’m very internally motivated, but I oftentimes am very tough on myself. He’s one that is able to really just help me and get my head in the game.
When the race kicked off, the Misenars quickly found each other and started out around the island. Every 30 to 40 minutes, Morgan felt the tap of a kayak paddle on her head, signaling her that it was time to drink some Gatorade or eat a carbohydrate-heavy snack to replenish her energy.
“I’m not really great about hydrating during practices or eating while swimming,” she said. “So I was very thankful for him doing that, because I’m just so hardheaded I just would have kept swimming the entire race.”
Unable to touch the kayak due to the race rules, Morgan had to tread water as she ate and drank.
In addition to providing food and beverages, Dr. Misenar helped keep his daughter on course. When Morgan is swimming in a pool, there is a black line on the bottom to keep her in her lane. But in the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, it is easy to swim well off course.
“In the ocean, there is no indication of where you are,” Morgan said. “Sometimes you can see the bottom, sometimes you really can’t. I really had to depend on my dad to be sure I was going to the right place because if not, I would have had absolutely no clue.”
Around the middle of the race, Morgan was aware she was near the front of the pack, but she tried not to focus on it. Instead, she strived to stay in the moment by observing her surroundings and keeping tabs on her swimming form. Misenar hoped to see a shark during her swim, but instead, she was mistaken for one when the remora that routinely latch onto sharks hitched a ride on her.
Just over four and a half hours after she started her swim around Key West, she returned to where she started, swam around the final yellow buoy and ran up onto the shore across the finish line to complete the race. Her conch shell trophy now serves as a point of pride and a reminder of a stiff challenge taken on and met.
The experience has Morgan yearning for the next chance to push her boundaries, perhaps with another long open-water swim or maybe a triathlon. For now, the experience of swimming around Key West will serve as a wellspring of confidence as she prepares for her upcoming college swim season.
“I think for me, especially going into any training or competition I have, I know I have such a background of being able to train for something this long and compete in something this long,” Misenar said. “Every season past this will be just that much more successful because I have this experience. I’m not quite sure what that goal will be for next summer, whether it will be a triathlon or another open-water swim, but I have my eyes open and I’m prepared for whatever happens to come next.”