The real story behind swimrun

Feb 17, 2017

There are countless versions of how swimrun came about, depending on which website or article you read, or even who you talk to. To set the record straight, here is the definitive swimrun story.

In 2002, brothers Mats Andersson and Jesper Andersson got together with Anders Malm (owner of the Utö Värdshus resort) and his friend, Janne Lindberg, at Utö Värdshus. It turned into a very late night.

This challenge was taken twice; it took them more than 26 hours

Quite a few drinks later, Jesper was playing around at the table with a napkin, which had a loosely based map of the Stockholm archipelago. At one end was the island of Utö, at the other, Sandhamn. The guys started talking about how they’d sailed, taken a motorboat and ice-skated between the islands. Mats and Jesper challenged Anders and Janne to go from Utö to Sandhamn, crossing land on foot and swimming between the islands, with the losing team having to pay for the hotel, dinner and drinks at Sandhamn. The choice of route was up to each team except for one restriction: they had to check-in at restaurants along the way, and the team that arrived first would order what the following pair would have to drink and pay for. This challenge was taken twice; it took them more than 26 hours.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2005. Michael Lemmel was picking up his car from a garage when the owner, who was also part-owner of Utö Värdshus, asked to talk to him. He knew Michael was adventure racing professionally and that he also had a small sports-marketing company, so he figured he’d want to hear about this crazy challenge and, who knows, maybe even want to commercialise it.

Michael, ever polite, agreed to listen and when he heard the details, he was astonished. “Is that possible?” he asked. He told the garage owner he’d get back to him.

From his car, Michael called Mats Skott, his racing partner and business partner since 1995, and retold the story. They were both pretty excited as they’d been looking to develop an international endurance event in Scandinavia. They decided to meet with Jesper, Mats and Anders Malm.

At first meeting, they looked at the possibility of doing an event within daylight hours and at a time of the year when the Stockholm archipelago is not full of boats. Michael and Mats spent a great deal of time looking at maps, trying to find the fastest way through the islands while sticking as close to the original route as possible.

“This is possible,” they said. “Let’s do the first race in early September.”

They discussed the name of the event and Mats Skott came up with Ö TILL Ö – meaning “island to island” in Swedish – which is what the racers would actually be doing. Plus, the letter Ö looks like an island. The runner and swimmer symbols later added to the logo to represent the two modes of movement.

In June 2006, Michael Lemmel, Mats Skott, his wife Natasha Westling, Mats Andersson and Jesper Andersson set out from Sandhamn with Anders Malm driving the safety boat. The group ran and swam a route that is longer than today’s race course and by the end of the afternoon they had reached Ornö, at which point Mats Skott and Michael had seen enough. “This is possible,” they said. “Let’s do the first race in early September.”

Team Sandhamn, ÖTILLÖ 2006

The first ÖTILLÖ

The inaugural ÖTILLÖ was held on the first Sunday in September 2006, with nine teams of two at the starting line. Only two teams finished, the winners, Team Sandhamn, current Adventure Racing World Champions from Finland, won on inflatable Nokia telephones. This led to rule change number one: a size restriction on floatation devices.

ÖTILLÖ grabbed media attention right from the get go, spreading the event to more and more people. Without ÖTILLÖ there would be no swimrun, but it wasn’t until 2012, when three more events saw first light in Sweden (Ångaloppet, Öloppet, Amfibiemannen), that Michael and Mats realised that they had actually started a new sport.

Around the same time, Swede Erika Rosenbaum, an ÖTILLÖ podium finisher, coined the phrase swimrun, which she later registered as a trademark. After speaking with her, Michael and Mats started naming ÖTILLÖ the sport of swimrun and, thanks to extensive ÖTILLÖ media coverage, the name swimrun has caught on.

In 2017, there will be more than 400 swimrun events around the world.

Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue # 1 (Feb/Mar 2017)

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