The view from South America

As a new film about crossing the Rio de la Plata - the widest river in the world - is released, we look to the outdoor swimming scene in South America

A new short film RIO focuses on swimmer Anthony McCarley’s journey across the Rio de la Plata, or River Plate, which forms a natural border between Argentina and Uruguay. The Rio de la Plata is the widest river in the world – approximately 2km at its source and about 220km at its mouth – and official crossings are made at a 40km stretch. Elsewhere editor Beth Pearson took the opportunity to speak with Lucas Rivet, a veteran of the outdoor swimming scene in Argentina, one of Anthony’s support crew and producer of RIO. Here, they discuss the growing popularity of open water swimming in Argentina and South America, the history of the Rio de la Plata crossing, and Rivet’s philosophy of swimming in open water.

The crossing of the Rio de la Plata is central to the film RIO – can you tell us some of the history of this swim? 

The first attempt to cross the Rio de la Plata was in 1919 by the Italian swimmer Enrico Tiraboschi, he made two attempts to cross and in both failed. It wasn’t until 1923 that the first successful crossing was made and it was a woman who achieved it, an Argentinan named Lilian Harrison. It was a time when women were confined to certain sports and long-distance swimming was not one of them. However, Lilian defied all the prejudices of the time and became the first person to cross the Rio de la Plata. Since then, a total of 32 swimmers have made individual crossings without neoprene.

There cannot be many other crossings in the world that have a history of more than 100 years, except for the English Channel (1875). The Rio de la Plata is a centennial journey but it never had an organisation to certify its swimming until the creation of the Asociación Cruce a Nado Rio de la Plata (ACNRP – website in English and Spanish), which is today the certifying body of the crossing. The process to certify a swim involves a request for authorisation to the maritime authorities of Argentina and Uruguay, hiring logistical support to coordinate the security operation and swimming a 40km stretch between coasts, complying with the rules of ACNRP that are based on the rules of Marathon Swimming Federation (MSF).

Argentinian Lilian Harrison being congratulated for making the first crossing the Rio de la Plata

The crossing has enormous potential to become more popular because it is the #riomasanchodelmundo (widest river in the world) and because its currents and the wind are often unpredictable. The formation of the South American Triple Crown presents a very interesting challenge for swimmers who are able to swim in rivers, seas and icy waters. If you are a swimmer who adapts to these different conditions, this challenge is ideal and if you complete it you will receive your Triple Crown leather jacket because you are an open water rock star!


The South American Triple Crown

  • 40km crossing of the Rio de la Plata, Argentina/Uruguay
  • 36km sea swim from Leme to Pontal, Brazil
  • 1.6 km crossing of the Beagle Channel, Chile


What does the Rio de la Plata mean to the people of Uruguay and Argentina, and to you?

The Rio de la Plata is life, it is history, it is mystique, it is a reason for reunion, it is nostalgia, it is joy. Its waters are pure but to be able to live them you will have to get into the mud. Every time I enter its flow I ask permission to the river, its fauna and the imposing presence of the spirit of the river that by taking away the possibility of seeing the riverbed [the Rio de la Plata is famously opaque and brown] makes you connect more with the water, with the sound of the water brushing with your body. Every time I swim in the Rio de la Plata I remember that the sediments that turn it brown have been washed away from the Andes mountain range and that eventually its waters will collide with the Atlantic Ocean and turn into something else. That thought gives me a lot of serenity and makes me understand my own life, where I come from, where I am at this very moment, where I am going and how I will transform one day. I swim because it gives me peace, I swim in the Rio de la Plata because it teaches me.

Foto: Pablo Perez Fielder

Every time I swim in the Rio de la Plata I remember that the sediments that turn it brown have been washed away from the Andes mountain range and that eventually its waters will collide with the Atlantic Ocean and turn into something else. That thought gives me a lot of serenity and makes me understand my own life, where I come from, where I am at this very moment, where I am going and how I will transform one day.

