ONTANA — “You did it. You did it. Great job, ladies.”
Diane Minton shouted to her friends, Catherine Martinez and Elizabeth O’Connor, as they did the butterfly stroke Aug. 4 in their last 100 yards of the three-mile Swim4Freedom event.
Minton was there with a camera to record their finish.
Martinez and O’Connor, who are sisters, were among 104 swimmers participating in this year’s Swim4Freedom, which raises money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.
O’Connor is a U.S. Navy judge advocate at the Pentagon. Martinez lives in Chicago with her husband, Mario, and their two sons, Derek, 12, and Jason, 9.
“I heard about it at a triathlon,” Martinez said of Swim4Freedom.
She said she wanted to support the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides scholarships to surviving children of military special operations soldiers killed in the line of duty.
“It’s a great organization,” she said.
O’Connor said she was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago and was familiar with the Lake Geneva area. This was her first Swim4Freedom. She said it probably will not be her last.
Mark Wilson’s father was a Navy SEAL who was killed in action when Wilson was an infant.
“It means so much to see all of you supporting us,” he told the swimmers who gathered at Gordy’s Boat House for a pre-swim meeting.
Wilson, a 2018 graduate of Johns Hopkins University, said the foundation paid for his college tuition.
“They really take care of us,” he said.
A swimmer for Johns Hopkins in NCAA competitions, Wilson swam the three miles from Williams Bay to Fontana.
Wilson said he is now a mechanical engineer with a Baltimore company that operates remote-controlled underwater craft.
For Steele Whowell, who organized Swim4Freedom, this was the 11th year he put it together.
Whowell, a former collegiate swimmer, heard about the Special Operations Warriors Foundation through a friend who served in the special forces. Whowell collected donations and pledges and, with about 10 other friends, dove into Geneva Lake and swam for the foundation.
Every year since then, the event has grown, with more than 100 swimmers participating this year. Swim4Freedom is a fundraising swim, not an official race.
Over the past 10 years, the swim has donated $300,000 to the Special Operations Warriors Foundation, Whowell said.
The foundation has provided for the education of 359 children who have since graduated from college. There are another 848 youngsters who may take advantage of the foundation’s education program as they grow up.
Whowell and his family own and operate Gordy’s Marina and the Gordy’s Boat House restaurant, two of the sponsoring businesses for Swim4Freedom.
This year, participants were taken by boat from Gordy’s Marine, 320 Lake Ave. Fontana, to the Williams Bay municipal pier. There they posed for a group picture, and then they swam the three miles back to Fontana.
Each swimmer was required to have a support boat. Swimmers could join up in teams and swim in relays or swim the full three miles.
The Special Operations Warrior Foundation offers full financial assistance for a college education to the surviving children of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps special operations service members who lose their lives in the line of duty.
Youngsters may choose an accredited two- or four-year college, university, technical or trade school. The program provides family and educational counseling, and in-home tutoring.
The foundation also provides financial assistance to severely wounded and hospitalized special operations service members.
“It’s not been a good year for special forces,” said retired Air Force Col. Craig Brotchie.
Brotchie is a member of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation’s board of directors. He lives in Tampa, Florida, but he has a Lake Geneva connection. His son, Bryan Brotchie, is a golf pro at Geneva National.
More than 100 special forces soldiers lost their lives in active service since last year’s Swim4Freedom.
“I was privileged to serve on Air Force Special Forces for 26 years, and live to tell about it. Some don’t,” he said.
The foundation was created after an attempt to rescue the embassy hostages in Iran in 1980. Eight special forces soldiers died in the attempted raid when two aircraft collided and exploded into flames.
They left behind a combined 16 children.
“We made a promise to the young men who joined special forces that if something happened to them, their children would be taken care of,” Brotchie said.
He said special forces warriors account for about half of the battle casualties during the year, but comprise just 2 percent of the soldiers and sailors serving.
Special forces are assigned the most complex and dangerous missions, Brotchie said.
“It’s a dangerous world out there,” he said.