Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mariel Hawley swims the Catalina Channel for 100 smiles… with a smile!

On August 25, Mariel Hawley from Mexico City swam the Catalina Channel in 11 hours and 27 minutes. Mariel is the first Mexican woman to achieve the Triple Crown of marathon swimming: successful swims of the English Channel, the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and the Catalina Channel. Mariel also swam to raise money to provide surgeries for 100 low-income children with cleft palate and hare lip – 100 smiles. Mariel swam from Catalina Island to Terranea Beach in Palos Verdes with a smile the whole way, herself. I was her official observer, officiating for the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, and it was my honor and privilege to have been a part of Mariel’s very special swim.

Mariel’s coach is Mexican channel swimming legend Nora Toledano, with 6 solo English Channel swims to her credit. Mariel’s stalwart crew of kayaker and buddy swimmer Gela Limonchi and physician Ariadna Del Villa supported both this swim and her English Channel swim last summer. Javier Gutierrez provided enthusiastic buddy swimming and cheering the whole way from Catalina Island to the mainland. Don Rasky and Kim Miller guided Mariel in their kayaks and John Pittman and David Caudle piloted the escort boat, Outrider. Between Nora, Javier, Mariel and me we have 13 English Channel solo swims between us! We were ready for anything!

We motored from Long Beach to Catalina Island and arrived around 11:30pm, where Mariel prepared to swim. Nora applied Vaseline around her suitstraps for chafing and sunscreen, as Mariel chatted enthusiastically. We all offered words of encouragement, especially “hang in there until the sun comes up… it’s a whole new ball game then!” The nighttime is the hardest part of the Catalina Channel swim, with the swimmer unable to see a horizon and often feeling disoriented and nauseated. This is also the coldest part of the swim, as the chilly night wind blows on tired shoulders, causing chills and doubts to creep in during the darkest hours just before dawn.

Mariel has her game face on!

Mariel swam on a balmy night in calm seas. This must have seemed quite pleasant after her English Channel swim last summer, when she swam in conditions so rough most swimmers would not have been able to finish. At sunrise, we could see the cliffs of Point Vicente ahead of us, but it would be several hours until we reached them. Mariel remained cheerful the whole way, buoyed up by her crew and knowing that her swim would be providing smiles for 100 children. We marveled at her fortitude and good cheer. Even though she was tired, Mariel never complained, only smiled.

As we neared the finish, hundreds of dolphins swam by, as if to welcome Mariel. Still smiling, she swam on. Mariel swam in to the beach just below the Terranea Resort, greeted by some tourists who happened to be there and probably wondering what was going on! Javier swam in with her as we cheered from the Outrider, just offshore. Mariel came back aboard the Outrider happy and victorious, now the first Mexican woman to complete the Triple Crown of marathon swimming, and smiling her beautiful smile for the 100 new smiles that would now be possible because of her swim.

Muchas Felicidades Mariel !!!

Laura Lopez-Bonilla swims La Jolla Cove… then the Catalina Channel!


“It wasn’t an easy swim, wind against tide, and not sun once daylight broke. I had to overcome surgery, months of physical therapy, thyroid disease, and a last minute lower back concern treated by a great chiropractor in La Jolla. Phew!!!!! All put behind as I stepped into the dark waters of the Catalina Channel. As I took the first strokes, I knew I could. I have met some great people on the journey: Dr Michael Ackerman, Mimi and Richard Sampson, Heidi, and the crew of Outrider. And a huge thanks to my friend Pat Frank his unconditional support along this journey.”

Sometimes we have turning points in our lives and events such as completing a channel swim can be transformational. Laura is at just that point… her life is taking a turn for the better and this turn is marked by her successful Catalina Channel swim. I had some work commitments and wasn’t able to be on the escort boat for Laura’s swim, but we were able to share a few swims in La Jolla Cove before she went up to Los Angeles for her big swim. I met Laura 10 years ago when I was her observer for her first English Channel swim in 2002. Laura become the second Spanish woman to swim the English Channel that day and we’ve been good friends ever since. One of the best gifts of this sport is the lifelong friendships forged on various beaches around the world, as we train for and step in the water to swim from one body of land to another.

