North Kingstown’s Edgar Mercado, 63, was the very first swimmer to sign up for Save The Bay’s very first swim back in 1977. “I saw a little bitty story on the front page of the Providence Journal that Save The Bay was looking for swimmers. When I went in and told them I wanted to sign up, [then-executive director] Trudy Coxe went crazy, gave a me a big hug and kiss, and I thought ‘boy, I’m going to like this,’” Mercado said. Thirty-nine years later, Mercado has missed just two Save The Bay Swims – one in the 1990s after an industrial accident that took him out of commission for about eight months, and the other in 2000, when “I had to take my wife to Europe for our 25th wedding anniversary,” he said.
Thinking back to that first 1.7-nautical-mile Swim, which was then from Jamestown to Newport, he remembers that he didn’t know what to expect, and being asked what he had for breakfast. “I’d had a doughnut. Things were different back then. People weren’t into health and fitness the way we are now,” he said. And he told his family to head into Newport and do some sight-seeing, “because I thought it was going to take that long. Thankfully they didn’t, and it didn’t,” he said. His recollection of looking up at the Pell Bridge from the water: “majestic,” he said.
Mercado doesn’t actually remember how long it took him that first year, but in his 37th Swim on July 11, which is Save The Bay's 39th annual Save The Bay Swim, he says his goal is to “meet the Jim Mullen challenge,” which is to swim a time that is under one’s age, a goal set by Ruth Mullen in tribute to her late husband, who was an avid swimmer. Last year, Mercado missed that goal by two minutes. This year, he figures, he only has to cut his time by one minute, since he’s gained a minute in age over the last 12 months. He thinks he’s on track. Three mornings a week since January, Mercado spends two hours at the pool, swimming two miles, doing drills, and “a little socializing.”
He wasn’t always this ready, though. Back in 2008 or 2009, he says, he was 100 pounds heavier than he is now, not to mention pins in an ankle, carbon fibers in a knee, arthritis, and a prosthesis in his ear that throws off his balance. Three times during the Swim that year, he wanted to quit. But his daughters’ recent intervention about his health and weight kept him going. “When I got out of the water, I thought I was going to die,” he said. Not long afterward, he was diagnosed with asthma. He doesn’t let that stop him. “I swim better than I walk, anyway,” he said.
What began as a personal challenge in his 20s turned into a great ice-breaker at parties, and a family affair in his 30s and beyond as his brother, wife, nieces, nephews and daughters all got involved as spotters in the accompanying rowboats (now kayaks), alternates, donors, cheerleaders and so on. Today, he says, “I do it for what Save The Bay is doing for Narragansett Bay, because no one else is doing what they do. I remember one year, I was holding my little girls, one on each hip, looking out over the water, and thought ‘If Save The Bay isn’t doing what they do, what is the Bay going to be like for my little ones?’ The water is remarkably better today,” Mercado said, recalling that in the early years of the Swim, swimmers had to be rowed out into the Bay about 300-400 yards because the water along the shoreline was deemed too polluted for human activity.
“Save The Bay is a wonderful cause. I can’t contribute much, but I can do this, and this wouldn’t be there without Save The Bay’s advocacy. By drawing attention to the Bay in the small way that I do, I’m helping the environment and the community, and I’m helping myself, too.”