Voice professor finds joy and solace in saltwater swimming


Ten years ago, Ann Evans Watson was swimming off the Maui coast when she bumped into a sea turtle. Accustomed to humans from the abundance of tourists in Hawaii, a group of turtles swam alongside her throughout her swim.

While this memory stands out for Evans Watson, it was far from her first foray into the ocean. Long-distance saltwater swimming is an integral part of her life.

“It really is such a nice change of pace from the pedagogical work that I do as a voice professional or as an actor or director. It’s a good balance of brain and physicality,” said Evans Watson, clinical associate professor of musical theater specializing in vocal training.

Despite growing up in landlocked Colorado, Ann Evans Watson always felt drawn to the water and takes part in long-distance saltwater swims. (Photo courtesy of Ann Evans Watson)
Despite growing up in landlocked Colorado, Ann Evans Watson always felt drawn to the water and takes part in long-distance saltwater swims. (Photo courtesy of Ann Evans Watson)

Growing up in landlocked Colorado, Evans Watson said, swimming opportunities were scarce, limited to pools or small lakes. Even so, she felt drawn to the water. She started swimming at a young age and swam competitively with her high school team, where she won medals in the butterfly and freestyle events.

As an adult, she continued swimming and pushed herself to swim longer distances. While visiting family in Southern California, she swam in the ocean and found she far preferred saltwater to indoor pools, where her chlorine allergy proved bothersome.

“I just really love being in the water. And I love the saltwater because it’s so buoyant,” she said.

Evans Watson’s passion for swimming has brought her to tackle stretches of water in Baja, Mexico; Seattle; Vancouver, British Columbia; and San Francisco Bay.

Switching between freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, Evans Watson achieves long-distance swims with the help of flippers. Wearing varying lengths of flippers on her hands and feet allows her to displace water and swim with greater efficiency. She also wears goggles and a half or three-quarter wetsuit.

Ann Evans Watson
Ann Evans Watson

For several years, Evans Watson owned a cottage in Sechelt, a small coastal town on an inlet in British Columbia, Canada. She fondly remembers swimming across the inlet and weaving between the scattered islands.

It was in Sechelt that she clocked her longest swim on record: four and a half hours. For her longer swims, Evans Watson’s son kayaks alongside her as a safety measure. But, she said, she enjoys swimming alone to enter a meditative space.

“It’s an opportunity to be in that simple mind space. Sometimes if I’m starting to feel fatigued, I’ll start counting my strokes, and if I’m really unfortunate, a song that a student has sung recently will get caught in my head,” she joked.

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After living in Michigan for six years, Evans Watson continues to train. Prior to the pandemic, she went to a resistance pool in Dearborn to stay in shape during the winter. She also swims laps in Olympic-sized indoor pools for anywhere from 20 minutes to multiple hours.

Evans Watson said she hopes that in the future she can make her way out to swim along the East Coast.

“I’d like very much, although I think I’m probably getting a little long in the tooth, to do the English Channel,” she said.

Evans Watson said she would encourage others interested in long-distance saltwater swimming to experiment with types of flippers and have fun.

“The fun is how far you can go, not how fast you can go,” she said.


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out? 

Although I am a musical theater voice specialist here at U-M, I choreographed the opera production of “Candide” during the fall of 2018, with my arm in a sling from surgery. During a performance, a professor from the theatre department came up and congratulated me on my work in the show and commented that “the dance department must be really glad” I joined their faculty. That comment made me really proud to be a multi-hyphenate artist. 

What can’t you live without?  

Sunshine, water to swim in, coffee, chocolate and really good wine.

Name your favorite spot on campus.  

The bench by the pond behind the Moore Building.

What inspires you?  

The way my students show up, 100% every day ready to explore, be brave and creative.

What are you currently reading?  

I’m a serial reader. So right now what’s on my nightstand is “I Can’t Make This Up” by comedian Kevin Hart, “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron, “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi, and “The Music of Black Americans: A History” by Eileen Southern.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path? 

I believe every human one comes across walks the path with you for at least a moment, and you learn from each. And there are people whose stride matches your own, and those are the humans from whom you learn the most. I’ve always combined performance and teaching, and for starters, Miss Allie, who “cast” me as Raggedy Ann when I was in elementary school, and I got “the bug.” Mr. Mac, who led the show choir in high school, where I fell in love with telling stories through song. Robert Edwin and Charles Peterson, who were instrumental as my voice teachers, believing I had special intuition as a teacher, and helping me find my footing as an educator.  And my son (who’s a music director and musician). It was important to find a balance between the joy of performing and the financial importance of teaching as a single mom. He gave me grace and understanding, together we celebrated service in doing what we loved and finding a way to have those things lift our community and support us — literally and figuratively.


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