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Swimming The 1,777-Mile Danube River For A Good Cause

May 19, 2014 1:19 p.m.


Mimi Hughes, author of "Wider Than A Mile," which chronicles her swim down the Danube River in 2006.

Related Story: Swimming The 1,777-Mile Danube River For A Good Cause


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. People who take on extreme is will challenges for the sake of a cause usually get a lot of publicity at the end. If a person finishes a walk across the country or climbs a mountain, we will hear about it in the news. But rarely do we get a day-to-day sense of what such a journey is like. Mimi Hughes is originally from San Diego and she is a swimmer. She has embarked on a number of ultramarathon swims, including swimming the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers for social and environmental causes. Her most challenging swim of over 1700 miles was down the Danube River. She has documented the stories of the people, joys and hardships of that journey in the book Wider Than a Mile. Mimi, welcome to the show.

MIMI HUGHES: Thank you Maureen, I'm really excited to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You are the first woman to swim the length of the Danube, why did you choose to swim that back in 2006?

MIMI HUGHES: I wanted to make a social environmental statement of responsibility and I wanted it to be the river that went through the most countries. I ask a teacher at my school what that river was and he said the Danube. I said how long is that? He said a couple thousand miles. I said is there a shorter one? And there wasn't. It became the Danube.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You are a teacher by profession?


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But you do the swims and you have done a number of them, if you would, please take us through how you go about this, how many miles do you swim each day if you're doing one of these ultramarathon swims like the Danube?

MIMI HUGHES: It really depends on the swim. For the Danube, I only had summer. I had to be back. I only had so many days, I could give myself 100 days and decided I had to swim this many meters a day to make it to the Black Sea in time. My swim coach wanted me to take a day off, but I could not do that. I made the decision to do the approximate 33 km a day, to finish in time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It took you 289 days.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Who travels with you? What does it look like when you are in the water?

MIMI HUGHES: My nineteen-year-old daughter was my sole crew person on the Danube swim. In the water it is my daughter in the kayak and me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You did not have many plans about where to stay along the river. That seems either really brave or really crazy, I don't know which one!


MIMI HUGHES: It changes day-to-day, I think.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How did you manage, what did you do?

MIMI HUGHES: If you are a mother of four and a wife and mother, it is hard to get people to back you. I really did not want to go swim the Danube with corporate backing. I did not want a big boat with a lot of people around me, I wanted to interact with people in the cultures along the river. I had my daughter and me and Rotary International said that they would have a friend in every port for us. They were opposed to actually giving me money, which I never asked for because that dilutes my mission statement, but they had a friend in every port where they could. It was pretty much Germany and Austria and Slovakia. Late one night I got a call from world wildlife fund out of Austria and they said they would help me whenever they could with a friend in every port where they had an employee.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is not every time you stopped though?

MIMI HUGHES: No, in Romania we would at the end of the day, when I had my kilometers in, we would start looking for a place. We would pull the kayak up the shore and hide in trees and pitch a tent and sleeping a sleeping bag.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the most memorable experiences you had with this meeting, you met a stranger in Romania who did you both in.

MIMI HUGHES: Right, he actually practice down because he had heard about us. We were running from them because we thought they were just perverted men trying to catch up with these two women on the river. When we did, he brought us back to his home and cleaned up a room for us, cleaned off the coach for us to sleep on, and it was an incredible experience with a man who did not know word of English except McDonald's. We did not know any Romanian. By the end of the night we were telling stories, and when I tell people they say did he know English? And I remember, he didn't. But as we moved down the river we really developed this sense of how to communicate with people without words. And even though in the next day as Kelsey and I left, he walked away and I noticed that he had a tear in his eye. Kelsey and I teared up later on because it was such a unique experience for us. Especially for this man who lived in a remote area in Romania to have two American women come into his home and share a couple of meals.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In Wider Than a Mile, you talk about a wide range of experiences you had, some very highs and very lows. There was a tragedy on the journey. A Serbian artist tried to join you to swim to the Iron Gate Dam on the Danube. He drowned in that attempt. Why did he want to swim with you?

MIMI HUGHES: That was one of the interesting things on the swim. There were a few times that I interacted with these people, and the attachment was so strong that I never really understood what it was that possessed them to want to swim with me or be a bigger sense of what we were doing. Even you just mentioning his name after this time, this negative feeling comes over me because it was horrifically traumatizing and I asked him not to swim with me because you can't do that. I always sense that maybe the Iron Gate Dam dam was significant to him. And so that was perhaps why he felt compelled to swim.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just to mention a little bit of your background, you're not simply a teacher who jumps in the water a sometimes. You have a whole lifetime of swimming behind you.

