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Open water swimmer covers 36 miles for charity

Kiley Woods



Julie Madison swam 36 miles around Sarasota County's Siesta Key June 4. Photos provided.

A record-breaking, 36-mile open water swim June 4 raised money for veterans with PTSD. It also helped a swimmer remember her love of being in the water, moving with the tide – and achieving a goal, through an aching body and peak shark season in Florida waters. 

Professional dog trainer Julie Madison, owner of Top Tier k9-Bradenton, swam 36 miles around Sarasota’s Siesta Key in 18 hours, 12 minutes and 53 seconds. Her swim raised $250,000. 

Siesta Key is a barrier island, eight miles long and shaped like a crescent. Madison started her swim at 4:20 a.m. when sharks were active, water visibility was low and there was little to no light. 

Top Tier K9 partnered with SOF Missions to start a campaign to raise money for veterans with PTSD. SOF offers mental health services, career counseling and community engagement opportunities for veterans.

Julie Madison is the owner/operator of Top Tier K9.

Madison, an experienced open water swimmer, opened her business about a year and a half ago. She had not been swimming a lot before her record breaking swim, she said, and trained 70 times in the past two years. 

Madison works with dogs in basic training, behavioral modification and obedience, and also trains high-level service dogs. 

Madison swam in high school and was advised by friends to try open water; swimming in open water with a current, she said, was a form of resistance training. 

On the day on her swim, Madison and her team took a boat about a quarter to a half mile offshore, where she lowered herself into the water. 

In the summer early morning hours, sharks are the most active in Tampa Bay’s large estuarine ecosystem. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, shark activity is at its peak April through October. Sharks are active early in the morning and in the evening.

Madison got in the water at 4:20 a.m. and remained there until 11 p.m. 

With so little training before the swim, Madison focused more on her appreciation for the chance to be in the water again and less on reaching any specific time or speed. 

Madison had a kayak team, an escort boat and support swimmers, but she had to do a section solo because her kayak team flipped over after 14 hours.

She did not have food, water or navigation for that stretch of the swim. There was no beach for that stretch of the swim ,and nowhere to get out of the water in an emergency. Madison eventually met up with her escort boat again, and was able to get food, water and rest. She stopped every 20 to 30 minutes during the swim to drink her food.

With experience in open water swimming, she knew how to swim with the tides.

“I wanted high tide on the backside of the island and the deepest water in the intracoastal so she (the boat) didn’t bottom out if it was too shallow,” Madison said. 

At one point, Madison said, her body ached and she did not think she could finish. She could barely move her legs, her elbow or shoulder. 

“One of the things that kept me motivated was knowing that I do not get to be out there that often,” Madison said. “I appreciated that time, no matter what was going on around me.” 



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