Dartmouth resident's 14th Buzzards Bay Swim inspired by pollution around her New York hometown

Jun 21, 2017

The first time Dartmouth resident Erica Miller participated in the 1.2-mile Buzzards Bay Swim, she had numerous concerns.

"I was turning 50. There's no lines at the bottom of the bay. What if something bit me? I was terrified," she recalled while sitting her Old Westport Road home. She took first place among women in her age group. She again took first place in her age group when she was 60 years old.

The now 64-year-old is still finding ways to combine her passions of conservation and water fitness. She will swim in her 14th Buzzards Bay event on June 24, but the advocacy efforts date back to her childhood.

Growing up on Staten Island before the Environmental Protection Agency existed was a nightmare, recalled Miller.

“Where I lived, there was woods and wetlands and fields. Then there was a housing explosion, shopping malls and new schools. I saw streams polluted. Sometimes the sky turned yellow. That was my playground,” she said.

“I went to the beach all the time. I’d come home with tar on my body. They filled in the wetlands near my house, and when the wind was blowing the wrong way, I’d smell garbage,” she continued.

Miller first heard of the Buzzards Bay Swim at a 2003 Earth Day event in New Bedford. The Bouchard 120 released an estimated 98,000 gallons of oil into the bay a few days later. Clean water was a cause that Miller couldn’t ignore.

"I have two goals: not to slow down, and to raise more money," said Miller, who has missed the event only once... when she was in South Africa.

While her fundraising efforts have slimmed since switching jobs, Miller has still raised about $550 toward her $1,000 goal, she said. It's the one time each year she asks for money, and she has no limits, Miller laughed. Both her hairdresser and mechanic were solicited for donations.

Last year, Miller raised more than $1,000, and over the years, she has also recruited swimmers to join her cause. That includes lifeguards at the Boys & Girls Club, a yoga student of hers, and friends.

"More participants is more fun," she said. This year, Miller will compete as part of a three-person team for the first time ever, but she anticipates familiar feelings to arise on Saturday.

"I'm always excited, and nervous to get there on time. I love seeing all the people. Some people I only know because I see them at this race," she said.

On game day, Miller will start the day with an early, protein-rich breakfast — "either eggs or oatmeal" — and warm up in the water.

"This week, I'm easing up on the intensity of my practice," she said. But that doesn’t mean Miller doesn’t know how to crank up the heat during workouts. She swims two or three times a week, and makes a point to do something active — like biking or walking her four-year-old goldendoodle, Bella — on off days.

“I’m really in a maintenance phase of working out… keeping up my stamina and strength. I’m fighting age,” said Miller.

Miller’s swimming career began at an early age. She was involved in competitive swimming from eight- to 17-years-old. In college, she trained with the men’s team.

“There were not many opportunities in college for women swimmers. They were much faster and stronger than me at the time. I got discouraged,” she recalled.

As an adult, her swimming became more focused on fun and fitness, but Miller still takes tips from professionals like her sister Elaine Valdez, who swam with the men’s team at Lehman College in New York City and now participates in U.S. Masters Swimming at 62 years old.

“I’m this complete amateur compared to her. She’s my coach in a lot of ways,” said Miller. Valdez, however, has never done the Buzzards Bay Swim, but mainly because she lives in Texas, said Miller.

Swimming runs in the family, said Miller. Her father, Edward Hochuli, swam in both high school and college, and in the Senior Olympics when he got older. He also taught Miller’s mother, Evelyn, to swim. Miller’s youngest sister, Janet Reed, also was a swimmer.

“If you look at family photos, it’s always swimming pools, lakes, rivers. We’re all wet,” laughed Miller. And, naturally, both of Miller’s two sons — Michael, 25, and Daniel, 29 — swim, although not as avidly as their mother.

Since remarrying, Miller has also got her husband Richard Parker into swimming. “He’s been swimming since September 2015. He now works out with me,” she said.

Miller has competed in other events, including the 1.5-mile Providence Swim for Life — “Four hundred swimmers hit the water at the same time. It was ruthless,” she recalled — and triathlon events.

Looking ahead to the June 24 swim, Miller said the competition has gotten tougher as the event has grown from 75 to 300 swimmers.

“There’s everyone from super competitive to I-hope-I-make-it. I’m right in the middle of that,” she said. “That makes me feel good, that I’m in the middle of the pack.”

Miller will take off around 7:30 a.m. from a beach in New Bedford’s South End before cruising across the bay to Fort Phoenix. A pancake breakfast, live music, and free massages will great swimmers, kayakers, and guests at the finish line. An awards ceremony will kick off around 9:30 a.m.