The man swims hard. Waves bigger than the man is tall crash around him. He is cold, exhausted. He doesn't know if he can go on. Everyone is counting on him — his friends, his family, his teammates, the autistic kids for whom he's raising awareness, anyone who thinks a crazy-difficult thing can't be done and needs reminding that it can. But the ocean has a way of making you forget. He curls up into a ball and begins to sink.
Turn the clock back a week. The man, endurance swimmer Mike Vovk, and his three teammates are at Manhattan Beach Pier contemplating their coming attempt at a historic first: four swimmers crossing the Catalina Channel four times. They answer questions in the same manner in which they'll swim — relay style, one swimmer per crossing.
"The suffering you go through is stupid," says David Hartmire, plopping down on a bench. "But the feeling at the end is the best in the world." Hartmire worries most about temperature; the water has been unseasonably cold this year. The oldest at 49, he will swim the first leg. Question: What goes through his mind?
Answer: "As little as possible."
When he is in the water, Hartmire says, he occupies himself with math. He calculates speed, pace, miles left to swim. The distance (100 miles total) and duration (over three days) have been done before but never in this stretch of water and never with four people crossing consecutively.
Training is intense. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays they hit the pool; 24,000 yards. Tuesday means a jump into the ocean in the dead of night. "I strap a glow stick onto my wet suit and goggles," says Chris Dahowski, team captain. "It does seem like a little lure out there." Open-ocean swimmers must reconcile their fear of "toothy animals," he says. Speed is his gift. As the fastest of the group, he's the anchor and will swim the final, most difficult leg.
Jen Schumacher turns up next, taking Dahowski's place on the bench. Blond, wiry, 25, with blue eyeliner and flip-flops, she's the pro, the only one who has done this crossing before. What does she see when she's out there? "Kelp beds. Baby seals. I saw five dolphins one time." But usually, "You don't get to see much." Usually, you go into yourself because tough as it is, swimming for 12 hours brings with it a certain ... boredom. Schumacher should know: She has completed three prior marathon swims, including a full circumnavigation of Manhattan island.
Her mind already is moving forward to other stretches of water she'd like to conquer. Molokai to Oahu, one of Hawaii's iconic crossings, where the ocean is warm, clear and cobalt blue. Or the frigid, jellyfish-infested Straits of Moyle, which cleaves Northern Ireland from Scotland. Or Havana to Florida, 103 miles, crossed most recently by 60-year-old world-renowned long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad and countless floating Cuban refugees. And of course the English Channel, the granddaddy of channel crossings, whose rules govern the Catalina swim. "These swims are as challenging as you can imagine," Schumacher says.
Swimming 20 miles, 100 miles, it's crazy. Why do it? "I do it to show people what's possible," Vovk says. He does it because relentlessness is embedded in American culture. He does it because when he's out there, and everything hurts and he wants to stop, he needs to know if he's the kind of person who can continue. He needs to know at what point he will give up.
In this case, he also does it to raise money for Jay Nolan Community Services Center, an autism nonprofit.
Vovk is 44, a husband, a father, a computer guy. He's big and slow, but he can go a long way, he explains. Four consecutive crossings means Hartmire will swim from Long Beach to Catalina, Vovk from Catalina to Long Beach, Schumacher back to Catalina, and Dahowski back again to Long Beach. No breaks. They'll eat — liquid food, high-calorie smoothies — en route.
"Lance Armstrong says all endurance athletes are running away from something," Vovk says. "Maybe they are. But like another swimmer said, I don't do this to escape from life. I do it so life doesn't escape from me."
The day arrives.
Vovk and his teammates planned the relay so Vovk, the least experienced swimmer, will get the best weather conditions. Instead, he winds up with the worst. More pithy sayings: If you want to see God laugh, make a plan. Mother Nature has a sense of humor. On this day, she opens up a can of hellfire in the form of 6- to 8-foot swells. She sends torrential rains, and cumulonimbus clouds to obscure the moon and stars, rendering the night pitch black. "I need you to lie to me, Dave," Vovk says.
"It's calm. It's easy," Hartmire says, or shouts, really, over the din of the storm. "You'll make it. The current's in your favor." Nearby, kayaks are flipping over, tipping their passengers into the drink.
Vovk is sick from the start. The escort boat that's supposed to guide him can't come close for fear of crushing him in the maelstrom, and the only way to escape the howling wind and roaring waves is to dive 10 feet under. In those queasifying conditions, a human being is a tiny rag doll tossed against giant walls of water. With the danger of capsizing imminent, the Coast Guard orders all small boats away from the channel. Only a single kayaker remains with Vovk — his son.
Stomach tied in knots, muscles cramping, Vovk swims his heart out for eight hours, midnight to daylight. But it's no use. He barely makes it seven and a half miles. In mild weather, he might have covered twice that much in the same time. But in the storm of the season, it's one stroke forward, 10 strokes back the whole way. Exhausted, hypothermic, he curls up into a ball. He isn't aware of giving up exactly, of making a decision to stop paddling, to stop throwing arm over arm, shoulder over shredded shoulder. As he begins to sink, he feels hands pulling him out of the water.
Consciousness is a funny thing; asked about it later, Vovk will remember the ridiculous smell of bacon wafting over from the escort boat yards away — someone was cooking onboard. He will remember staring up at the crest of black waves in between lightning flashes. He will remember begging to be told how to keep going despite the nausea and pain. He won't remember precisely what happened after a person from the boat jumped in and yanked him from the sea.
"There was crying," he recalls uncomfortably. "I was crying."
Now it's four days after the swim. No history was made. But personally, this was the first thing Vovk couldn't finish. Personally, Vovk has worked his way through upset, shame and disappointment in record time. Now he's pissed.
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Quietly, without media fanfare, without crowds of well-wishers standing on shore, before the benefits of his intensive cardiovascular and strength training diminish, he charters a guide boat. "We were just waiting for your call," his teammates say when he tells them his plan.
The weather on Vovk's "revenge swim" couldn't be lovelier. Faster and faster he goes. Although Hartmire, Schumacher and Dahowski have completed their respective crossings on the first go-round, they swim the final two miles with him. They finish as a foursome, and it's emotional, and Vovk becomes the 199th person to swim across the Catalina Channel in 80-plus years.
"There's a reason that number is so low," Vovk says. "Swimming that channel? It's freakin' hard."
He would like to never do it again.