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Swimming for Dad

37 years ago Brian Earley braved the waters of Chesapeake Bay to ­commemorate his late father, ­starting a tradition that lives to this day


Brian Earley was 21 when he became the first person recorded to swim across the Bay in 1982. This past Sunday, June 9, he completed the 2.2-mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim in 47 minutes.

     Thinking only of a promise he made to his late father, Joseph, a determined Brian Earley stripped his black Towson University jacket from his shoulders and barreled through the rain and wind to the beachy shore. 

     Brian was a lifelong swimmer, starting at the family home on the Severn River, then at Anne Arundel Community College and later Towson University, where he became an All-American competitor. As his father’s health failed, he couldn’t make most of Brian’s swimming events. This was his last chance to show his father what he gave his son.

     As he dove into the cold waters of Chesapeake Bay on June 13, 1982, the 21-year-old was two and a half hours of toil from becoming the first recorded man to swim across it. 

    His success would eventually spawn the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, one of the largest open-water swims in the mid-Atlantic region. The annual second Sunday of June swim has raised more than $3 million for charity since its inception in 1992.

     Rain and wind returned to harass swimmers, including Earley, on the 27th annual Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. But this year 559 others swam the course with him, which was shortened from 4.4 miles under the Bay Bridge to a 2.2-mile round-trip at Hemingway’s on Kent Island.

     Over 37 years, thousands of people have benefited from Earley’s determination that day in 1982 to honor his father, who died the year before from diabetes complications. 

     “He changed my life forever,” ­Earley said. “So I wanted to show my father the power of giving back.” 

     His effort to raise awareness about diabetes has evolved to a multi-million-dollar supporter of six charities, including the March of Dimes, which supports healthier babies and mothers during birth.


June 13, 1982

     Earley picked June 13 for his big swim becauce the day was close to Father’s Day, and the water would be warm. It wasn’t. A reporter covering the swim for the Capital Gazette warned Earley to think twice about crossing the Bay on such a dreary morning. 

     Earley, though, was doubly committed at this point.

     “I wanted him to see — wherever he was —what I could do,” he said of his father. “And what he gave me the opportunity to do.”

     With him at Sandy Point State Park were his brother Darren and neighbor Mike Perry, tasked with following him on a boat.

     The water was cold and grey, with the tides pulling against him and the wind screaming. Earley couldn’t see the Eastern Shore, but he could follow the boat and the bridge spans. With a dogged tenacity, he stroked freestyle and butterfly before climbing to his feet and onto the shore of Kent Island.

     His effort earned $800 from supporters for the American Diabetes Association.

     Earley’s achievement also inspired another swimmer. Fletcher Hanks swam two years later in a company of two swimmers, before gathering about 60 the following year. Hanks’ event would balloon into the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim in 1992. 


June 9, 2019

     Earley, who now lives in San Deigo, returns to swim the Bay every year.

    “People swim and take on the challenge because of him,” said Sherri Tolley, the event manager. Earley presents his scholarship — in honor of his mother, Cynthia Earley — to swimmers who raise the most money. He also awards the top swimmers in each age group.

     It’s “pretty incredible that he’s been doing this for so many years,” said his brother Darren, who remembers thinking Brian was “crazy” for daring to swim the Bay. “Yet he did it anyway” — on June 9, 2019, just as on that windy and rainy day in 1982.

     “When he does this for our father, he keeps his memory alive,” Darren added.

     Earley starts practicing in January, swimming more than an hour for five days a week.

     When this year’s swim was shortened to two miles, Earley was more than ready for the shorter course. Instead of pacing himself, he had to break into a “sprint” to finish fast — in 47 minutes.

     The swim was not easy. The wind was prevailing again, and as the swimmers amassed on the crowded beach under an overcast sky, Earley noticed the lack of sunlight on the water. That meant the 70-degree water would still feel a little cold.

     As he broke into the water, waves and wind slammed his face. He and the other swimmers had to look where they were going through the pounding rain.

     “Open-water swims get very challenging,” Earley said. “This was not a calm body of water. There were very active waves and wind blowing that would get in your face.”

     Still, he persevered and pummeled his way through the water with an open-water freestyle swim, with his arms elevated to better break through the waves.

     Finally, as the wind and rain died down, Earley rose from the water and ran up the small beach ramp to finish in 78th place.

    “It was energizing,” he said. “It was really a sprint.”

     Earley — more than 30 years after his first swim — is 58 years old. He says he is ready for a new generation of swimmers, each of whom have their own reasons for completing the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim.

      One swimmer told him she is recovering from cancer. She wants to complete the swim to show her friends and family what she can do.

     “Everyone is motivated,” said the swimmer who found peace with his father in the water and waves. “It was my time, and now it’s theirs.”