wider than a mile

EXCLUSIVE. Mimi Hughes, the only woman who swam the Danube and Europe’s rivers: “The only thing that counts is the next stroke”

Mimi Hughes is a highschool teacher somewhere în Tenessee, America, 59 years old and 4 children, now adults with families. Mimi is also the only woman in the world to have swam, in 2006, when she was 50, the 2.850 kilometers of the Danube River, starting from its source, Black Forrest Mountains (Germany) to Sulina (România), the river mouth to Black Sea.

She achieved this performance together with her daughter, Kelsey, at that time of 19 years old. Kelsey acompanied her in a kayac.

Mimi swimming and Kelsey, her daughter, accompanies her in the kayac; photo credit blog.al.com

Mimi swimming and Kelsey, her daughter, accompanies her in the kayac; photo credit blog.al.com

But this is not the only of Mimi’s incredible swimming expeditions: the endurance swimmer has swam the distance between North America and Siberia, the almost 5 kilometers of frozen and dangerous waters (because of the currents) of the Bering strait, (when she was 41, in 1997), but also the tributaries of the Danube, Drava river (707 km) & Mura river (480 km), and also Tenessee river (1049 km), located in South East of America, and Ohio River (1,579 km).

We have been talking with Mimi in an exclusive interview, for Adrenallina, and we stepped into a wonderfull story: the swimmer has dedicated all of these epic adventures to a great cause, and that is, most often, the protection of the environment. Mimi has swam but also gathered people to talk to them about the importance of protecting the natural areas and the necessity of some practical measures to limitate pollution and distruction of nature.

Mimi Hughes (Petterson) photo credit: danubeswimmer.com

Mimi Hughes (Petterson)
photo credit: danubeswimmer.com

“If I wouldn’t have dedicated these endeavours to a  bigger cause than myself, I wouldn’t have suceeded”, Mimi said, adding: “To swim rivers is most efficient than me staying home and complain to my kids about the things that bother me in the world”.

The Danube swim took Mimi 90 days, and she swam around 6 to 8 hours a day, in a water that is mostrly poluated, because of the accidental oil spillings and plastic waste thrown irresponsible. You can read the she story of this adventure in the book Mimi wrote, Wider than a Mile, it is available on Amazon.

“Absolutely everybody should be passionate about 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 breathe air that’s going to hurt them“, Mimi stated in 2007 to an Associated Press reporter.

Let’s hear her story:

Dear Mimi, first congratulations for your performance! Please tell us how it all started for you? How did you discover endurance swimming?

When my four children were young, I signed them up to be on a swim team.  At the beginning of the swim season, they complained about the cold water.  I thought it was only fair for me to swim in the cold water too. At the time, I was already running. Swimming was just a great addition to my running.  At the time, I was content swimming 1500 meters. Then my daughter, Tess, started doing very well as a competitive swimmer.

I had to take her 50km away to a larger pool and a better coach. Instead of sitting on a bench watching her swim, I joined the Master’s swim team and swam too. My practice distances grew to five kilometres. I loved the longer distances, and my coach enjoyed giving me sets of 800 meters. In the summer months, I began doing open water swimming at a nearby lake.

The kids all sat in an inflatable kayak, and I’d pull them around the lake. Sometimes I’d pull them to the marina for an ice cream or an order of french fries, and then I’d pull them back. Sometimes, they still go to the lake and let me pull them around while they drink beer and listen to music on their iphones.

I know all of your swims have a cause, you want to increase awareness over the environmental issues. What did you find out swimming all this international rivers, like Danube (2,860 km, Europe ), Tenessee (1049 km, USA), Drava (707 km, Slovenia) Mura (480 km, Austria, Slovenia)? What were your main concerns?

Every one of my major river/ocean swims had a cause.  I could not complete such tasks without the belief that I was swimming for something significantly larger than myself. Russia, my first major swim, was for Peace and Healing between countries; the Tennessee, Danube, Drava, and Mura were to inspire more social/environmental responsibility; the Ohio River was for social responsibility in regard to supporting the life skills and academic education of girls/women locally, nationally, and internationally.

Mimi talks about the need to protect the Danube River, at a festival in Serbia, 2013; photo credit wwf.panda.org/

Mimi talks about the need to protect the Danube River, at a festival in Serbia, 2013; photo credit wwf.panda.org/

There were a multitude of concerns for all of the swims, and those concerns could change at any given moment depending on the situation. It was imperative to the completion of the swims, and the morale of the support kayaker and me, that we stayed in the present.  Thinking about what might happen only serves to eat away at one’s resolve.

