‘Something bigger than yourself’

New Kalispell attorney aims to swim length of Flathead Lake

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Emily von Jentzen, pictured here in June, on Saturday become the third person to swim the length of Flathead Lake and the first woman to do so.

Emily von Jentzen, a deputy county attorney for Flathead County, faces a big challenge on July 17, but it won’t be in the courtroom.

The 27-year-old triathlete — who joined the County Attorney’s Office staff just a month ago — intends to become the third person ever to swim the entire length of Flathead Lake. She would be the first woman to complete the feat. According to the Flathead Biological Station, the lake length is 27.3 miles.

Kalispell resident Paul Stelter was the first man to swim the length of the lake. He completed it in 14 hours in 1988. In 2005, Ron Stevens, another Kalispell resident and master swimmer, did it in 12 hours, 25 minutes.

Both men swam from Polson to Bigfork, but von Jentzen has chosen a slightly longer route. She plans to start in Somers Bay and finish at Boettcher Park near the Polson golf course.

“If I was rocking it, I could maybe do it in 10 hours, but it’s more likely it’ll take about 15 hours,” she said. “The crew wants to make sure we’re not finishing in the dark, so we may start in the dark, at 4 a.m.”

She will swim under USA Open Water rules that stipulate a swimmer can’t touch any support boat, flotation device or other swimmers.

There’s an added element to von Jentzen’s mission: She’s using the endurance swim to raise money for a young girl with leukemia.

A 2009 graduate of the University of Montana School of Law, von Jentzen had been mulling the idea of a major endurance swim for some time but needed an impetus around which to pursue her goal.

“It’s really hard to swim a lot when you don’t have something you’re pushing for,” she said.

When she saw a flier posted at the Missoula Staples store about 3-year-old Karmyn Flanagan, who has acute lymphoblastic leukemia, it occurred to von Jentzen that her swimming expedition could be used as a fundraiser for the girl.

“It’s about doing something bigger than yourself,” she said.

Karmyn was flown to Spokane, where she has been in treatment since last fall. While von Jentzen hasn’t met the young girl yet, she was touched by the story and felt compelled to help.

And it was all or nothing for the young attorney with a monster work ethic.

When a fellow swimmer suggested a Flathead Lake relay, she flat-out told him: “If I swim Flathead Lake, I want to do the whole thing.”

Von Jentzen is no stranger to distance swimming and endurance events.

Two years ago she completed a 24-hour triathlon in Aurora, Colo., stopping for just two 15-minute breaks, one to wolf down a Dairy Queen Blizzard and another to tend to blisters on her feet.

Motivated to be a swimmer at age 9 in Lake Stevens, Wash., “because it was the only sport I could beat my sister at,” von Jentzen swam her way through high school with top honors in swimming and swam at regional competitions in California and Hawaii for the Pacific Northwest Swim Team.

She earned a swimming scholarship to Central Washington University, where she remembers a tough swim coach putting the team through a 12-hour practice, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., swimming some 36,000 yards with 10-minute breaks on the hour.

At the height of her swimming career, the university cut its swim team, so she and her teammates started their own Central Washington Swim Team to allow them to keep on competing.

About the same time, von Jentzen began competing in triathlons — swimming, bicycling and running in a single competition.

When she started law school in Missoula in 2006, she joined the UM Triathlon Team. Von Jentzen competed through 2008 and served as president and swim coach of the team during the 2007-08 school year. Then she delved into coaching adult swimming at the Missoula YMCA. She’s a certified coach for both the USA Triathlon and USA Swimming programs.

right NOW, von Jentzen is focused on her own training. In mid-May she was swimming about 40,000 yards a week, roughly 16 hours. She’ll ramp up to 70,000 yards a week before she cuts back just before the big event.

Foy’s Lake has been a good spot for outdoor practice because it’s close to where she lives, but Flathead Lake has been added to the mix of outdoor and indoor practice sessions.

If the weather forecast is especially bad for the week she plans to swim the lake, the date could be bumped into the next week.

“With a crew of 10, it’s kind of a big ordeal” to rearrange plans though, she said.

She will have people onboard a pontoon for emotional support, with one friend who’s a cardiologist. Her sister Amanda will track her nutrition with an Excel spreadsheet, making sure von Jentzen is getting the calories she needs each hour.

“It’s monitored very closely,” von Jentzen noted.

Concentrated carbohydrate gels such as Hammer Gel and GU are mainstays for endurance athletes, “but you can only take so many of those,” she said.

“You don’t want anything too heavy,” she said. “I have a sweet tooth, so I’ll probably have some of my favorite — Swedish Fish.”

Readers can follow von Jentzen’s training on her blog: http://50kforkarmyn.blogspot.com


Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com


Emily von Jentzen at Flathead Lake near Somers on Friday morning. Jentzen is training to become the third person to swim the length of Flathead Lake, and the first woman to do so. The 30 mile swim is scheduled for July 17th. Jentzen said they would begin the swim at 4 a.m. starting from Somers.


Emily von Jentzen swims in Flathead Lake near Somers on Friday morning. Jentzen said that one of the challenges of lake swimming is that the swimmer must constantly look up to breathe and spot for boats, jet skis and others.

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