by alison berkley | December 1, 2009 | Lifestyle
Jennifer lives at the base of Smuggler Mountain, perched above the Roaring Fork Valley, where the air is dry and the ocean feels very, very far away. She recently returned from Tobago, where she completed a multiday swim to Venezuela, and it shows. After countless hours in the water, she has chiseled, sunburned arms and that zero-body-fat build that only endurance athletes have.
With spiky blonde hair, a slight, girlish frame and a wide smile, Figge, 57, has an ageless way about her. She punctuates most statements with a giggle or shrug, which casts an air of humility about her, even when conversation drifts to things like swimming
in 30-foot seas or running across continents (yes, literally running).
Originally from Davenport, Iowa, the Aspen resident is best known for her now-infamous swim across the Atlantic Ocean in January 2009. She set out from the Cape Verde Islands off the African coast with a support catamaran and crew, and after venturing 1,000 extra miles south of the planned route for better conditions, she reached shore in Trinidad, traveling more than 3,000 miles in 24 days. Figge swam only a portion of that distance, sleeping on the boat at night and swimming up to 28 miles a day amid mostly 20- to 30-foot seas.
“It became an extreme swimming expedition rather than one of endurance,” she says. Swimming in a shark cage, as planned, lasted only one hour; the cage couldn’t handle the conditions. (She also cut her foot on the cage, and it had to be stitched up and required a course of three antibiotics.) For the remainder of the swim she wore an electromagnetic
shark shield around her ankle. Not tethered to the boat in any way, she had to stay at least one football field’s distance from the vessel. On some days the conditions were so extreme that the only way she could return safely to the boat was with the help of a rescue diver.
Figge is no stranger to multiday endurance expeditions. An accomplished distance runner, she has run across states (Iowa, then Illinois), countries (France, Romania, Iceland, Thailand, India and Mexico) and even continents (South America—the short way). Her longest run, across South America through Chile and Argentina, was 576 miles in 21 days (she called it “the Andes 500”). That’s like running a marathon every day for three weeks.
Her legs finally gave out during a 180-mile run across Mexico that left her with a stress fracture in her shin (she completed the last 60 miles in a cast), so she started swimming, training at Aspen’s Maroon Creek club pool and then venturing into the open waters of nearly 25 channels—Bahamas to Florida, the Strait of Tiran in Egypt, Singapore to Malaysia and several others—before finally tackling
the Atlantic. She’s actually done the Atlantic swim twice, most recently in July 2009 as part of a “training swim” of two to three hours a day for about three weeks.
When you ask her why she would even want to swim across the open ocean or run for days on end, her answers are incomprehensibly simple. “Because I like being in the water,” she’ll say. When asked if she ever gets scared, she just shrugs and says, “No, no I don’t.”
Even more surprising, most of Figge’s accomplishments have flown under the radar. “I snuck across most of those countries,” she jokes. “I’m probably on some FBI Most Wanted list for all those one-way plane tickets.”
So it’s upsetting that the only time she has received attention is during the media brouhaha following her transoceanic journey. Several major media outlets erroneously reported she swam the entire distance across the ocean, a mathematical impossibility. Figge says simply that she never intended to swim the Atlantic. “I never considered this crossing a personal accomplishment, as I took everyone I know with me,” she says. “It belongs to them.”
Never one to let anything deter her, be it 30-foot seas or the bright light of the media, she’s returning again this winter to do the same route across the Atlantic—not to set the record straight, but because the middle of the ocean is where she’d rather be. “I almost dread reaching land,” she says. “I just love being out there.”
photograph by riccardo sam