 What was the toughest experience/part of all? You swim for weeks, every day more than 20 kilometers. How do you manage to do that? Sounds superhuman.

The length and time commitments of the swims make it is difficult to name the “toughest” part—the challenges were varied and frequently changed. When it was too cold, we struggled with hypothermia. When it was too hot, heat exhaustion was an issue.  Hail, thunderstorms, rain and flooding added to the list of weather challenges.  Obtaining drinking water and healthful food (we are vegetarians) was not always an easy. Sometimes we had no idea where we were going to sleep at the end of a day. When the day’s kilometres were completed, we looked for places along the river to camp. Thankfully, people—regardless of nationality, race, religion, or gender—came to the river to help and made the success of my swims possible.

The toughest part of my swim is not just what happens during the swim but also AFTER the swim. The swims are too intense and overwhelming, that there is no time to really reflect. In addition, it is all about “moving forward”.  Allowing myself the time to think about anything more than the next minute, stroke, or water intake could be devastating to my resolve. My only concern or worry must be limited only to the present.  It is all that matters—the next stroke.

When the swim is over and I return home, that is when the reflection begins.  In addition to reflecting—sometimes on things I don’t want to remember—there is the physical and mental exhaustion to overcome. Reuniting with friends and acquaintances is difficult because the swim changes me.

The Danube was an incredible experience. I think about the people that came to the river to help and those that help from afar every day of my life.

You teamed up for all of your adventures with your daughter, Kelsey, who guided you throughout your quests, in a kayac. How did this work? I know Kelsey has a sports career background, isn’t it?

My friends, Kathy Cohen (nurse practitioner) and Pam Dean (a teacher) were my team for the swim to Russia and the Tennessee River. Kelsey was still in high school when I swam the Tennessee River but did crew me for a few days towards the end of it.  She was a great crew person. That’s why she was my choice for the Danube. She was still young, 19, when she crewed me on the Danube and was terribly overwhelmed by the whole experience.  She still reflects on the experience as extremely difficult and challenging but will say without hesitation that she would do it all over again.

credit foto experimentinflight.blogspot.com

credit foto experimentinflight.blogspot.com


Kelsey began swimming and running when she was five. She started soccer when she was eight and has not stopped. She helped to start a women’s soccer (football) league in Huntsville, Alabama and often coaches for American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). She rarely swims but still runs 5km races for fun. She also enjoys white water kayaking.

How did you connect to each other during your swims?

Kelsey had an extremely difficult job. She was my eyes down the Danube. Where she led me, I followed. Swimming a straight line is something I cannot do! We learned how to function as one. She made hand movements alongside of the kayak to let me know when there was danger ahead or when to stop. Every hour or two she stopped me and passed water and food to me. Without her, I doubt I could have made it.  We were a team. Not always a happy team but a team. I am proud and love all four of my children, but Kelsey and I have had an experience that no other mother/daughter in the world has experienced.


Mimi's tattoo, the the simbol of recycling, it's a gift from one of her daughters photo credit blog.al.com

Mimi’s tattoo, the the simbol of recycling, it’s a gift from one of her daughters
photo credit blog.al.com

How did these expeditions change your life?

How did my expeditions change my life? The swims changed my life in many ways, but the most significant change came from my interactions with the people along the rivers and beyond that helped with the success of the swims. I learned what most people (unfortunately) never learn. As a people, we basically all want the same thing—a peaceful, healthy planet in which to live and love. It is when we view each other through race, religion, nationality, social class, or gender do we find reason to hate, brutalize, and support war. Individuals never benefit from that mentality, only governments, religious leaders, and the extraordinarily wealthy do. I strive to consider everyone by their character and compassion for life—not their religion, nationality, social class, etc.

One of my most prized possessions has no monetary value. It is a flower a man sent me from Russia along with a wish for a successful swim. I know nothing about the man other than he is a Russian who did a swim with an amazing Russian woman, Natasha, who was a tremendous help with my swim to Russia. The gift of the flower, in my world, symbolizes the compassion we are all capable of sharing with each other as a people, as human beings. We must remember that first and foremost, we are human beings.

Mimi and her daughter, Kelsey, in one of the stops along the Danube expedition; photo credit www.kpbs.org

Mimi and her daughter, Kelsey, in one of the stops along the Danube expedition; photo credit www.kpbs.org

Two women, one river. The cover of the book Mimi wrote about the incredible expedition of swimming the Danube

Two women, one river. The cover of the book Mimi wrote about the incredible expedition of swimming the Danube

  • At 59 years old, Mimi continues to swim and run in ultramarathons, and, foremost, to inspire people all over the world,  no matter the race, sex, religious views… 
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