The outside smelled of chlorine. It was early morning, windy enough that Katie Pumphrey had to wear a sweater — a gray one that read “Everyone watches women’s sports” — while her swimsuit, still wet from the day before, was drying.

For months she trained in Lane Six, her go-to in the outdoor pool at Coppermine Meadowbrook, where Michael Phelps and other Olympians have trained. That Tuesday was her last workout before giving her body a rest.

Pumphrey will attempt a swim that has never been done from Chesapeake Bay to the Inner Harbor. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Pumphrey will have two support swimmers and a crew helping her on the swim. (Courtesy photo / Katie Pumphrey)

If the weather cooperates, on Tuesday she will enter the bay near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and swim more than 24 miles to the Harborplace Amphitheater in the Inner Harbor, one of her longest swims ever — a never-before-done swim and the longest anyone has attempted in the harbor in decades.

Swimming has been part of her life since she was a toddler. Open water swimming, though, wove into her life in far greater ways — her experiences in the ocean, rivers and lakes inspired her, gave her community and led her to love.

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Swimming and painting, once seen as separate chapters, became interconnected. And this swim became a love letter to the city, celebrating years of work poured into improving the harbor.

Pumphrey has always been about overcoming obstacles, this time one of her own creation. No one has done this swim before, though she hopes others will if the path is ratified by the Marathon Swimmers Federation.

Since the 36-year-old started training this year, she has geared up to reach 60,000 yards per week, a distance equivalent to 500 football fields or 34 miles. The training exceeds the 24.4-mile distance from the bay to the harbor.

‘You’re gonna get through it’

(Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Katie Phumphery practices swimming at Meadowbrook on June 11, 2024.  Phumphery is an ultra-marathon swimmer who will tackle a 24-mile swim from the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in late June.
Pumphrey has been practicing at Meadowbrook, but she is tapering now in preparation for the swim. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Pumphrey has been practicing at Meadowbrook, but she is tapering now in preparation for the swim. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Pumphrey thought her swimming days were past her when she left her hometown to study painting in the city. She still coached a kids team — she has been training swimmers since she was 17 — and worked as a lifeguard at the YMCA on 33rd Street. But her drive, her competitiveness, had all been directed toward art.

Except Pumphrey has spent her life training toward a goal. Her parents had her in a summer league swimming team by the time she was 5. Pumphrey went on to compete through high school. She felt something was missing.

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Around the time she was graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art, she came across the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, a 4.4-mile course across the bay. When Pumphrey reached the shore, she told her mother that was the hardest thing she had ever done.

She was coaching adults then and had gone to some masters meets, and it was fun. But this, she said, this felt like a whole new world.

“I want to do it again,” she said.

That same year, 2010, the Waterfront Partnership announced its own goal to make the harbor swimmable by the end of the decade. The plan, unveiled by nonprofit organizations, community leaders and city agencies, called for officials to invest in the failing sewage infrastructure that poured waste and trash into the waters.

Factories improperly discharged waste, including contaminants from pesticide, coal and fuel, into the waters for centuries. It changed the chemistry of the water and its wildlife for decades. Although the harbor improved when federal and state officials sued plants or when industries closed, real change wouldn’t come until years later.

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Her swimmer friends talked about the harbor once in a while, the dream that some had to make it swimmable. It became a topic of conversation: If officials said tomorrow that you could venture out in the Patapsco River, would you?

In the meantime, Pumphrey trained to swim in the Potomac. She chatted about it with the other coaches of the kids team at the Merritt Clubs in Canton. She told one of her best friends, Joe Mahach — who said the longest he could ever do was about a mile — she was planning a 15-mile swim in May 2014, the same month Mr. Trash Wheel was launched.

He supported her and, then around that time, they realized they were in love. He helped her plan the course, where she wanted to double the Potomac River swim by swimming back to Maryland. By the time she began training for the English Channel, they were engaged.

