Breaking world records in freezing oceans? No problem. Jaimie Monahan ’00 makes history in the most remote, extreme locations.
By Kris Dreessen
When champion ice-water and ultramarathon swimmer Jaimie Monahan ’00 slides off her Zodiac boat into icy waters, everything falls away. She monitors her fingertips, arm color and breathing. In water just below freezing — and sometimes colder — dropping her focus means she won’t reach her goal.
“Getting into freezing water can make your skin feel like it’s burning, but afterward, there is an immense rush of well-being,” says Monahan. “It’s almost addicting. I love water in all forms. The most special thing about ice swimming is the opportunity to swim among icebergs, glaciers and formations that are thousands of years old.”
Monahan grew up swimming competitively, including three years with the Geneseo Knights. After graduation, she spent 10 years on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs and other top firms before diving into her passion again. Her journey has taken her to some of the world’s most remote locations.
A real-life adventurer, Monahan started out climbing the tallest mountain in Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro, as a fun goal, then began competing in triathlons, the New York City Marathon and open-water swimming. Watching an ice-water pool competition in wintertime Finland captivated her, and she began by swimming near her New York City home in winter, swam the English Channel. With the rest, she has made history.
She is the first person to successfully swim an ice mile on all seven continents, including Antarctica. She is a two-time World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year. She earned the Guinness World Record for swimming six marathons on six continents in only 16 days, and she swam up to 114 miles over 45 hours straight in solo ultramarathon endurance swims all over the world. Monahan has represented the United States in more than 30 countries as a seven-time U.S. national champion in winter swimming and is a two-time, age-group world champion in ice swimming. She is recognized for her feats as an inductee in both the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and the Ice Swimming Hall of Fame. She manages to accomplish all this while working as the U.S. head of campus recruitment and programs for Scotiabank, the Bank of Nova Scotia.
“Although it’s a nice benefit, for me, swimming isn’t about being the fastest or breaking records,” says Monahan. “My passion is exploring the world through its waters, finding personal challenges and creating memorable experiences.”
Monahan wears a traditional, non-insulated swimsuit, cap and goggles in all her challenges. She and her partner, fellow Geneseo alum Arik Thormahlen ’00, a photographer and fellow open-water swimmer, plan their own expeditions. He photographs and accompanies her on swims in a safety kayak or motorboat, along with a doctor. Thormahlen is a development director for the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, and the son of two alums, Susan Tefft Thormahlen ’70 and Arthur Thormahlen ’69.
Monahan says the pair has found a unique culture of camaraderie with fellow swimmers, and the challenges she creates for herself helped her to grow.
“We need to do things that scare us. We have to propel ourselves forward. I try to sign up for a goal that is big and audacious and gives me butterflies in my stomach,” she says.
Pandemic permitting, her next big challenge will be to join a team of international swimmers to traverse Lake Baikal in Russia, the oldest, deepest and, some say, most beautiful lake in the world. “Swimming has taken me places I never thought I’d go,” says Monahan. “I see the world as my canvas.”
In Argentina, she was stunned by the white and blue glaciers and their thundering rumbles as massive chunks splashed into the water. Immersed in a water world, Monahan has learned the nuances of glaciers in salt, fresh and mixed oceans. Once, penguins followed a few meters behind her to the Antarctic shore.
Monahan’s expeditions are captured with photos and stories in books, publications, news and websites. She was recently featured in a book highlighting the stories of historical sports pioneers mixed with portraits of contemporary elite female athletes, “Strong Like Her: A Celebration of Rule Breakers, History Makers, and Unstoppable Athletes,” by Haley Shapley, featuring portraits by Sophy Holland.
“Being in the water, I am suspended in this world,” says Monahan. “I look up at the glaciers like gemstones. The air is pure, and it is quiet, like snow falling on a silent city. I am just one person in a very big world, but through my swims and travels, I hope to showcase what we stand to lose in these most precious, wild places.”