Stevensville -- From a distance, the 644 swimmers who stroked and kicked their way 4.4 miles across the Chesapeake Bay yesterday looked like so many colorful bait fish thrashing the water to escape hungry predators.
But up close, each was fighting an individual battle with his or her own body and the elements. And all enjoyed some measure of triumph as they stumbled, staggered or strode from the water alongside the east end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
"I used to be in better shape," said Mike Doyle, a 51-year-old electrical engineer from Pennsauken, N.J., who grabbed a pair of crutches as he left the water.
He was completing his 20th bay swim 2 hours, 17 minutes and 9 seconds after leaving Sandy Point State Park on the Western Shore. That's 20 crossings with one leg. Doyle lost his right leg above the knee in a motorcycle accident. He finished this year's swim 393rd overall.
Not so far behind was Nancy Brown, 71, of Pasadena, a swim coach who stepped from the bay arm-in-arm with Patty Devanny, a 48-year-old accountant from Baltimore. They had swum more than 2 1/2 hours side-by-side. "I'm so happy we did it!" Brown exclaimed.
"I'm so happy it's over!" said her daughter, Jill Springer, 48, a West Howard Swim Club coach who had finished earlier. She greeted the pair, and all three clambered up the slope together laughing, like three dripping musketeers. It was the sixth swim across the bay for each.
The end of the annual Toyota Great Chesapeake Bay Swim is always the best part for its participants. Wrinkled by the water, their skin creased by their wet suits, they emerge to each their exhaustion with water, orange slices, doughnuts, energy bars and sandwiches. Hundreds of them milled in the swimmers' corral, greeting friends as they finished, comparing notes and waiting to have the bay water hosed off them.
Officially, the Coast Guard-sanctioned event was the 16th annual swim. But it was actually the 20th charity bay swim since founder Brian Earley first traversed the bay in memory of his father, who died of diabetes in 1981.
"The first year there were only 23 of us. And no wetsuits," said Doyle, who was among the hardy few in that first swim 20 years ago. He was one of three swimmers to receive "20th finish" awards yesterday.
The swim is held annually to raise money and awareness for the March of Dimes and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. This year's event drew swimmers, ages 10 to 76, from 31 states and Canada, race officials said.
"Conditions are perfect," said race director Chuck Nabit, with overcast skies, light winds, and air and water temperatures in the 70s. The race also started at low tide when the currents through the bridge were slack.
"Only eight swimmers have been pulled from the water. The average is usually 25 to 30," Nabit said.
Yesterday's swim was won by Brian Benda of Parkton, who finished his fifth bay swim in 1 hour, 25 minutes and 24 seconds. He collapsed on the slope just after leaving the water. "Tired. It's a long way," he gasped.
"A couple of guys pulled me across," Benda explained, meaning he paced himself behind the other swimmers. "I didn't lead until the last 10 meters or so."
It was his fastest finish and first win after placing third (twice), fifth and seventh in previous competitions.
"The feeling you get from doing that is just awesome," Benda said.
The 36-year-old civil engineer said later that he was "intimately familiar" with the Bay Bridge, not just because he's swum the bay between the two spans five times. He's also been part of an inspection team that checks the bridge for damage.
Right behind Benda were Kevin Jones, 17, of Clemons, N.C., who finished six seconds behind the winner; and Bruce Brockschmidt, 40, of Mount Laurel, N.J., 18 seconds behind Benda.
Brockschmidt won last year and also in 2004.
As exhausted as many of the swimmers appeared, "it's actually an enjoyable race," Brockschmidt said. "It's hard, but for a good cause." Maybe best of all, he added, "it feels good when you're done."
The first woman to finish was Elizabeth Schlicher, 25, of Baltimore, a securities analyst at T. Rowe Price who swims every morning ("to wake up!") at Meadowbrook Swim Club in Baltimore. She came in 11th overall, in 1:33:20.
In addition to the 4.4-mile cross-bay swim, there is also a 1-mile swim that starts and finishes on the shoreline beside Hemingway's restaurant in Stevensville, just south of the bridge.
The winner was Colin Stang, 15, of Columbia, in 23 minutes 56 seconds.
Among the other 361 1-mile finishers was 10-year-old Andrew Coe of Ellicott City. The youngest competitor on the water yesterday, he's been swimming competitively for less than a year, said his mother, Betsy Coe, who swam beside him.
Although he was "crying and scared" before the race, she said, he jumped in anyway and buckled down after the first 50 yards. He came ashore 37 minutes and 50 seconds later, finishing eighth in the 14-and-under class.
Andrew said he kept going, "because my mom told me I could do it." He was tired, but "it felt good. It was very fun."