WELLFLEET — Buoyancy. That’s the key to being a good swimmer, according to Joan Nagle, the Outer Cape’s unofficial swimming guru.
“A lot of people think they need their arms and their legs to stay up,” Nagle says. “But the main thing is you have to feel your buoyancy. You have to trust yourself in the water and trust the water itself.”
Nagle, now 87 years old, has been swimming her whole life.
“When I was four, my father encouraged me to jump off a raft and go for the shore,” she recalls.
Nagle has lived at Seashore Point in Provincetown since March 2020, but she grew up in New Haven, Conn., where she swam for the New Haven YMCA. She was pretty good. When she was 15, she was one of about 12 swimmers to represent the state of Connecticut at a national competition in Orlando, Fla. Her main event was the 200-meter breaststroke.
Back then, she says, there were no lane lines and swimmers didn’t wear goggles. “There was no pressure in those days,” Nagle says. “I was a kid who went and swam.”
Nagle practically swam her way to the Outer Cape. She used to swim the Long Island Sound. She came to the Cape full time in the 1970s and served as the aquatics director at Sandwich High School from 1987 to 1997. Now, for more than a decade, she’s been swimming the ponds of the Outer Cape. Great Pond in Truro and Great Pond in Wellfleet are two of her favorites.
Twelve years ago, Nagle started a women’s swim class through the Wellfleet Council on Aging. The group meets at Great Pond in Wellfleet throughout the summer and fall.
What it’s given her, Nagle says, is “the gratification of teaching people who had a fear of water.”
The class started with just a few women, but now 30 are registered. They come from Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro to do water aerobics and swimming exercises together. This summer, the class has met regularly on Monday and Friday mornings.
“Joan taught us how to swim properly,” says Christine Shreeves of Wellfleet.
Nagle was the instructor until June this year. When she decided to take a step back, five students — Shreeves, Candace Perry, Chery Watkinson, Bonnie Kramer, and Mary Goodhouse — stepped up to take her place. But she remains the group’s guidestar.
“She’s our original inspiration and instructor,” says Watkinson.
“Our mentor,” adds Kramer.
After class, the women usually go out for coffee and breakfast.
Nagle relishes time with these friends. She remembers when there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women in sports.
“It wasn’t very popular to be a woman athlete growing up,” Nagle said. “It was cheerleading, cheerleading, or cheerleading.”
Nagle attended Purdue University from 1951 to 1955 and swam for the Lafayette Country Club, a competitive swim team established in 1948.
“It was the only place a woman could swim,” she said. Nagle swam competitively during her first two years and after that got into synchronized swimming.
She organized the first Swim for Life event at Great Pond in Wellfleet in 2019. Swim for Life, started by Jay Critchley and Walter McLean in 1988, is a fundraiser for the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod. Traditionally, it takes place in Provincetown Harbor. This year’s course, which stays close to shore, is 1.2 miles long.
The Great Pond swim is an extension of the event for those who are “harborly challenged,” as Critchley puts it. The pond course covers about two-thirds of a mile, and a group of Nagle’s students participate in it together as a team — the Wellfleet Great Pond Mermaids.
Nagle doesn’t swim as much as she used to, but she finished the Swim for Life course in Great Pond in 2019. And she still enjoys the water.
“One thing you can do for your whole life is swimming,” she says.
Candace Perry remembers finishing the harbor swim in Provincetown a few years back. It took her two hours, and she felt pretty good about that time, until she found out Nagle had finished in 55 minutes.
Swimmers and Paddlers
This year’s 34th Provincetown Swim for Life & Paddler Flotilla is set for Saturday, Sept. 11. Swimmers will follow a new shoreline route, and SharkWatch will monitor the harbor for creatures before and during the swim, according to Jay Critchley, who organizes the annual fundraiser to benefit the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, Helping Our Women, Outer Cape Health Services, and other community organizations.
Christie Andresen will be honored with the David Asher volunteer award, and Jim Youngerman created this year’s artwork for the Swim.
New this year are an afternoon starting time and a Mermaid Tea at Waterfront Park. There will also be a morning Swim at Wellfleet’s Great Pond.
Vaccinations are required for all participants and spectators.
The minimum pledge to participate is $100.
Find details on the schedule and register at the Swim for Life website: swim4life.org.