Heroes of Sustainability: Christopher Swain

Christopher Swain. Photo by Carrie Branovan.

The world is watching this week as the best swimmers go for the gold, but there’s a significant swimmer they won’t see: Christopher Swain.

He isn’t the fastest — in fact, he’s not that fast at all — but he is just as dedicated to his cause as Olympians are to pursuing their sports.

His first monumental swim came in 2003, when he became the first person to swim the length of the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River, all 1,243 miles of it. While a good workout was clearly a byproduct of the long swim, the purpose was to raise awareness about the people and ecosystems that have been disrupted in the Columbia River Basin. A documentary, Source to Sea: The Columbia River Swim, was produced about the effort, and it went on to win the Environmental Activism and Social Justice Award at the EarthVision Film Festival, and the Most Inspiring Adventure Film Award at the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival.

“I seek to plead the Columbia’s case,” Swain told Smokebox.net. “I chose swimming because I didn’t want to put anything between me and the water. Advocating for the River required my getting wet. When I swim, I offer myself to the river somehow. In the end then, I suppose I answer to the Columbia.”

Just Keep Swimming
He didn’t stop his swimming career there. A year later, he took on the 315-mile Hudson River in New York, calling for a river with drinkable water and becoming the subject of another documentary, this one called Swim for the River. Since then, he’s taken on Lake Champlain, the Charles River near Boston, and the Mystic River in Massachusetts.

Back on land, Swain — who grew up on the water and sailed competitively as a youngster — has talked to more than 60,000 students about clean water, produced a major event for the United Nations Water Decade at U.N. Headquarters, and was chosen as a Person of the Week on ABC World News Tonight.

According to his website, www.swimforcleanwater.org, he’s “survived collisions with boats, 12-foot waves, lightning storms, class IV+ rapids, toxic blue-green algae, Lamprey Eel attacks, and water contaminated with everything from human waste to nuclear waste.” And still, he pushed on, determined to do whatever he could to ensure that future generations would have clean, drinkable, swimmable water.

If commitment to a good cause were an Olympic sport, Swain might just find himself on the podium.

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