It was the sort of remark that coaxes nervous laughter from everyone in the room. Three years ago, when a friend at a New Year’s Eve party jokingly dared Mimi Hughes to swim the entire length of the 652-mile Tennessee River, she simply smiled and shrugged off the comment.
An avid runner, Hughes knew she also could master the swimming challenge. After all, she’d already swum from Alcatraz to San Francisco and from Alaska to Siberia across the Bering Strait.
Now what if she could use the swim to draw attention to the river’s water quality issues? Or prompt a few neighborhood cleanups? Or maybe even show kids why they should take responsibility for the environment?
The idea kept invading her thoughts, she says, like ice cream calling a dieter’s name.
“I couldn’t shake it,” she recalls.
“I appreciate the river, all the waterways and the greenery, because I never had that growing up,” says Hughes, who was raised in Southern California. “I’m always awestruck by the beauty.”
So she could do only one thing—swim the route.
Hughes, a college reading teacher from Taft, Tenn., decided to separate the swim into parts, logging at least 125 miles each summer, beginning in 1999 at the river’s origin in Knoxville, Tenn.—then following its route south into Alabama and north again through Tennessee, reaching its mouth at Paducah, Ky., in 2003. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) sponsored her trip with a boat escort, hotel accommodations, and shuttle service.
During her 10-day summer swims, the 47-year-old mother of four follows alongside the boat, stopping hourly for a power drink, half a banana, and sunscreen. Challenges have included strained shoulders, speeding boats, parasites that cause stomach-flu symptoms, and encounters with buoys and debris. In July she swam the fourth leg of her five-year journey.
Although Hughes’ swim has prompted several agencies to re-think their water-quality strategies, her impact is more often felt on a personal level. When prompted, she talks to neighbors, friends, and curious spectators about recycling, investing in environmentally responsible companies, and opting for chemical-free pest control.
Her husband and son (both named Forrest) at first balked at her crusade, but now cheer her on. Daughter Breand wants to be an environmental attorney, and her other daughter, Tesla, is a champion swimmer.
And Hughes has the satisfaction of knowing she’s making a positive change.
“I think the strength of her swim lies in her own deep commitment, and people admire her for that,” says Linda Harris, TVA senior field representative for Resource Stewardship. “They feel a bond with her and that leads them to re-evaluate their own behavior. That’s probably the way she’s making the most difference.”
Hughes often is asked to speak to students of all ages. “I have little kids come up to me and say, ‘I’m going to start an environmental group’ or ‘We picked up this litter,’” she says.
The marathon, she admits, is emotionally draining. To motivate herself through a grueling 30,000 strokes in eight hours, Hughes often recites a poem, or recalls a quote from Albert Einstein: “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life is based on the labors of others, living and dead, and that I must exert myself to give the same measure as I have received, and am still receiving.”
“I don’t think we look at our lives (enough) as being a result of the sacrifices that other people have made,” Hughes says. “And it most definitely is.”