By Kim Constantinesco
For former Navy SEAL Chris Ring, home is where the water is. And for six months last year, Ring did indeed live in the water.
The 29-year-old hopped in Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River, and swam all 2,552 miles of it to become the first American to ever swim our country’s second-longest river.
The test of endurance was more than just a personal quest to conquer, however. Ring’s strokes were for a much greater purpose — to honor Gold Star families, or those who have lost a loved one in service to the country.
“Not everyone knows or understands what a Gold Star family is,” Ring said. “I’ve heard so many stories where people have been congratulated for being Gold Star families. No family wants to be a Gold Star family.”
Born and raised just outside of Nashville, Tenn., Ring was drawn to the military at an early age. He joined right after high school and served for 10 years with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
After he was honorably discharged in July of 2015, he wanted to continue serving the country in some capacity, so he joined forces with Legacies Alive, an organization founded by combat veterans that is dedicated to supporting Gold Star families and bringing awareness to the life of all service members who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“What I like about Legacies Alive is that we honor all Gold Star families from any branch, from any war,” Ring said. “In the SEAL community, there’s a lot of great resources that they offer to Gold Star families, but not all militaries have that across the board.”
In 2014, Legacies Alive co-founder Mike Viti embarked on the first-ever Legacy Challenge, a six-month 4,400-mile walk around the perimeter of the country from Washington to Baltimore to honor all 6,843 service members who were killed in the Global War on Terrorism. Along the way, he met with 65 Gold Star families.
Ring wanted to carry that powerful torch in 2015, so he shouldered the Legacy Challenge, and decided to do a monster swim down the iconic river that separates the “east” from the “west” in the U.S.
For 181 days, Ring was in the water from six to 10 hours per day. With him was a small support staff from Legacies Alive – affectionately called the ‘Swim Team’ — one friend in a kayak, one friend on a boat, and one friend on land to work out the logistics of where they would get in and out of the water.
He encountered beaver dams up north, and the glowing eyes of alligators down south, not to mention the occasional bump by a large contingency of Asian carp. There were times when he would swim all day, and because of the strong current, look behind him only to see his starting point from that morning.
“I was an average swimmer before this,” Ring said. “Everyone thinks SEALS love being in water, or are all great swimmers. That’s a common misconception. We’re all comfortable in the water, which is what helped me in the swim down the river.”
Four months prior to “launch,” Ring incorporated long distance swimming into his training to get him ready. The mental challenge, however, wasn’t something he could necessarily prepare for.
“When you’re swimming, you’re in your own head,” he said. “I was thinking about all the families and the stories I heard, but when you’re in the water that much, you get mentally exhausted. You have to stay on top of your game because I had another family to meet soon after that swim.”
Ring met with Gold Star families, those from the current Iraq/Afghanistan war as well as families from WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He had families who would drive five hours one-way just to meet him.
Each time he met with a family, he invited them to write the name and a note to their fallen hero on the side of the kayak, symbolizing their journey down the river with him.
“It was a reminder that no matter how difficult this is for me right now, it’s going to be over,” Ring said of the swim. “These families have to live in this loss for the rest of their lives.”
Ring’s efforts had healing properties for the families along the way.
“It made them feel better that someone was honoring their loved ones, ensuring that they weren’t going to be forgotten,” Ring said.
Ring’s swim won’t be forgotten either. But he has greater satisfaction in knowing that because he gave some for those that gave all, families across the country can take a little comfort in knowing that a legacy is, in fact, being kept alive.