Katie Pumphrey swam the English Channel in 2015. Her husband Joe was a support swimmer during that marathon swim.  (Courtesy of Katie Pumphrey)
Pumphrey swam the English Channel in 2015. Her husband, Joe, was a support swimmer during that marathon swim. (Courtesy Photo / Katie Pumphrey)

Jumping into the Atlantic Ocean was daunting. The course was only five miles longer than other swims, but the water was colder. The light from the boat, meant to guide her in the darkness, was disorienting at times and made her seasick. Her husband, then her support swimmer, watched her in agony for two hours until he was able to get in the water under the rules for the swim.

He swam along her side for about half an hour.

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“You’re gonna get through it,” he told her.

And Pumphrey did. She swam around Manhattan Island in 2017, then across the Catalina Channel in California a year later, earning her the triple crown of open water swimming. As she began training for her third Potomac River swim in 2019, environmental organizations began testing Baltimore’s harbor for fecal indicator bacteria, the standard required by federal agencies, about once a week.

‘Night Swim’ and ‘Monsters Below’

When she wasn’t training, Pumphrey was in her studio, where she painted with acrylic and spray. Her earlier work used brushstrokes to evoke the human instinct to be competitive and to react and move.

Blue increasingly became dominant, as did what she could and could not see in the ocean.

"Everything plus the kitchen sink" by Katie Pumphrey. (Courtesy Photo / Katie Pumphrey)

By her early 30s, painting and swimming had never been so intertwined. She returned to imagery, while still using abstraction to give a sense of mystery. Water and what her imagination tricks her into seeing made their way into her paintings in her studio at the Crown Industrial Park. Pumphrey had two solo exhibitions, in Baltimore and Washington, between then and last year, called “Night Swim” and “Monsters Below.”

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“I feel like I’m being more direct and honest and, like, bringing more swimming into my work and being clear with images,” she said.

Alligators popped into her art after her niece, Nayev, made a joke leading up to a 21-mile swim in Deep Creek Lake. Her niece, who is studying marine biology, told her sometimes people release alligators into lakes. It became a running bit in her course, then a recurring character in her paintings.

Jellyfish sometimes doubled as swimmers’ hands. There are suggestions of sharks, too, shadows, as if she had seen them in the corner of her eye. She thinks about sharks regardless of whether she is in the ocean.

Sewage overflow in the harbor had been down 97% since 2018 by the time Pumphrey began talking to her husband about what swims would be feasible this year. Adam Lindquist, from Waterfront Partnership, credits the improvement to the $1.6 billion investment in sewer infrastructure, which the city agreed to under a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2017.

The organization started amping up testing, collecting samples every weekday throughout the recreational season at five locations. The collectors waited 24 hours for the bacteria to culture and create colonies, then they counted the bacteria colonies. If it’s over 130, it’s a water quality advisory. If not, that’s a low risk for recreation.

It quickly became clear the harbor was swimmable most of the time. Bad days were usually within 48 hours after rainfall.

When advocates announced “Harbor Splash” last November and plunged into the waters themselves, Pumphrey reached out to them immediately.

She didn’t have a plan yet. She didn’t know where the starting point would be. But what if she swam in the harbor?

‘It’s like a metronome’

Her entry point changed a few times. When she met with Waterfront Partnership this year, Pumphrey proposed to start from Fort McHenry, then the Francis Scott Key Bridge. But she wanted to go big. She wanted the swim and the course to be meaningful.

Katie Phumphery practices swimming at Meadowbrook on June 11, 2024.  Phumphery is an ultra-marathon swimmer who will tackle a 24-mile swim from the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in late June.
Pumphrey is always trying to perfect her stroke in the water. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The more Pumphrey and Mahach measured distances and looked at the bay area map, the clearer it was that she had to start near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge — at Sandy Point State Park, where she started her first open water swim more than a decade ago.

The collapse of the Key Bridge put everything on hold, including the announcement of the swim. They weren’t sure if they would have to push it back a few months or a year. The Coast Guard and the Unified Command, though, said they had ownership of the public waterway as much as the ships. Once it was clear, they would be good to go.

