Record-breaking performance in Swim Around Key West

Go big or go home.

That’s what Oceane Peretti did June 16 in winning the 42nd Annual Swim Around Key West, a 12.5 mile open water race that pitted the swimmer against the elements as well as herself. Her time of 4:05:36 was the fastest time by a female in the history of the event and the fastest time since 2006 regardless of gender.

What makes the feat even more remarkable is that this was Peretti’s first open water race at this distance.

Peretti (center) and FIU Swimming & Diving teammates Letizia Bertelli (left) and Rachel Whitaker (right) celebrate Peretti’s history-making win.

The senior, who specializes in distance events as a member of the FIU swimming and diving team, completed the race nearly five minutes ahead of the second-place finisher. Peretti conquered Mother Nature, her fears, fatigue – and a bridge piling – on her way to victory.

‘I Was So Afraid of Swimming in the Ocean’

When asked to describe the experience in one word, Peretti, who is from France, said, “Enrichissant.” Enriching. “I just feel like I grew in so many ways in doing this race.”

She first heard about the race in March from her coach as the team was traveling to the Conference USA Championships. She immediately dismissed the idea of competing. There were too many sea creatures lurking.

“I was so afraid of swimming in the ocean,” Peretti said. After a strong C-USA championship meet where she dropped significant time in her mile race, she began to reconsider the 20K test of endurance. She talked it over with Horner, who agreed to train her for the event.

“When OC mentioned she was interested in the race, we talked about the commitment it would require to complete this distance,” said Horner. “She embraced the challenge, and it was an inspiration to see her focus and determination.”

Horner had Peretti swim a modified version of the team’s daily practices. Additionally, she began doing open water swims in Biscayne Bay every Saturday. Peretti started with two hour swims and worked her way up to a 3.5 hour swim in her final open water practice. Not only did it help her get used to open water swimming – which is entirely different than swimming in a pool – it helped her come to terms with her fear.

Close Encounter at Mile 5

Conditions on race day were typical for Key West in June – the water temperature was 85 degrees Fahrenheit and the air temperature 88 degrees. Event organizers set the starting time to take advantage of the currents, so Peretti was having “fun” swimming with the current for the first nine miles of the race – with one notable exception at mile five.

Coach Horner (in kayak) accompanied Peretti throughout her swim, offering support and hydration.

“There were two guys who were close to me from the start,” said Peretti, who led for the entire race. “One guy was drafting off of the other. At some point, the guy who was drafting left the other guy and began drafting behind me.” (A technique found in auto racing, cycling and swimming, drafting involves following closely behind someone and, in the case of swimming, “surfing” on their wake.)

Peretti became so focused on her drafter that she eased up on “sighting” – looking up every few strokes to make sure she was remaining on course. She didn’t realize how quickly she was approaching – or how close she was coming to – the Fleming Key Bridge.

“When I finally looked up, the piling was directly in front of me,” Peretti said. She veered away at the last second but not before scraping her ankle on the piling. “It was a bit scary at first because I didn’t know how badly I had injured my ankle.” As it turns out, not too badly.

Peretti said the man who was drafting off her swam directly into the Fleming Key Bridge piling. (He was able to continue the race.)

“I could tell OC was getting annoyed by the guy drafting off her. The distraction almost cost her as she nearly hit the piling head on,” said Horner. “Once I knew she was okay, I told her it was time to put some distance between her and the other two men in the lead pack.”

It became Peretti’s race to lose for the final seven-and-a-half miles.

Horner shadowed her in a kayak the entire course and had her hydrate every 15 minutes. (When asked why Horner did not warn her about the piling, Peretti laughed and said, “He tried. He was yelling and yelling, but he was 5 or 6 meters away from me and I didn’t hear him.”)

At mile nine, the contestants suddenly found themselves swimming against the current, which is how it remained for the last three miles of the race.

“I really slowed down,” Peretti said. “It became all about fighting through my pain and fatigue and staying strong.”

In her first 20K race, Peretti set a goal of finishing in less than four hours. She ultimately crossed the finish line four hours, five minutes and 36 seconds after entering the water.

Teammates Letizia Bertelli and Rachel Whitaker accompanied Peretti to the race. They were at the finish line, Peretti’s phone in hand, FaceTiming her parents in France so they could share in the joy of their daughter’s victory.

“It was really nice,” Peretti said.

Pain and Patience

When asked what surprised her most about the race, Peretti didn’t hesitate.

“The pain. As a distance swimmer, I’m used to pain, that’s just how it is. At the end of this race, though, I felt a level of pain that was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.”

Peretti is a computer science major. She says her sport and choice of major complement one another.

“Computer science demands a lot of patience. You have to create algorithms to solve a problem, and it can take you all day to work the bugs out of an algorithm. That patience helps in swimming, particularly open water swimming where the races are so long,” Peretti says. “Swimming helps me in computer science because it has taught me never to give up. To do it well requires commitment. So if I’ve worked all day on a computer science problem and still can’t figure it out, I know that I can walk away from it and try again tomorrow and eventually I’ll get it.”

Said Horner, “This experience with OC in Key West is one of my most memorable as a coach. She committed to a goal and didn’t give up. She’s not only a talented athlete, she’s also a student with a 3.78 GPA. These types of experiences in her life will make her a more prepared person for life’s challenges.”