On Aug. 12 swimmers from all over the country will gather in Northport to participate in the sixth annual LifeFlight of Maine Islesboro Crossing, and swim from the shore some three miles to the island. Funds raised by the participants will benefit the nonprofit emergency rescue company.

Lianne McCluskey of Camden is a lifelong swimmer and will be making her fourth foray across the ocean this year to support the services LifeFlight provides. On Aug. 4 McCluskey donned a new wetsuit she bought especially for the event and took a practice swim in Rockport Harbor. She explained her passion for participating in the event, and why swimming has been a constant source of joy, challenge and motivation throughout her life.

"I love that we're using swimming, something that's had a positive influence on our lives to make a positive impact that can be felt by people all over the state of Maine, it's pretty beautiful. There are a lot of people who do the swim who are not competitive swimmers: they know how to swim but swimming three miles across an ocean is a reach for them. But the smiles and tears of people you see on the island when they arrive after spending months training is so awesome, and it's such a great community feeling when you get there," said McCluskey.

McCluskey began swimming at the Camden YMCA when she was five years old. She continued the sport while at Camden Hills Regional High School, where on the swim team she was ranked as a state champion and the team's most valuable player. Before heading to college McCluskey was named Class B Swimmer of the Year, and at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, she became an NCAA champion her freshman year.

During her time on the Camden Hills swim team, the Sailfish, her coach Hodding Carter instilled a passion for the sport in McCluskey, and he was instrumental in her decision to participate in Denison's swimming program. Years later, McCluskey's journey would come full-circle, and she would find herself back at the Camden YMCA, this time as coach to a young group of Sailfish swimmers.

This fall McCluskey will be attending Smith College in Massachusetts to pursue a Master's degree in Exercise and Sports Studies, with a specific focus placed on coaching sports (swimming), nutrition, anatomy and sports psychology.

"I like pushing myself to my limits and see what I can achieve for myself. I want to be someone to encourage others to be the best for themselves through health and wellness. I've known what that looks like when you're not treating your body right, and I know that there needs to be a balance; in the grand scheme of things you need to let go of mistakes or poor choices and move forward. You need to be kind to yourself at the same time," said McCluskey.

As excited as McCluskey is to embark on this new chapter, the change will be bittersweet as she leaves behind a group of students who she has watched, encouraged, seen grow over the years and whose early successes have made her proud. McCluskey had a similar experience when she decided to return from Maine from Austin, Texas, where she served as lead coach of the Silver group at Nitro Swimming, a USA Gold Medal Swim Club.

"I was sad leaving the kids in Austin and I've gone same feeling leaving the kids here; I've had the chance to see their character grow so much," said McCluskey, who found a sense of identity and solace as a child, diving into the water of the YMCA pool.

 

"Growing up I realized how empowering it was for me to go to the YMCA and jump in the pool. Some of my best friends are people who I met on the swim team, and I'm proud to identify myself as a swimmer — it's one of the few sports out there that engages your whole body, and when you're in the water, there are no distractions," said McCluskey.

In the three years that McCluskey has participated in the Islesboro Crossing, she has placed first each time, out of all the female competitors.

"It felt nonchalant that first year compared to how much the event has grown over the past few years, and it's been beautiful to see how this has transformed from a small-town fundraiser for LifeFlight of Maine to this nationally-known event," said McCluskey, who has two of her close friends from out of state driving up this weekend to join her on the Islesboro swim.

 

McCluskey recalled an event years ago when she first became aware of LifeFlight and the service they provide. While driving on Route 1 one afternoon, traffic halted in the wake of a terrible car accident. Within moments she saw a LifeFlight helicopter arrive on the scene and transport the injured to a medical facility.

 

"It was amazing to know that this kind of service was being offered, and what kind of immediate help they can provide. I know people who work for LifeFlight who are very dear to me and are amazing, authentic people who care about others. I support the organization because I know these people are genuinely good souls who want what's best for everybody," said McCluskey.

 

Since its inception five years ago attendance in LifeFlight's Islesboro Cross has increased exponentially, and a group of over 400 swimmers have raised more than $650,000 for the non profit. This money has gone toward LifeFlight's aircraft fund and has helped to purchase equipment such as ultrasound machines, pilot helmets and an infant isolette or incubator.

 

This spring, McCluskey offered a series of group training classes at the YMCA for individuals interested in participating in the crossing. She designed hands-on programs which focused on technique and endurance, and followed up by answering questions and making recommendations via email. Her advice to those interested in competing: remember why you're embarking on the swim, trust yourself and listen to your body.

 

"The swim can seem more daunting to think of ahead of time, when you anticipate what you might see in the water that could distract you. But once you're in the ocean, you're really in the moment — more than you ever are with other things. There are no headphones and you're so smooth in your wetsuit and so buoyant in salt water, its as if you're gliding.

Just take your time. This is not a race. Don't feel like you have to prove something to anyone. Your intention was to raise money for a cause that you believe in and to have this experience. Be honest with yourself and don't push yourself past your limit. Don't be afraid to ask for help and remember, you can always try again next year," said McCluskey.

As she prepares to don her black wetsuit and plunge into the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 12, McCluskey is already looking to the future.

"I have enjoyed the LifeFlight swim so much that I've been researching other organized swims across the country that I can participate in, and ways that by swimming I can benefit others."