Powering through the Ohio

Published 10:23 am Thursday, June 10, 2010

ASHLAND, Ky. — About a half-mile from the Ashland Boat Ramp white splashes of water erupted from mid channel of the Ohio River like a frisky dolphin out for a holiday.

Mimi Hughes was on her way, swimming between two kayaks as an Ashland Fire Department rescue boat with a contingency of press hovered nearby.

At 2:44 p.m. Wednesday Hughes emerged from the brackish water, stripped off her black wet suit and yellow Speedo cap down to a fuchsia swim suit and met her applauding fans.

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It was Day 15 of the two-month long journey Hughes of Taft, Tenn., is making to swim the length of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Cairo, Ill., where it runs into the Mississippi River.

Intermittent downpours during the day did nothing to drench Hughes’ zeal as she made remarkably good time from Guyandotte, W.Va., to Ashland, Ky., in about 5 and a half hours.

“I feel pretty good. It was such a short day,” she said.

The reason?

“It was the current,” Hughes said. “No, I had my Cheerios.”

After coming in to Ashland, Hughes is now about one-third the way of her 981-mile swim that started May 22. If she stays on schedule, it will be July 17 when she reaches the mouth of the Mississippi.

Hughes, 54, and a mother of four, is doing the marathon swim to promote national awareness of organizations that provide life skills and education for girls.

All money raised will go to the Central Asia Institute that has built schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan and organizations chosen by communities along the Ohio River that empower women and girls.

It’s a swim that has tested Hughes’ endurance, patience and sense of humor as she had had to face everything from equipment malfunctions to the brute force of the river itself.

“Sometimes it’s the current or the toxicity in the water,” she said. “Today there was a certain section I was not comfortable with. I don’t know what was in the water and if you know, don’t tell me.

“But 20 years ago, I couldn’t have done this. At least people are recognizing this is a resource. That this is something to protect.”

Hughes’ religiously swims 20 miles a day whether it takes five hours or 12 as it did last week when she fought against head winds that held her back. Her day starts at 9 a.m. with occasional stops for power drinks.

With her is an ad hoc team of kayakers who sign on for segments of the journey. Starting today, Marsha Wikle, assistant ranger at the Ironton district of the Wayne National Forest, will chaperone Hughes for the next four days from Ashland to Manchester in Adams County.

Each night Hughes spends at the city where she has landed, enjoying the hospitality of total strangers, who support her mission or are intrigued by her spirit. It’s hospitality she embraces with gratitude.

“I have no sponsors. I am dependent on people to help and they do,” Hughes said. “It has been incredible. I have been so impressed with the American spirit.”