U.S. Water News Online
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For Mimi Hughes, swimming isn't just a
hobby or a way to get some exercise. She swims to change the world.
Ten years ago, the reading teacher from Tennessee swam from Alaska
to Russia across the icy, treacherous waters of the Bering Strait to
inspire peace between the countries.
She completed a five-year quest in 2003 to swim the entire
Tennessee River to show what happens when herbicides, pesticides,
litter and other pollutants end up in rivers and streams.
Last summer Hughes swam the Danube, and this year she will swim
500 miles down the Drava and Mura rivers in Eastern Europe to promote
cleaner waterways. Her swim was set to begin in Austria, and she will
swim through Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary before ending in Serbia on
"Change has to come from us -- because it certainly isn't likely
to come top down," said the 51-year-old mother of four, who didn't
begin to swim seriously until her early 30s.
During her latest swim, Hughes will make stops along the way to
speak to groups and audiences about environmental responsibility.
Hughes, who lives in Taft, a small town on the Alabama state line
about 95 miles south of Nashville, is a developmental reading teacher
for college and high school students. She said she was inspired to
motivate people after carrying the Olympic Torch in 1996.
"It's (swimming rivers) more effective than me staying home and
complaining about it to my kids," Hughes quipped.
Hughes also considers this year's swim on the Drava and Mura
rivers as a memorial to a recently deceased World Wildlife Fund
employee who helped her during the Danube swim.
Hughes opposes dams built along the rivers because they destroy
wetlands and fishermen depend on the rivers for their livelihood.
Hydropower plants and gravel extraction along the Drava are also
threats, she said.
Hughes says she's paid for much of the cost associated with the
swims, but did receive a $10,000 grant from the Balance Bar food
company which went toward food, hotels, airfare and publicizing her
She's also depended on the kindness of strangers. During her
90-day, 1,777-mile swim down the Danube, people along the river often
offered her food and a place to stay, she said.
Hughes' daughter, 21-year-old Kelsey, also kept her going on her
swims on the Danube and Tennessee rivers, paddling along next to her
in a kayak to help her avoid litter and other debris in the rivers.
She said her toughest swim yet has been on the Danube because of
whirlpools that would yank her under, the danger of hypothermia and
swimming through untreated sewage and other pollutants in the river.
Hughes, who wears a wetsuit on all of her swims, said she can
often smell pollutants in the water but can't usually see them.
"The hard part was having your face in the water for hours at a
time," said Hughes, who spent an average of 6-8 hours in the water
each day on the Danube.
Despite the dangers to her health, Hughes said she felt compelled
to make the Danube swim partly because she believed a lot of people
outside the U.S. didn't think the country cared about the
"Absolutely everybody should be passionate about the environment.
It's our life. If you truly care about people, then you're going to
make sure they don't drink water that's going to harm them or breath
air that's going to hurt them."
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