Can you tell us about open water swimming in South America in general? Is it becoming more popular, and if so, with whom? 

After the triathlon boom in the region, I think open water swimming is the next sport to expand in a big way. Although we have always had great open water swimmers and some of the best long distance open water circuit races are in Argentina, I think that now what is happening is that it’s not only professionals who are doing it but also amateur athletes are beginning to turn to the open waters as a way to challenge themselves or because they want to venture into a new discipline. On the other hand, I think that not all swimmers are looking for competition, but many begin to look to open water swimming as a way of having adventures, for the experience or challenging themselves to see if they are capable of doing a certain crossing.

That is why I believe that South America has an opportunity for development, as it has many impressive places with the potential to explore swimming. It will only be necessary to invest in infrastructure and trained people ensuring safety in the water. We already have several very beautiful crossings, with infrastructure to give a good experience to local and international swimmers. Leme to Pontal is a great example of this, the Rio de la Plata is another, the crossing of the Beagle Channel and the crossing to Isla de Lobos in Punta del Este as well. I think more options will emerge over the years. I am also convinced that if we want to learn to respect and take care of water, getting into it is one way to do it. The more people swim in open water, the more people will respect seas, rivers and lakes. When you connect with the water, you are the water and once you are the water there is no way not to take care of it. It’s my mission to encourage and help as many people as possible to practice open water swimming. Making the connection with the water is then the task of each one.

Barbara Hernandez of Chile swimming in Lake Grey by the Grey Glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields of Chile. Photo: @barbarehlla_h

Barbara Hernandez from Chile is a star of the scene, isn’t she?

Barbara Hernandez is a star of cold water swimming that is practiced in open water in short distances. At a competitive level there are Damian Blaum and Pilar Geijo who participate in the long distance FINA circuit. There are also promising new stars appearing like Lu Ferreri who in March will try to cross the Rio de la Plata, in addition to being a swimmer who participates in the competitive circuit. But how can you define a star if it is not through competition? I think it is a definition that I would not like anyone who practices open water cross-country swimming to pursue. A journey is a journey and a journey has meaning for those who do it. Hopefully many people find in the open waters the space to take that journey, and that process of transformation that we go through when we prepare for the challenge. When the process makes sense, the journey is only the excuse to go through the process.

You crossed the Rio de la Plata in 2018 – congratulations! What is your personal swimming history?

I played rugby from five to 22-years-old. My mother was a swimmer and although I did not practice swimming and dedicated myself to rugby, she made sure that one way or another I was in contact with the water. Either by choosing a school that had swimming, or making sure that in summer we always played games in the pool at our house, or vacationing in places by the sea and encouraging me to get in during the day or at night, whether I was angry or calm. I did my first training in the pool when I was 34 when I started triathlon.

After a few years of triathlon and four Ironman runs, I understood that triathlon no longer had anything to give because I was more focused on the competition and looking at the clock than on the experience itself. It was at that moment that I decided that I wanted to swim across the Rio de la Plata and that having little experience as a swimmer would not be a problem. I was willing to do what I had to do to transform myself into someone who can swim the hours it takes to travel between shores on his own. How many hours can I swim continuously? I don’t know, I think that my ceiling is far from being found and that keeps me growing, maturing and being, as Anthony McCarley says, the best possible version of myself.

Lucas Rivet after finishing his crossing of the Rio de la Plata

How did you meet Anthony? 

I met him when he came with his team to try to cross the Rio de la Plata for the first time. When I met him, it didn’t take long to realise that I wanted to be part of his team. His ideas and wisdom captivated me. Then things happened little by little and today I not only feel part of his work team but we have had the blessing of being able to put into 30 minutes a summary of his ideas about open water and how these ideas are applicable to other areas of life. RIO is one more part of this growth process that I am on, with the help of open waters. I hope a lot of people benefit from the ideas and concepts that Anthony shares in this film.

Beth Pearson