For 25 years, the Long Bridge Swim has attracted athletes from near and far to Sandpoint, where participants enter the water in a quiet Sagle neighborhood, then embark on the near-two-mile journey parallel to the Long Bridge towards the finish line at Dog Beach.
But while this athletic feat has been a local mainstay, the charitable cause behind the last decade of Swims isn’t as well-known. Since race director Jim Zuberbuhler joined the crew in 2007, the longtime participant wanted to help the burgeoning event use its leverage for good. Ever since he got involved, the proceeds from the Long Bridge Swim have gont towards local swim lessons and water safety programs, which aim to teach every area child to swim by the time they reach third grade.
Since then, this initiative has had its fair share of success.
“At that time we had 350-400 swimmers and I thought we should leverage this swim to do more,” Jim Zuberbuhler, race director and frequent Long Bridge Swim participant said.
Things changed in the summer of 2009, when two teenage boys drowned in Moyie Springs and at Spirit Lake, both under eerily similar circumstances.
Both victims were high school boys who were young and athletic. Both were playing in shallow water with friends. And each of the victims accidentally wandered into deeper waters. Sadder still, both boys didn’t know how to swim.
“Here you had teenage kids who had no idea how to swim and two teenagers who had no idea how to help,” Zuberbuhler said. “And that just seemed awful to me. How on earth could we be in an area like this with all this water and not teach every kid how to swim?”
That winter, Zuberbuhler brainstormed solutions. He reached out to everyone ranging from the marine division of the sheriff’s department, to other rural communities situated on bodies of water to gain insight.
Yet this was much easier said than done. Little-to-no data about child drownings — or drownings of any sort — was available. Zuberbuhler’s best guess after all his research was that at the time, at least 25% of all children in Bonner County didn’t know how to swim; the percentage of adults was probably greater than the 25% figure. From there, he did some research and determined that third grade is the opportune time to teach kids how to swim. With a plan in mind, he reached out to then-LPOSD superintendent Dick Cvitanich to start a swim program for LPOSD.
Today, after several years of building a strong volunteer base with solidified relationships with area schools, the group has all of the third grade classes in the district, private schools like Waldorf and the Homeschool Academy, plus the special education students on board with the water safety and swim lessons program. Not only that, there is now a program at the middle school for seventh graders, which is a re-run of the third-grade water safety curriculum albeit with higher-level knowledge.
All in all, Zuberbuhler estimates that 1,000 kids are involved in the program annually.
With a decade under its belt, the LPOSD swim lessons initiative has paid off. In fact, several athletes on Sandpoint High School’s swim team got their start in the water safety instruction program as third graders and are now, coincidentally, swimming on the club and high school levels under Mike Brosnahan, a longtime instructor in the program.
But perhaps the most meaningful sign that the program was meant to be occurred the year after the Long Bridge Swim helped scholarship kids who wanted to take the American Red Cross’s lifesaving class.
Shortly after supporting that program, two students from the program had to resuscitate people who nearly drowned at City Beach. The payback was immediate.
“I get goosebumps thinking about that,” Zuberbuhler said. “What if we didn’t have a lifeguarding program at City Beach? We couldn’t have that happen.”
While the Long Bridge Swim’s brain-trust usually directs its funding towards a specific item (or items) to improve the quality of local swimming, the group’s next goal is to involve west Bonner County kids from Priest River and beyond in the lessons. The main challenge? Priest River doesn’t have a pool, which complicates the logistics.
This year, around 750 swimmers are signed up to embark on the 1.76-mile swim across Lake Pend Oreille. Of those 750, Zuberbuhler estimates around 100 are from the Sandpoint area, 150-200 are from the Coeur d’Alene area and around 400 are from everywhere ranging from the Pacific Northwest, to Calgary and beyond.
And in honor of the event’s 25th year, the Long Bridge Swim has surpassed its $25,000 sponsorship goal thanks to a myriad of local sponsors and partnerships.
“If I were to show you my spreadsheet for the last 10 years, the thing you’d be struck by is that two-thirds of those donors have been on there all those years,” Zuberbuhler said. “These people see this as something really important.”
The 25th annual Long Bridge Swim is this Saturday, Aug. 3. Check-in begins at 6:30 a.m., a mandatory pre-swim meeting follows at 8 a.m., then the swim starts at around 9 a.m.