MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A local woman is the first ever swimmer to circumnavigate Anna Maria Island, a feat of 16.8 miles in under 8 hours.

Julie Madison has been swimming since a very young age.

“My mom actually had a huge fear of the water, so she was like, ‘I need to get you into swimming, you need to be able to swim, you have to be confident,'” Madison said.

She was a competitive swimmer through high school, but took a three year break before returning to the pool in New England. Madison worked her way back in to training for about two and a half hours of straight swimming, four days a week.

Madison said her beginnings with open water swimming started with a little fear.

“I ran into someone at the pool and they were like, ‘you are too strong not to be doing open water swimming,’” she said. “I didn’t like dark water. I didn’t like rough water. I didn’t like cold water. I didn’t want to do open water swimming.” 

After one swim in the Connecticut River in November, in what she describes as “probably 59 degree water,” Madison was hooked.

She said she fell in love with it and trained for about a year to learn different water conditions and how to stay safe in open water. 

Madison and her husband moved to Florida when the pandemic began. She was working as a swim coach when the virus shut everything down. Her other hobby of rock climbing ceased indoors, and she unable to swim in the cold winter months between February and May.

She immediately got in to the open water swim community after moving to the Sunshine State, reaching out to those well-known in the area on Facebook. She got to setting goals for swims and events in the area with community behind her, especially the AMI (Anna Maria Island) Hog Fish Swim group.

Because it was doable for her training, Madison chose to circumnavigate Anna Maria Island.

“I’ve had enough experience in open water to be able to evaluate all the conditions going in to it, from the currents, to the time that it would take, to what happens if, God forbid, if something happens, and it was one the local islands that I could evaluate and say, ‘this will be a challenge, but this is an absolutely doable challenge,” she explained.

With her husband in a bright red kayak beside her, Madison set out to swim on Dec. 30.

The swim itself took her over seven hours to complete, taking from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

After navigating the northern tip of the island, tricky due to cross currents coming in from the Tampa Bay sound, as well as boat traffic in the area navigating intense fog, Madison knew she was in the home stretch as she neared the southern tip of Anna Maria Island, where those currents helped speed her along.

“So I knew once I got that, I’d get home, like all I’d have to do was float. It was just getting through that back end and knowing, ‘I just gotta get through the channel. I just gotta get through the channel,’” she said.

After conquering Anna Maria Island with her husband by her side, Madison isn’t slowing down.

She was back in the water shortly after and is already planning big things that she’s willing to share after she’s crushed her goals.

“Once that’s completed I will let you know, because I really want bragging rights!” Madison said.

She shared advice for swimmers and those who may just be afraid of open water.

“Most of the time it’s your fear that’s going to get you in trouble. So it’s really looking at what the fear is and analyzing the risk,” Madison said.

She said people don’t need to dwell on common fears like sharks and dark water, due to the very little risk in the Tampa Bay area.

“And then, what’s with the dark water? I don’t enjoy dark water. But my fear behind it, there’s no risk swimming in dark water. So I really try and analyze those risks and see what’s a valid risk versus what’s something that’s just going to hold me back from reaching my goals,” she said.

Here in Florida, Madison trains veterans to train their own service dogs. She runs three swim events throughout the year with her organization, Fresh Star Swim Series, to benefit Forgotten Coast K-9 and the under-privileged community learning to swim.