In order to raise awareness about military families who have lost a loved one, former Navy SEAL Chris Ring and his friends at the nonprofit group Legacies Alive had an idea: Ring would swim the entire length of the Mississippi. So in June 2015, Ring started swimming. He swam for the next six months, finishing where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, he battled barges, swam through storms and dodged wildlife — all with the goal of bringing military families together.
Can you tell me about Legacies Alive?
Legacies Alive (legaciesalive.com) is a nonprofit group that honors our fallen heroes and families left behind, and we do that in several ways. One is by raising national awareness about Gold Star families, which are families that have lost a loved one in war. We do this by doing an extreme challenge — a mental and physical endeavor that the average person couldn’t do.
One of the co-founders hiked 1 kilometer for every soldier killed in the global war on terror. He basically walked the perimeter of the United States. He started in Washington and walked down through San Diego, over to Savannah, up to Baltimore and finished at the 2014 Army-Navy football game.
We also build memorials in the hometowns of fallen heroes that reflect who they were as people and as servicemen — something that captures both aspects of their lives and shows that there was more behind the uniform.
You’re an ex-Navy SEAL. When and where did you serve?
I did two deployments: Iraq and Afghanistan.
What prompted the swim down the Mississippi?
It was actually a spur-of-the-moment decision. One of the harder things about this project is coming up with mentally and physically demanding challenges that still allow you to connect with people and families along the way. We were talking about different options and what kinds of things we could do, like climbing or biking. Then we started thinking that swimming the Mississippi River was possible, and researched it more and more. I volunteered to do it. It goes right through the heart of America, so it’s perfect.
Where are the actual headwaters?
The headwaters are in Lake Itasca, Minnesota. It’s a nice area up there. When I was planning this and looking at the lake through Google Earth, I couldn’t find the access because it’s so small. It’s really maddening because the river actually travels north for several hundred miles before you start going south.
I started right after the snow melt, and it’s very, very shallow up there. It’s about 12 feet wide, so I actually swam across Lake Itasca first, to the headwaters, and began the river there. There were random shallow parts for miles and miles — luckily, we had a little more water because of the melt. But there were still places I couldn’t finish a swim stroke, so I would stay on my stomach and kick.
How long was the swim?
It’s actually very hard to record because it’s a very marshy area where it starts up north. I could pretty much swim the entire day and look back and see where I started. It’s hard to track mileage because the river changes direction so much.
The route was probably 2,350 miles, but I actually swam more than whatever the distance is. I had to move with how the river flows, move for boat traffic, and avoid eddies and things like that.
What were the mechanics of the trip?
We started the trip with a very small group. We had two people some days, three some days, and toward the second half of the swim, we would have four people at a time. I would be the one swimming, and there would be a guy in a kayak. I would stay with him, and he had a radio and would tell me if he saw something in the water for me to avoid. When it was windy, stormy or if there were swells, I relied on him a lot to get me through difficult times on that water. For almost the first half of the swim, it was just me and a kayaker in the water. Later, after St. Louis, Crestliner donated a boat to us. We could not have finished that swim if we did not have that boat.
Were you a trained swimmer before?
I never really liked swimming, to be honest with you. I’ve always been comfortable in water, but being comfortable in water and long-distance swimming are two different things. About four months prior to the swim, I met with a guy who swam in college and is big in the swimming community. He worked with me on technique, and he would give me swim workouts. He worked hard to prepare me to swim that river. There were so many different things, like undercurrents and eddies, to contend with. I would go to the Pacific and swim, go out to the bay — any water that I could find to get ready for those long days. I appreciated the fact that I’m not some super swimmer. It’s supposed to be an extreme challenge, and I wanted it to be difficult.
What was the most difficult aspect of the swim?
The hardest aspect was the mental side. They would wake me up every morning, and I’d get in cold water. Once I started swimming, I wouldn’t get out of the water. I would eat, drink and do everything in the water. The mental aspects of constantly getting up early and getting out were the most difficult. But then I’d have the privilege of meeting Gold Star families in the evenings and learning who their loved ones were, what they were into and what kind of people they were. We would talk about their losses, but then they would tell me funny stories, and I’d ask about their fondest memories. It was really draining because no matter how tired I was, I had to stay focused and keep my pep when talking to families. I couldn’t do any good if I just sat there exhausted.
Can you talk a little bit about the families you met along the way?
We met over 215 families over the six-month journey, and each family was special in its own way. We would finish a long day, and families would be waiting for me at that day’s finish point. After the swim, we would eat with families for dinner.
A lot of their stories were sad, but they’re stories that need to be told, and a lot of people avoid those conversations. It really gives families an opportunity to say their loved ones’ names again. Sitting with those families felt so important because they were sharing these great things with me. It was humbling to meet every single one of them.
Did you have a lowest point? What surprised you the most about the swim?
There were highs and lows. Some of the time it was just so difficult. I got burned out. There were some days that were so much more exhausting than others. The weather was just so bad sometimes that we had to pull the kayaker and the kayak out of the water. The waves would get so high, I couldn’t see the boat anymore when I looked back. I couldn’t see anything in the pouring rain or constantly blowing water. It took three times as long to get the same distance. Toward the end, we would have to boil water on the boat every hour or so and put it in a cooler. I would have to dip my hands and feet in the water to thaw out. Once I’d get feeling back, I’d get back in the water to swim, and we’d keep doing that for the entire day.
But I never felt there was a time that I didn’t want to continue. That time never came.
What was the highest point?
I had several high points. No matter how gross I was at the end of the day, the Gold Star families would give me a hug, thanking me. Those were powerful moments. At the finish, crossing and swimming past mile marker zero wasn’t the highest point, but looking up and seeing the boat with all these different Gold Star families on it was. There were eight families dancing and cheering together, and I was able to connect them with each other and build that support base. Seeing the happiness on their faces for me to finish meant a lot to me. I knew I was doing something right.