Christie Ciraulo, 65, is a lifelong competitive swimmer and the founder of The Mighty Mermaids. She and her fellow teammates are scheduled to relay swim the English Channel this July. We caught up with the west-LA resident on a chilly, rainy day in Santa Monica to find out more about her and her quests.
AGEIST: How often do you swim?
Christie: Every day. Pool or ocean, and often both.
“Fun, fast, and over 50”
AGEIST: What are the Mighty Mermaids?
Christie: As I approached my 50th birthday, I wasn’t motivated to work out in a pool. I’d always loved the beach and I totally enjoyed the open water racing season, so I dreamed of bringing together a relay of “fun, fast and over 50” women. I mostly wanted to stay motivated to work out and maintain a healthy lifestyle. It’s 15 years later and I never could have imagined how wonderful it all turned out. We’re spirited, record-breaking and undefeated best friends, that cannot wait to take on the next challenge together.
AGEIST: How did you create them?
Christie: The hardest part of a six-person relay is not the swim — it’s getting six swimmers to commit to participating. I decided to look at the United States Masters Swimming top ten distance freestylers over 50. I only knew these women by name, but I sent them emails asking them to swim with me. I pushed send and left for an early morning workout. I came home to FORTY TWO emails! The Mighty Mermaids were already committed and picking out our team color, team suits, and team nail polish!
Warmup Routine for Ocean Races
AGEIST: What is your warmup routine before you go into the ocean?
Christie: It’s important to be flexible when it comes to a warmup routine before an ocean race. The weather and ocean conditions determine what I am able to do, with the priority being staying warm. If it is a cold and windy day, I will jog a bit on the beach to get my heart rate up, and right before the race take a quick dip and get back to the start. If there are opening ceremonies, I am careful not to go in too soon and I always have a towel at the ready for when I come out. If it’s a wonderful southern California day, I love body surfing for twenty or so minutes before heading for the starting line. All that said, if it is the Mighty Mermaid relay and we’re out in the middle of a huge body of water, there is no warmup. When it’s my turn to go, I just go!
Staying Warm and Aware of the Body’s Signals
AGEIST: The water is often cold. How do you manage that?
Christie: Cold water is inevitable in open water swimming. As I get older, I have to be more aware of my body and the signals it is sending me as I swim. I make a point of getting into the ocean several times a week throughout the year to stay acclimated. I might do a swim workout or I might just have fun bodyboarding. I have no problems in ocean water at 60+ degrees. It’s when it drops below 60, and I’m in for more than 30-40 minutes, that I have to be very careful. I keep several gallons of hot water in my car with which to rinse, I get out of my wet suit immediately, and I aways have plenty of dry sweat pants and jackets, beanies and boots available. And then, there is always hot chocolate or coffee in my thermos.
“If in doubt, don’t go out!”
AGEIST: Open ocean swimming has an element of danger. How do you offset that?
Christie: I don’t really think of open water swimming as any more dangerous than any other sport. Essentially, we put safety first in all we do. I’ve always said “If in doubt, don’t go out!” I think it’s a good life motto, too. As I get older, I am a bit more conservative. A surf set that is too high today, is a little bit smaller than a set that was too high four or five years ago. If I see a big sea lion body surfing the wave next to me and he seems interested or curious, I give him his space. When a pod of dolphins goes by, I let them set the distance between us.
Spectacular Sea-Life Encounter
AGEIST: What have been some of your more memorable sea-life encounters?
Christie: I used to swim with a friend who always thought it was funny to swim up behind me and pull my foot, or bump me, or come up from underneath and poke me. Then one day, I heard him yelling and I started swimming with my head up so that I could yell back at him! As my shoulders and head reared out of the water, I looked forward and at least eight dolphins were coming full speed straight at me. They arched out of the water in a spectacular show and dived straight under me with inches to spare…and I swear they were laughing! My swim buddy and I were both totally jazzed with the up-close-and-personal performance!
“I drive the LA freeways every day and that’s a lot riskier!”
AGEIST: What’s it like swimming in the open ocean vs a pool?
Christie: There is a huge difference between swimming in a pool and swimming in the ocean. Let’s get the wildlife question out of the way! Yes, it’s their ocean. The first question I get asked when I tell someone I’m an ocean swimmer is: “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?” And I say, “Nope! Because I drive the LA freeways every day and that’s a lot riskier!” My parents moved us to Pasadena from the Chicago suburbs when I was 13. I saw the beach and knew I never wanted to live anywhere else. My older brother would bring me out to Santa Monica and he and I would hit the water for a four-hour body surfing session. It was magical. Everything changes, there is constant motion, no two waves are ever the same. In a pool, nothing changes. You’re looking at a black line for hours and, hopefully, there isn’t anything swimming underneath!
AGEIST: How does it feel to be swimming with all that water under and around you?
Christie: Occasionally, I’m out there swimming along and the enormity of the ocean hits me. Here I am, one little body, floating along in an infinite body of water. It’s like spacewalking, only with a lot of living organisms surrounding me. I think of those jigsaw puzzles that show the horizon in the top inch of the puzzle and hundreds of critters underneath the waterline in the bottom 23 inches.
AGEIST: How do you protect your skin from the sun while you are on the water?
Christie: I’ve never been one to hang out in the sun and I tend to go to the beach early. Swimmers and surfers are usually leaving the beach when the actual beachgoers are arriving. Sunscreen is bad for the ocean, so I use zinc oxide on my face and cover the rest of my body with a thin wetsuit or a full body rash guard. Doing this alleviates the need for sunscreen. Of course, when I’m racing, I swim in a regular swim suit and get covered up from the sun as soon as possible.
AGEIST: What is different about swimming for you at 65 from when you were younger?
Christie: The major difference in the age factor is the recovery time. I still get nervous before I race, my favorite part of swimming is still the friendships, my workout ethic is still there – but after racing it takes me longer to feel good in the pool again.
AGEIST: When did you begin competitive swimming?
Christie: 1961, age seven. I swam age group from 1961-1967 (in Illinois), high school swimming from 1968-1971 (Blair High School in Pasadena — at the time, a three year high school), club swimming at University of Southern California 1971-1974 (pre-title IX, so USC didn’t have a women’s team), and started at age 42 United States Masters Swimming in 1995.
The Mighty Mermaids
AGEIST: Who are your fellow Mermaids?
Christie Ciraulo, 65, Los Angeles, CA
Nancy Steadman Martin, 64, Oceanport, NJ
Veronica Hibben, 63, Huntington Beach, CA
Jenny Cook, 61, New York, NY
Karen Einsidler, 63, Tenafly, NJ
Tracy Grilli, 62, Londonderry, NH
AGEIST: That is an all-star group. What swims have you done?
2008 Across Lake Tahoe, California, 10-mile race
2009 Around the Island of Manhattan, New York, 28.5-mile race
2010 Catalina Channel, California, 24 miles
2011 Across Tahoe, California, 10-mile race
2012 Length of Lake Tahoe, Nevada to California, 32 miles
2013 Length of Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, 30 miles
2014 Lake Travis, Texas, 12-mile race (shortened due to drought)
2015 Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho, 26 miles
2016 Tampa Bay (stopped due to weather)
2017 Tampa Bay, 24 miles
2018 Mighty Red River of the North, Minnesota to North Dakota, 38-mile race
Our 12th swim together, the 22-mile English Channel, is scheduled for July 22-30, 2019, a window to allow for weather, currents and temperature.