Provided/Jim Whelan in the pool.

Will revive Around the Island Marathon swim

ATLANTIC CITY – Green Whales, Inc., which includes Whelan’s Whales, a program developed by volunteers at the Brigantine Aquatics Center, will be hosting the first-ever Jim Whelan Open Water Festival Sunday, July 14 to honor former New Jersey senator, Atlantic City mayor and teacher, Atlantic City Beach Patrol captain and beloved Atlantic City High School swim coach Jim Whelan.

The festival includes three open water events for different age groups and abilities. The main event is the Around the Island Marathon Swim, a 22.75-mile swim around Absecon Island for athletes 18 and older, 16 and older for relays. Other events include the Green Whales 2K, a 1.2-mile swim in the backbay for ages 11 and older; and the Pilot Whales 400-meter swim in the backbay for athletes 14 and younger. All events start and end at the Atlantic City High School Boathouse, 3401 Fairmount Ave. Registration opens Feb. 1.

“We’ve been working on this for the last 10 months,” said fundraising coordinator Robin Taylor, who is also the head coach at Brigantine Aquatics Club. “We have been working with the Atlantic City school district, all four municipalities, their beach patrols and emergency management offices, the Coast Guard and Marine Police.”

Her daughter Sari Carroll, is the deck coach for the Greenheads Swim Team at the Brigantine pool, and the central figure in most of what the club does, Taylor said.

“She is the heart of Whelan’s Whales and started our Special Olympics program,” Taylor said.

The Atlantic City Sports Commission, which supports sporting events that enhance the economy, has reached out to the casinos for sponsorships and will help with logistics closer to the event, Taylor said.

Chuck Eberson/Around the Island Swim

The events will raise funds for Whelan’s Whales, a program that was formed in 2017 by owners and staff at the Brigantine Aquatic Club after Whelan passed away suddenly. Whelan’s Whales offers free swim lessons and water safety training for the children of Atlantic City and reflects Whelan’s belief that all children living in coastal areas should learn to swim and be safe in the ocean.

“That was Jim’s baby – teaching inner city kids how to swim,” Taylor said. “At first, some are so petrified to even get in the water, but as they progress, some show promise and are invited to swim for other teams.”

In 2018, the organization offered programs to more than 300 local children and added the Special Olympics team for children with special needs. Special Olympics New Jersey will be holding its annual swimming event for children across South Jersey on March 10 at Atlantic City High School.

Whelan, who was an award-winning long-distance swimmer, revived the Around the Island Marathon Swim and coached others to finish the race, including Victoria Dolceamore of Margate, who coaches Greenheads and recently attempted an English Channel relay swim. Unfortunately, her swim was cut short when a teammate had a heart attack.

Meet manager Karen Bown works on updating the team website.

“We have already received the blessings of the Whelan family, including his wife Kathy and step-son Rich,” she said.

The Around the Island Marathon Swim, which started in 1953 with two lifeguards, fell by the wayside for many years, but it was Whelan who helped bring it back as an international event. The last one was held in 2006. A lack of funding to attract professional international swimmers contributed to its demise, but the local swimming community is hoping the July 14 event will attract the eye of international swimming organization and new corporate sponsorship.

Chuck Eberson/Around the Island Swim

“The race itself doesn’t make any money, but it does bring prestige to the community,” Taylor said. “We are adding the 2K and 400-meter to bring in younger people and hopefully, make enough money to keep Whelan’s Whales program going.”

Taylor said the group is hoping to run a good event this year.

“It’s not our first open water swim. We’ve been doing it in Brigantine for about eight years, so we are adept at the needs of running an open water swim.”

Organizers have already obtained a great deal on room rates at the Tropicana, where swimmers from outside the area can stay during the race.

“We’ve already heard from a woman in the U.K. and another from Sri Lanka,” Taylor said.

Entries for the Around the Island swim are limited to 24 participants, mainly because each participant must have a lifeguard escort and surf boat.

“We can arrange that for the swimmer, or if they know someone, they can coordinate their own escorts,” Taylor said.

Chuck Eberson/Jim Whelan with swimmer Gabriel Chaillou of Argentina at a past Around the Island Swim.

Each surfboat must include one working lifeguard and a second who can be an alumnus, she said. Swimmers can also bring their trainers for feeding and watering during the race. The event will be watch timed, but each swimmer will wear a GPS finder for safety.

“This is all part of our three-year plan,” meet director Karen Bown said. “This year, we will conduct the race as a non-USA Swimming event, but we will run it as though it were a sanctioned event. We will have USA Swimming officials involved just to get the flow going. Next year, we hope it will be a USA Swimming sanctioned event, and by the third year go with FINA. The whole idea is to bring a beloved event back in a fashion that Jim Whelan would approve and shine a light on Whelan’s Whales.”

Ventnor resident Chuck Eberson said he is pleased to see the event revived.

“My wife, Rubye and I were charged with finding host families for the swimmers. We hosted the same swimmer, Gabriel Challou every year for nine years,” Eberson said.

The Ebersons event visited Challou, who is from Argentina, and his wife in Italy.

Whelan’s Whales

“We continue to stay in touch. They are like family to us,” he said.

Coordinating host families was challenging in the days before Facebook and social media, he said, but swim families stepped up to offer housing, food and transportation for the swimmers, who traveled the world swimming in open water events.

“They always said it is one of the toughest swims on the circuit because of the length, the currents, waves and water temperature. It’s a long eight-hour slog. Just imaging playing in the water for eight hours let alone swimming and competing against the world’s greatest swimmers.”

Chuck Eberson/Around the Island Swim.

He recalls the bayfront property owners who hung banners, provided music and held parties, and the spectators who lined the bridges to cheer-on the athletes.

“I’m thrilled to see it come back. It’s great for Atlantic City.”

Registration opens Feb. 1. For more, see greenwhales.org.