HAPpy People - Jim McGinn

February 18, 2017

Meet River Hugger, Jim McGinn, interviewed by Christina Malango.

Jim McGinn, Charter River Hugger Member, Dad, Outdoors Dude, Dancer, overall bad ass.

You started long-distance ocean swimming in California in the 1980s in cold, rough conditions. What drove you to do that? 


When I first moved to Redondo Beach in the early 80’s I met Ron Argueta who was sort of the quintessential CA ocean dude with a large beard, fearless. I met up with him on the beach at 5:30 a.m. on summer mornings. He taught me there was nothing to fear about being on the ocean in the dark. I really needed someone like Ron to help me find the confidence to be alone in the ocean those dark mornings. 


While I always felt at home on swim teams, I’m not sure I will ever understand why I was driven to swim alone in the ocean – it is such a lonely endeavor. Maybe I was for the first time finding myself in a singular activity that I ruled as much as it ruled me. 


Eventually I met John York of the Catalina Channel swimming federation and started swimming with him as a supplement to my solo swims. While I struggled with hypothermia daily, it took my failed Catalina Channel attempt to understand that I really have no tolerance for cold water. I realized my mortality and directed myself to become very cautious about cold water.


When did you start swimming in the Willamette and what possessed you?  What does it mean to have a river like the Willamette to swim in? 


When I first moved to Portland in 1990 I was wildly excited about swimming in the river.  My first attempts were unpleasant dark days with muddy water. I didn’t know anyone else who swam in the river and I felt wrong about it, worse than when I climbed barbed wire fences to swim in closed outdoor swimming pools. Soon thereafter I largely gave up swimming and skiing in order to learn to dance. 


I stayed away from the river until 2012 when I started working on my dance piece entitled Float, which looked back at my dark lonely experiences in ocean swimming.  I realized then that I could swim in the river on pleasant days when the water was warm during daylight hours thus avoiding the creepy, dark, lonely experiences. 


Swimming in the daylight, looking around and knowing that other humans were awake and thriving, was somewhat of a transformative experience. During that time I met Willie Levenson on the Holman dock. He invited me to swim with he and a couple other guys.  I came to deeply appreciate and thrive in the security of swimming with others. 


Much of the year you swim with the River Huggers in the morning and at a pool mid-day. Then you have dance classes or rehearsal in the evening. Why so driven? 


I gave up masters swimming in the early ‘90’s and just enjoy swimming for pleasure. When I don’t have dance class or rehearsals during the mid-day I swim in the pool at noon. And yes, I sometimes have dance in the afternoon and evenings. Someday I might actually get into shape.  J


What do you think about when you swim? 


I used to give myself problems to solve while on long swims. I would actively attempt to create a structural method for solving problems I face in physics. However, over time, I have found that swimming is one of the few times that I get to simply zone out and allow my mind to rest.  


You are a contemporary dancer and choreographer. For "Float" you had your dancers rehearse on the Holman Dock. Why? 


I’ve used different parts of my past as context in my choreography. Float was a dance piece where I required the dancers to be immersed in the medium as I had them swim across the river with me and rehearse on the Holman dock. We had a public performance on the dock in May 2013. I hope people enjoyed watching us rehearse. I have fond memories of sweeping duck poop off the dock so the dancers wouldn’t slip.


It's said that dancing is all about heart and breath. The same is true about open water swimming. What other parallels do you see between swimming and dancing? 


Great point. One of my favorite dance teachers always said that no one can teach you to dance, you must teach yourself. In open water swimming, generally, there is no one else there to guide you. You cannot hear the voice of a coach. While in dance there are plenty of people to guide a young dancer, there is no one to guide you on your journey of finding your own artistic voice. Finding that is an effort of self-discovery, as is the mental challenge of navigating the open water.   


Tell us about your newest collaboration with your lovely wife! You are now a father -- how has this new adventure been for you? 


Hooray, thanks for asking. As I write this, my 5-week old daughter Amira Kiruna is sleeping in my lap. As a first-time parent I have a lot to learn, more than I can possibly imagine. Amira will be an integral part of life for my wife and I. She will be in the pool, in the dance studios and on the ski slopes with us. I look forward to the new places that Amira will take us! 

Return to HAPPY PEOPLE Main Page