Mother-daughter duo bond over Hudson River swims
ELMHURST TOWNSHIP (AP) — Ann Marie Vitiello and her daughter, Anne, share similar names and the same birth month.
They also share a love of exercise and the outdoors.
This past August, 79-year-old Ann Marie Vitiello completed her 11th one-mile swim across the Hudson River. Her daughter, 53, completed her second as an homage to her mom’s tenacity.
“I’ve been really blessed with good health,” Ann Marie Vitiello said during a recent afternoon as the pair reflected on their feats at her Elmhurst Township home.
Eleven years ago, Ann Marie Vitiello decided to participate in the Great Newburgh-to-Beacon Hudson River Swim, a fundraiser for the River Pool organization. Her daughter, who lives in Cold Spring, New York, saw the swim advertised to help with operation and maintenance of a pool and park in that portion of the river. She thought it might be a fun way to get the whole family together, and it made a great fit for her mom.
“She was such a strong swimmer, and it reminded me of her,” Anne Vitiello said. “It was after dad had passed, and I also thought it was just a nice reason to all be together.”
Her mother’s swim career started as a kid with a love of visiting mud holes and creeks in her native Jefferson Twp. As a teenager and young adult, she learned how to swim at Scranton YWCA. In 1957, she joined its synchronized swimming team and found a passion that combined her passion for aquatics with the rhythmic, graceful movement.
“I was then taught correct swimming,” she said, laughing. “I just love the water.”
“You should see her in the water; she just flows,” her daughter added. “It’s amazing.”
Staying active and enjoying the outdoors runs in the family. Ann Marie Vitiello’s mom, the late Helen Kundla, took her to pick berries, go for walks — anything to get the kids outside. She followed suit with her own children — Anne, Diane, Lisa and Sam — by taking them to nearby ponds and lakes to swim or to the state park to enjoy the sunshine.
“I always tried to lead by example,” she said. “You don’t need a lot of money to have something to do. If it was fun and they felt fulfilled and happy, then that was great.”
Back then, people didn’t focus as much on exercising to stay healthy, the duo noted. It was more about pure fun.
“There wasn’t this conscious discussion of fitness,” Anne Vitiello said. “It was all about what we could do that day that would be a good time for all of us and that got us outdoors.”
Family patriarch, the late Samuel, stayed active, too, spending hours after dinner boxing in the basement. Anne Vitiello said she and her siblings give their parents credit because they all remain active, whether through yoga, cycling, running or swimming.
“Those lessons stay with you into adulthood, and you want to pass them on to your children,” Anne Vitiello said. “Nothing compares to being in nature. You treasure those moments.”
The family came out to watch Ann Marie Vitiello in the fundraiser that first year, and it turned into a great way to bond. Anne Vitiello remembers her daughters standing at the bridge and cheering their grandma on, and the family continues to gather in Newburgh each year to watch its matriarch cross the Hudson. As the Vitiello family grew over the years, so did the group. Add in spouses, friends and significant others, and the pair has one of the biggest cheering sections there.
It’s given them some special memories, too. Folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger, who died in 2014, is co-founder of the River Pool at Beacon and attended each with year with his wife, Toshi. He would play and sing songs, including “This Land Is Your Land,” during the event, and Ann Marie even got her photo taken with him one year.
“To hear him singing that song and really listen to the words, it was so special to experience that and really be out and enjoying nature,” she said. “It’s not the same without Pete. He and his wife were so committed (to the cause).”
One night after Ann Marie’s seventh or eighth swim, she and her children joked that one of the kids should join her in the water. Anne Vitiello offered to join her mom for the 10th swim if she got that far. After her mom finished for the ninth time, she recalled, “she got out of the water, pointed right at me and said, ‘You better start training.’ “
Ann Marie Vitiello trains at the YMCA in the winter and local lakes in the summer, though she still gets in a few swims a week other times of year. Training for her daughter, who practices in the Hudson, entails facing choppy waters, where swimmers can feel the currents change underneath.
The fundraising swim takes between 45 and 75 minutes, and the Vitiellos enjoy taking in the beauty of the Hudson and the knowledge that they’re doing it together.
“It’s nice to have her in the water with me,” Ann Marie Vitiello said.
The mother and daughter don’t see themselves stopping their swimming tradition anytime soon, either.
“As long as you’re able to do it, I’ll do it,” Anne Vitiello said to her mom.