Pumphrey is anticipating the swim to be challenging. If this swim had been done before, they would know what points to avoid and how to use the tide to their advantage. The weather will be warmer, so she and her crew will watch for signs of dehydration. The bay has lower salinity than the English and Catalina channels, so she will be less buoyant, all while she’ll be fighting the current.

They have amped up the crew that will be tagging along with her. There will be two boats. One person will be watching her at all times. She’ll have two support swimmers and two observers who will be making sure she is following the rules and logging data, including her stroke rate and water temperature. Her two elder brothers, Sean and Chris, will be there if they need kayakers. Her niece will be there to help too, including making her “feeds.”

Her husband will be there as the crew chief. Her safety will be his main concern.

Joe Mahach with Katie Pumphrey during her English Channel swim in 2022. (Courtesy Photo / Katie Pumphrey)

Mahach will be counting her strokes for 30 seconds. If anything looks abnormal, he will give her a signal. Every half hour, he will give her two water bottles — her cookie water, as she calls it, because it’s sweet — and a gel pack that might have goldfish crackers as treats. Then he will watch her again, count and help log the data for hours. He hopes the day is boring. Boring is good news.

No one is allowed to tell Pumphrey how many yards she has swum or how many hours are left. It could be exciting — it could be soul crushing. Mahach is the one who usually knows when the information will be helpful.

During the feeds, they might ask her to tell them a joke as an informal check-in. Or she will give them a prompt, perhaps asking them to have a poem ready for her next feed. The 25-minute breakdowns are nice mentally, and the five-minute sprints get her alert again.

It helps, he said, that she has a “beautiful stroke.” When she reaches out and grabs water, she gets the most out of her whole body, not just the shoulder muscles, without exerting herself unnecessarily. It’s not just brute force driving her through the water.

“To be able to do that for such a long period of time is really one of her strengths,” Mahach said.

Her stroke is efficient, said Meaghan Carpenter, one of her support swimmers. Carpenter has swum thousands of yards along Pumphrey’s side in the pool; she is incredibly strong, replicating the catch-up drill of swimmers preparing for the Olympics — when one arm comes over and the hand hits the water before the catch, then you wait until your other arm is almost over and needing it. Carpenter would almost say Pumphrey is obsessed with perfecting that perfect cadence.

“When you’re in open water, it’s like a metronome,” she said. “When she is in that meditative tempo, that state of mind, and someone says, ‘I need you to go faster,’ she can easily switch into that gear.

“That’s the golden ticket with this,” Carpenter added.

Until Tuesday, Pumphrey will be tapering. She still goes to the pool — she can’t help it — but not for hours as she has done in the past month. More training could strain her body and tire her, so she must take it easy. It was easier this year because there are more distractions, including last-minute meetings with partners on the swim. She doesn’t do much painting either. It’s a time for settling her mind, cuddling with her two pit bull mixes, 12-year-old Monty and 5-year-old Adja, while rewatching “Madam Secretary.”

In Coppermine Meadowbrook, as she finishes her coffee before starting her workout, Pumphrey says Baltimore doesn’t always get the credit it deserves, even from those who live here. She has seen the hesitancy people have over the harbor and understands the river has historically been neglected and polluted. She keeps telling people, though, to trust science — as they had before with the COVID-19 pandemic.

She loves the sport more with each swim, she said.

“And I feel like swimming continues to love me,” she said. “It’s just constantly giving me more.”

She puts on sunblock, then adjusts her yellow Marathon Swimmers Federation cap over her ear.

She tries the water with her feet. Then she takes the leap.

Katie Phumphery practices swimming at Meadowbrook on June 11, 2024.  Phumphery is an ultra-marathon swimmer who will tackle a 24-mile swim from the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in late June.
During training, Pumphrey geared up to reach 60,000 yards per week, a distance equivalent to 500 football fields or 34 miles. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)