Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Femmes, a River and a Dream

Claude Noelle Toly, an ex-pat from a tiny village in the South of
France and proprietor of Le Fanion, a French art and antiques shop in Greenwich Village, likes to ride her bike up and down the Hudson River. Her father had taught her to swim as a young child, and she briefly swam competitively at boarding school until health problems sidelined her athletic career as a pre-teen. Four decades later, in her adopted country, she would gaze at the lordly Hudson River as she rode along the bike path and wish she could swim in its flowing waters. 
When she learned of a race around Liberty Island to be held June 29, 2012, Claude Noelle felt the time had come to follow her dream. She would swim the 1.2K race around the Statue of Liberty—a gift to the American people from the people of France. What could be more fitting! 

She had wanted to swim the Hudson for years but kept giving herself reasons not to do it. ”I’m too old," Claude Noelle told herself. “I'm not good enough. It would be too complicated." Last March, excuses aside, she began training at her health club pool: she did drills, watched videos, hired a coach who helped her hit the qualifying time of under 35 minutes. Then, four months later, on the last Friday of June--a night of staggering heat--and once the tourists had cleared off the island, she faced the open waters of the Hudson and her fears. Follow along as Claude Noelle circles Lady Liberty:

Claude Noelle and her boyfriend Todd arrive on Liberty Island late  afternoon.  Race officials write her number--536--in indelible magic marker on her arm.  Her qualifying time puts her into the second to last heat.  No problem. . .

She joins other swimmers of all ages and talents for a final briefing.  She listens attentively as she hears how to navigate the strong currents,  how to gauge progress by the Manhattan skyline, how kayakers will keep swimmers on course. . .

She puts on her wet suit that will slow her time but protect her from the 72 degree water and pollution.  She then joins her friend Patty, an Emmy award winning documentary film maker from Australia. Claude Noelle convinced her to join the race sponsored by NYC Swim.

More than 400 swimmers queue up along the island's shore line. The tension builds . .  .

Each heat of swimmers has a differently colored cap.  Patty's
is orange because her qualifying time was faster than Claude's. Claude's is pink and marked with the number 536. Devices to keep track of their time and location are attached to their ankles. . .

There is no launch ramp to enter the Hudson from Liberty Island. Instead swimmers board a docked ferry and prepare to leap from its side.  (Patty says later she wanted to quit immediately after hitting the water--the shock, the dark, the current--but a nearby kayaker encouraged her to stay the course.) Ready, set, swim . . .

That's Claude Noelle (above) following her dream--and a route that now seems longer, harder, darker and scarier than she imagined.

Thirty-two minutes and 54 seconds after she'd entered the water, she emerges victorious. . .

 She is the 278th swimmer to finish the race. Todd congratulates her onshore . . .

                   Hurrah for Claude Noelle!  She did it !

Having received her medal, Claude Noelle reflects on her victory. She uses a French expression--emotions fortes-- which means "strong emotions, like thrills"--to describe swimming the river. Later she says: "Having done that swim is more for me like having finally become intimate with the river, just like when you see somebody around you admire and you wish you could get introduced or become a friend. I finally got intimate with the river. That's the satisfaction: feeling like I am now in its circle of close friends. I love that! Instead of being on the outside I'm now on the inside."

 And, what did she do after the race to celebrate her accomplishment? She took the ferry back to lower Manhattan late Friday night and then rode her bike home to the Village.  The next day she hopped aboard her bike again and followed the path along the Hudson to Todd's house in Harlem. "It was almost sunset, and I smiled and winked at the river all the way! I swear, it's like a romantic affair. Now we know each other better: the way the river feels, smells, tastes . . .  I guess in that sense it is physical. Yes, the whole thing is very similar to an affair! Now I know instead of wondering-- and I can savor the intimacy."

                            Happy Fourth of July one and all!
                      Here's to independent spirits everywhere.

Text by Caryl; photos by Maryl 

(Be sure to check secondlivesclub,com soon to find another story about Claude Noelle Toly; how she came to America, found a second life --and co-founded Le Fanion, her store.)


  1. That's so inspiring. How brilliant/brave to swim in the Hudson. Bravo Claude!

    1. Shouldn't you and Mr. That's Not My Age be swimming somewhere yourselves.
      Enjoy your vacation--and thanks for stopping by.

    2. Wow!!!! ce bon,Claude Noelle.... I have had the pleasure of this amazing women in my yoga class many years ago.... My hat and beret are off to you...

    3. Astrud!! Thank you so much!
      Namaste to you ;-)
      Claude Noelle

  2. Congratulations. What an awesome event to start open water swimming. Loved the words and the photos.
    Now you can do the Brooklyn Bridge Swim.

    1. Hi Greg,

      Your kind words are much appreciated. And yes, Claude Noelle is ready for another swim.
      She is thinking Governor's Island, rather the the Brooklyn Bridge.

      I see you are "in the water" but do you do lot of open water swims?

    2. Congratulations Greg on your placement in the Channel swim!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this inspiring story. I swim in a pool 3X a week. I am much, much slower than Claude Noelle. 1.2 K in just under 33 minutes in the Hudson!? She is NO slouch.

    I can't wait to read more about her.

    1. Judith,

      Wow. You're like Maryl. She swims three or more times a week but only in pools. Claude Noelle was
      shocked about her time. She was guessing it would be more like 45 minutes. I love that not only can
      women our age accomplish new feats but we can exceed even our own expectations. Makes me
      want to climb a mountain. I'm not much of a swimmer.

  4. OMG, what a wonderful story. I absolutely LOVE the determination, as well as following your dreams. I am a total dreamer, who believe anything is possible, even in the face of continued difficulties. Without dreams and aspirations life would be very sad indeed. xx's

    1. Splenderosa,

      I am with you. I believe if we put our minds to it, we can accomplish anything. I am a dreamer too.
      And, I have come to expect continuing difficulties. One of the things I love about this stage of life
      is that now only are we certain we can do new things but we know also that if we fall along the way,
      we will get up again. I like having experience on my side.

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I had my inspirational moment last year when I completed a 10K. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. I came in last, but I finished it.

  6. I just read this beautiful story about running in George Sheehan's "Being and Running." He tells about running at
    race in his 60s shortly after he had been diagnosed with cancer (from which he would later die). He struggled
    the whole race and he wanted to quit after the first loop. He was last the whole time, trailing a friend of a similar
    age. Near the end of the race, he had a momentary surge and passed his friend by a nose. A person watching
    the race said: "The real race was for last place." Much wisdom in that.