KENT ISLAND, MD., JUNE 14 -- Perhaps James Kegley, who recently received a master's degree from Indiana University in exercise physiology, feels he must test his scholastic theories by competing in events such as today's Chesapeake Bay Bridge Swim Race.

Kegley, 29, won and improved the course record by more than 12 seconds. Despite having to fight the current and an occasional sea nettle between the two spans of the Bay Bridge from Sandy Point State Park to a stretch of sand 4.4 miles from the start, Kegley completed the course in 1 hour 29 minutes 5 seconds.

Curl Swim Club teammates John Pace, a junior at O'Connell High School in Arlington, and Daniel Greenwood, a junior at Bishop Ireton, finished second (1:34:05) and third (1:34:30), respectively.

Another Curl Swim Club member, Christine Smith, 17, of Yorktown High School, was the first female finisher, fourth overall, with a time of 1:34:50. She stayed close to Greenwood, even after running into one of the 60-odd bridge pilings two miles into the race.

The race, the largest open-water swimming competition in the continental United States, this year drew 415 participants, up from 278 last year and 60 the year before. The first year 10 registered, but inclement conditions kept all but two away. Dean Parsons of Damascus was one of those two.

"Strength is not necessarily the key," said Parsons, 47, who finished in the middle of the pack today. "It's pacing. You have to be content with a consistent pace and most of the kids are not patient. I swim with guys in the pool and they lap me every fourth or fifth time, but they'll get out in the Bay and die."

Unintentionally, Kegley followed a patient pace.

"I was way down the beach when the gun went off; I didn't hear it," he said.

He was far behind the leaders at the start, but near the halfway point, Kegley caught the early pacesetters and pressed on unchallenged.

"It was a gradual thing, I kept up a steady pressure," said Kegley, who hopes to open a corporate health consulting business in Charlottesville soon. "I have short little goals to keep my motivation to stay in shape. You have to practice what you preach."

About 2,000 feet from the start, where the swimmers must turn from the open bay into the 450-foot corridor between the two spans, the mass of churning arms turned the green water white, flecked with orange swimming caps. A few swimmers had balloons attached to their caps to assist their breathing. Some used snorkels. Many donned full-body wetsuits at the start to offset the chill of the water. Others used petroleum jelly for the cold and emerged covered with debris.