Maren Conze staggered as she emerged from the choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. She was disoriented after nearly two hours of swimming and fought to regain her balance on a Fort Myers, Fla., shore as she readjusted to the sand beneath her feet.
Maren Conze took to open water swimming. She’s also great in the pool.
Soon, the dizziness faded and relief kicked in. Conze, now a senior at Walter Johnson, was one of 21 girls to compete at Open Water Junior Nationals in April 2021; she finished eighth after completing a 7.5-kilometer swim in 1 hour 52 minutes.
It was the longest competitive swim of her career. She is accustomed to swimming indoor distance events such as the 500-yard freestyle — a race in which she set the Maryland state record during her freshman season — as well as the 1,000 and the mile for her club team, Nation’s Capital Swim Club.
But the trials of an open water swim are a different battle, Conze said. There’s no black line at the bottom of the pool to stare at, and swimmers must constantly search for the course’s buoys to remain on track. Not doing so may derail your race, causing you to swim an even longer distance in the seemingly bottomless ocean.
Conze — who will compete with Walter Johnson at the Washington Metropolitan Interscholastic Swimming and Diving championships Saturday — has embraced the challenge of open water swimming over the past five years. She has competed in open water events across the country since she was 13, showcasing her distance swimming prowess in the midst of a blossoming career.
“I would say I like open water a lot more than the 1,000 freestyle or the mile,” Conze said. “The courses you get to do for open water just aren’t boring. It’s long and it’s horrible and hard, but each lap you do is something different.”
Conze was born into the sport. Her parents met on the Bucknell swim team in the 1980s, and her mother, Margaret, completed her first open water event on the Chesapeake Bay while pregnant with Maren in 2004.
At 2½, Maren was jumping off diving boards at the pool and swimming to the wall on her own. Her mom would throw coins to the bottom of the pool for her to collect, and when her small body couldn’t sink enough to grab them, she would beg her mom to push her down.
The Conzes took family trips to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and Maren spent hours with her parents learning how to body surf to become water-safe.
“I think that she really got her love for open water from just spending so much time in this giant body of water,” Margaret said. “She’s not scared of seaweed or fish or anything like that.”
The Conzes wasted little time making sure their daughter was comfortable and confident in the water. But while Maren’s passion for swimming was evident early, her parents took their time in allowing her to swim competitively.
They feared burnout, so Maren waited until she was 10 to start club swimming during the winter — years after most of her teammates. Her first club coach, Sue Chen, eventually convinced her to try an open water five-kilometer swim.
“I remember talking to her about it,” Chen said. “She’s really good at distance freestyle — she was tall and lean — and I think she would just be so good for open water because once she got going, you’d feel like Maren could go forever.”
When Conze was 13, her team traveled to Smith Mountain Lake, where she competed in her first open water five-kilometer swim. She remembers the beauty of the outdoors and jumping into the Virginia water alongside her mother, who swam the race with the team.
Chen remembers Conze’s first race, too. She stood and watched as Conze emerged from the water, her cheeks rosy-red from exhaustion but a smile plastered on her face. Conze finished in first place and beat her mom by 20 minutes.
“This is something I’d like to do a couple more times,” Conze remembers thinking after she won.
Now an avid club swimmer and a University of North Carolina commit, Conze has supplemented her indoor training with more open water swims. With two more five-kilometer races under her belt, she nearly made the open water national team with her performance in Fort Myers in 2021.
Since then, she has shifted her focus to finishing her high school career. Conze was part of the Walter Johnson girls’ team that brought home a state title last season, and she is looking to reclaim her crown in the 500 freestyle at Metros, as well as the Wildcats’ 400 freestyle relay title.
Even in the midst of another state title run and with the dawn of her collegiate swimming career approaching, Conze plans to continue competing in open water events. Her mother, who still trains in the water three times per week, hopes her daughter’s passion will still burn when her swimming career ends.
“It’s something that really centers her, and so it centers me,” Margaret Conze said. “It centers all of us.”