MIMI HUGHES: No, I actually started swimming after my four kids and I put them on a swim team and they started swimming, and I started swimming then. And then I thought, I will just swim and when I carried the Olympic torch in 1996 it struck me, I could use an outrageous athletic endeavor to initiate positive social and environmental change.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just one more question about that tragedy along the route, you attempted to stop the swim after Nachton died?

MIMI HUGHES: Yes. One thing about the swim is how the people of Serbia were so supportive of what we were doing. They were so gracious and he really did not make it far off of sure because I looked back and kept telling him that Kelsey's my kayaker and she cannot watch both of us. It is difficult to swim together and when I looked back maybe two minutes into the swim and it looked like he was dog paddling and I said oh boy, this is not good. I swam a little more and I thought he was swimming to shore, and I just went and swam on. It was not until I got to Kladovo, in Serbia, a guy said hey, a guy on the Danube drowned. I said really, when did that happen? He said today. Today, where was that? He said he was swimming with you. We were devastated. It was extremely difficult and the Serbian people were so supportive and just said if they find the body, then stay for the funeral. If they don't find the body, keep swimming. That's what we did.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You mentioned the number of times your then nineteen-year-old daughter who accompanied you on this trip, you in the book wider than a mile talk about your relationship with Kelsey and you can tell that this was a pivotal experience for both of you. It is not as if there was not tension between you on this trip.

MIMI HUGHES: That is phrasing it nicely, thank you.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is extraordinarily stressful.

MIMI HUGHES: Right, yes it was. I think that even if I were describing the book initially, I would not describe the book about a mother-daughter relationship even though I had experienced something with my daughter that no other mother in the world or daughter has had. It did pan out that way, and I think in that part of the book where we enter Croatia where they had the war just prior to that, an hour prior to that my daughter and I had a horrific argument on the water, where I said give me a week and I will find someone to replace you! Fine, that's great! And then we started swimming and as we got into Croatia we were wondering, we're so naÔvely ignorant about the Serbian Croatian war, we started seeing bombed out buildings and all this damage and we were wondering what in the world went on. As we went into Vukovar and were met by some Rotarians that took us on the tour and explained everything to us, we totally forgot about the argument and then that was last time. It was a moot point after that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How did the whole experience change your relationship with her? Or did it?

MIMI HUGHES: Yes, I think that it is something that is very difficult for Kelsey and I to explain to anybody. I think that we have this tacit understanding of the world and I don't even know how to put that into words.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You have been put through the worst and you are still together, right?

MIMI HUGHES: And we have been through the best too.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do you think the marathon swim accomplish for you and Kelsey?

MIMI HUGHES: It is hard to some that up because there is a variety of things I think that it accomplished. It brought people together and people in the United States that are not familiar with the swim, there were some any people and I think one of the big things that it did accomplish was that this man prior to going into Serbia said I wish that you could do something to mend Serbia and Croatia from the war. I'm looking at this WWF man, David Reeder, who passed shortly after the swim. I am looking at him thinking are you bonkers? I am a wife and mother of four from a podunk town, what can I do? What happened in that swim, we don't understand how important border crossings are. They are extremely important there, it is illegal otherwise. Serbia and Croatia did work together, because we could not by legal means go into Croatia, but I was allowed to go in, were allowed to go into Vukovar so we could actually have a night where we could have good lodging and have food, and then come back into separate the next day without having to go through the check ins and outs. Not that the actual Serbian government knew that, but the people of these two countries worked together for us. That was my mission, just as these nine countries work together to make our swim successful, so can we as a people work together for a most social and environmentally friendly planet.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are you planning another swim?

MIMI HUGHES: I don't plan them, they just pop into my head. I describe it like ice cream in the fridge, you just can't get it out of your head, so you have to go eat it. I just get irritated sometimes about environmental issues and it just happens, I am sorry if I could explain it and knew the solution to that my husband would be thrilled.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is a river you would like to swim?

MIMI HUGHES: Actually I think if I could I would swim the Columbia.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay, we will keep our eyes on that then.

MIMI HUGHES: Thank you so much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Mimi MIMI HUGHES, her book about the swim is called Wider Then a Mile. Thanks a lot.

MIMI HUGHES: Thank you so much.