I sometimes wish that I had the production budget of a company like ESPN. Swimming is full of inspirational stories that would play splendidly with a Tom Rinaldi voiceover. For now, I will attempt to do justice to two great open-water stories of the past two weeks only with the written word.
Allsopp Becomes oldest Channel crosser
Move over Dara Torres. If she is the idol of stay-fit quadregenerians world-wide, then the septegerians have British surgeon Roger Allsopp. Allsopp is a retired surgeon who recently crossed the grueling 21-nautical mile English Channel at 70 years and 4-months old, which makes him the oldest person to ever do so on strength of their own aquatic locomotion.
The previous mark was held by George Brunstad (who is the uncle of famous actor Matt Damon) by three months. Though his time of 17-hours and 51 minutes was much slower than the fastest-ever crossing (done by Petar Stoychev in 6 hours, 57 minutes), but perhaps that made it even more inspirational. A 70-year old man was able to swim for 17 consecutive hours.
“I do feel an immense sense of achievement and relief that I have been successful,” Allsopp told the AFP. “This has been an incredible personal challenge for me. That a man of my grand age can achieve such a physical and mental challenge proves that you can live younger if you keep active in mind and body.”
For those who prefer a more concrete inspiration is the fact that the former breast cancer surgeon was able to raise £750,000 ($1.2 million) to buy cancer research equipment for the University of Southampton.
Allsopp is a great example of somebody using swimming as the ultimate test of his body’s ability, which is something that we can all keep in mind every time we get in the water for a workout.
Anders Olsson sets record in Alcatraz “Swim with the Centurions” race
From the oldest, we go to the fastest. 45-year old Anders Olsson (pictured above) of Sweden won the 9th-annual Alcatraz Classic that recreates the infamous escape attempt of Frank Morris and Clarence Anglin in 1962, memorialized by the famous Clint Eastwood film “Escape from Alcatraz”. Olsson’s performance in the swim, which runs just about a mile-and-a-half, but was also the fastest that this race had ever been swum – in 24 minutes and 32 seconds, all done in teeth-shatteringly-cold 55-degree water.
Oh yeah, and he did the swim using only his arms, literally. That’s because Olsson is paralyzed from the waist down. That made him not only the fastest swimmer with use of any appendages to complete the swim, it made him the first swimmer without functioning legs to even enter the race. His incredible upper-body strength led him to blow the competition away by a four-minute margin.
Olsson was a very good young swimmer before a weight-lifting injury to a vertebra in his early teens caused him severe back injuries. Following surgery to repair his back, he had an accident in the home that led to several torn back muscles, more surgeries, and eventually paralysis. Besides the loss of use in his legs, his lung capacity was nearly cut-in-half as a result of the accident.
After his life spiraled out-of-control, including an addiction to morphine, swimming snapped Olsson back to life in 2002 after he began training for a 3-kilometer river swim on a dare from a friend. That swim turned into a new obsession for Olsson, and by 2004, he was a Paralympic gold medalist in the 400 free.
Olsson has gone on to become a highly decorated athlete, including 6 Paralympic medals, two Paralympic World Championships, and being twice-named Sweden’s Paralympic athlete of the year. He is currently the S6 classification World Record holder in the 100, 200, and 400 freestyles.
For Olsson, swimming was a respite from the struggles of his personal life. It reminds me of this piece written by Mike Gustafson, where he describes the ability of swimming to force one into personal reflection and life introspection. Olsson needed something to get his life on track, and the unbelievable accesibility of our sport was able to fill that role in his life, even without the use of his legs.
This is the key to swimming. At some levels, swimmers hem and haw over the quality of a pool, or how fast a gutter-system is. And at some levels, those things are valid discussions. But at a whole other level (even staying within the realm of competitive swimming) the magic of water makes our sport accessible to nearly everyone.