‘Why would you not want to?’
Vienna native conquers 11-hour Lake Tahoe swim
Don’t bother telling Andy Rieger to go jump in a lake. He’s probably already in one, training for his next hourslong swim.
Rieger’s latest conquest kept him in the water 11 consecutive hours as he swam the 22.3-mile length of Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border.
“It’s kind of one of those things ‘because it’s there,'” the 1991 Mathews High School graduate said. “When asked why would you want to do that, my response was why would you NOT want to?”
The wonderfully blue Lake Tahoe might be his favorite open water swim site so far. “The water is beautiful. It’s the clearest water I’ve swam in,” he said.
Next summer, Rieger plans to swim around Manhattan Island in preparation for attempting the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming in a couple of more years. That would be the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a 28.5-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan Island, N.Y.; the Catalina Channel, 20.1 miles between Catalina Island and the California mainland; and the English Channel, 20.5 miles between France and England.
“I personally like the challenge. It’s just you and the water, and as odd as it sounds, it helps me keep my sanity.”
The Vienna native figures that his parents took him to the Warren Olympic Club, 3951 Tod Ave. NW, when he was only a year old. He took to it.
“You need to be comfortable in the water, which I’ve always been. I started swimming at age 5,” he said. “I swam competitively as a kid growing up at the Warren YMCA.”
He continued competitive swimming for the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where he studied aerospace / mechanical engineering.
“Then I took two decades off.”
He married high school classmate Jordana Rae Martin a year after graduation from West Point. They had two daughters, Isabella and Aurora, and moved around the globe for military assignments. Later, Rieger went to work for ExxonMobil Global Projects, where he is an execution planning adviser for building projects. They settled in Montgomery, Texas, near Houston.
In 2018, Jordana died at age 44 after a six-year battle with cancer. Last year, Rieger’s older brother Matt died at age 50 after a brief battle with cancer.
In recent years, Andy Rieger took to swimming again. In 2019, he, along with friends and family members, started participating in Swim Across America events, raising money for cancer research and hospitals. By the time he completed the 15-mile Long Island Sound Open Water Swim benefit in 2019, Rieger was hooked on swimming in the open water rather than in a pool.
A swimmer can always see the sides of a pool. In the open water, especially a body of water that’s more than 21 miles long and 12 miles across, the swimmer cannot see the shore.
“In a lake, typically, you can’t see anything but water, so you follow the guide boat. And I guarantee that you’re going to drink water.” With the unpredictability of wind and waves, swallowing mouthfuls of water can’t be helped the way it can be in a pool.
Plus, there’s the pain and fatigue of swimming for miles. Those are the times he thought of his wife and his brother.
“I try to put into perspective the things they had to go through just to survive,” Rieger said. “Well I can push through the next minute or two until it stops hurting.”
While most of his open water swims were cancer benefits, the Lake Tahoe conquest in the Sierra Nevada mountain range was a challenge Rieger set for himself.
He began training in February for the July swim. He arrived a week ahead of time to get used to the altitude difference. “Houston is about 100 feet above sea level. There, it’s about 6,000 feet above sea level,” he said.
At 10 p.m. July 22, he set off from the Pope Beach area of Camp Richardson, Calif., and headed north.
“When I started at 10 at night, I took off a little too fast. Before I knew it, I was hurting. I was only a half mile into this. I could turn around and go back,” he said.
Instead, Rieger adjusted pace and pushed ahead. “It’s a mental (challenge).”
A support boat leads the swimmer, who easily could get off course without being able to see land to get his bearings. Rieger’s team included his older daughter Isabella, 23, and college teammate Kurt Matheson, who took turns paddling the support kayak that stayed near Rieger.
The rules for an official open water swim are that the competitor cannot use aids, such as swim fins or a wetsuit, and that he must remain in the water the entire swim. “You cannot touch the boat. You cannot hang on the boat,” he said.
The swimmer may wear a swim cap and goggles. Water bottles and food, such as packets of energy gels, are tossed toward the swimmer, who must tread water while eating, drinking or resting. Rieger said he rolled over to float on his back during those breaks.
The water temperature was 63, 64 degrees at night. “The water was cold, but much better than being on the boat, from what I heard. The air temperature got down to 40 degrees.”
The other crisis moment was when Matheson called out that he just passed the two-thirds point. At first, Rieger felt the exhilaration of having only a third of the distance left. Then it hit him that that he still had a full seven miles to go.
“But when the sun started coming up, that gave me the energy,” he said. “At the very end, when I could see the shore, one or two miles out, and I was in 15 to 20 feet of water and I could see the bottom, I got excited.”
It’s a beautiful sandy beach with clear water. At about 20 feet from shore, he no longer could swim, so he stood and walked, the sand between his toes.
“The last five feet was rocks! You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said.
At 9 a.m., Rieger stepped onto the beach in Crystal Bay at Incline Village, Nev.
He ate doughnuts with his daughter, took a nap for a couple hours, went out for dinner, and then slept very soundly that night.
“It was hard. I wasn’t as completely wiped out as I thought I’d be. I guess I had a good training base,” he said.
Want to follow in Andy Rieger’s wake?
“Find a pool and start swimming,” he advised. Find people to train with. Stick to it. Find a goal, whether it be to raise money for a cause or challenge oneself or to enjoy the quiet of open water, where the stress of the workday and the pressures of life can’t reach.
Over the last four years, Rieger’s Swim Across America fundraising teams, Team Rae for his wife and Team Matt for his brother, included swimmers and the support of his father, Warren attorney Gil Rieger; his mother, Casey Rieger; sister, Amy Bos of Heber City, Utah, a 1984 Mathews graduate; brother, Thad of Columbus, a 1982 Mathews graduate; 1991 Warren G. Harding graduate Kristen Van Fossan Paternina, and her daughter, Katherine Paternina; West Point classmates from his 1995 graduating class, including Amber Dossey and Heidi Ketchum; and some local friends / swimmers, Alisha Davis, Nicole Schoppe and Nico Nagels.
Find a pool or an open lake, friends, motivation, and, to quote Dory from the “Finding Nemo” movie, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim.”