Laura’s Catalina Channel swim turned out to be more difficult than most this season, as she battled choppy water and wind the whole way across. Well-supported by crew and determined, Laura persevered. Knowing this was a turn-a-round moment in her life, she would not give up, even when during a particularly dark hour of her swim Laura was told she would have to swim 4 1/2 more hours to the finish. Swallowing that information and processing it took a while, but she re-calibrated her mind and swam on, knowing she would be successful, no matter how long it took. 14 hours and 31 minutes after stepping in the sea at Catalina Island, Laura Lopez-Bonilla crawled out onto Terranea Beach, a successful Catalina Channel swimmer.

Laura had never been greeted at the finish of either of her successful English Channel swims, as she swam in to the beach in France during the middle of the night. This swim had a special surprise in store for Laura…


Our friends from Mexico City, Nora Toledano, Mariel Hawley, Gela Limonchi and Ariadna Del Villar were in town for Mariel’s swim the following day. All swam out to escort Laura in to the beach. What a welcoming committee!!!

Muchas Felicidades, Laura !!!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Miquel Suñer Swims the Catalina Channel

On July 10, 2012, I had the pleasure and honor of assisting my friend Miquel Suñer, from Gerona, Spain, on his swim across the Catalina Channel in California. I was his official observer, representing the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, and served double-duty as buddy swimmer for his last hour of swimming and “Victory Lap” into shore at the finish. Miquel made the swim look easy, even though we know it is not!

There was positive energy from the moment we all met on the docks at San Pedro to set off for Catalina Island and throughout Miquel’s swim… and the joyful celebration at his victorious finish was heartfelt. His crew of Bernat Serda and Lluis Suñer were some of the best I have had the chance to work with in the channel. From the kayak and the deck of the escort boat, Bernat and Lluis were with Miquel every stroke of the way and never took their eyes off him, even for a minute. My CCSF assistant observer, Alli DeFrancesco, radiated her calm and steadfast energy as she recorded the swim details and kayaker Dan Simonelli lent stalwart support from the water. We had videographers on board, as well… all of us cheering for Miquel as he swam to success.

Miquel finished his swim in the very fast time of 8 hours 11 minutes, narrowly missing the men’s world record by less than 5 minutes. This is the 3rd fastest men’s time and the 4th fastest time in history for a Catalina to mainland swim. Miquel swam steady and strong the whole way, holding a consistent pace throughout… until the end when he saw the finish and began to pick up his pace!

This is my favorite photo from Miquel’s swim… after a long, cold ocean swim (if you’re lucky) there is a “religious experience”… the LONG HOT SHOWER !!!

Here are Bernat, Miquel and Lluis jubilantly celebrating their well-deserved success.

I felt so proud to be a part of this amazing swim. Congratulations and well done to all !!!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Another day at the office...

Off to Argentina with Mallory Mead to race at Maratón Hernandarias-Paraná

February 2012

Since 2008, the FINA Open Water Grand Prix offers the world’s best open water swimmers a chance to compete in an annual circuit comprising distances over 10km.  In 2012, the competitions kicked off with three races on three consecutive weekends in Argentina: 15km on January 22nd at Rosario, 57km on January 29th at Santa Fe-Coronda and on February 5th, 88km at Hernandarias-Parana.  My good friend and very fast young swimmer, Mallory Mead, had been invited to race at Hernandarias-Parana and would be representing the United States.

USA swimmers are required to have a USA swim coach in attendance at these competitions, to look out for their safety interests and make sure they are represented by a qualified coach at the location of the race.  Mallory asked me if I would be interested in doing this for her and not being one to pass up an adventure, I said “sign me up!”  We began to make plans for our debut on the Grand Prix circuit, getting advice from our friends who had been there, both as coaches and swimmers.
I’m at a point in my life where I don’t want to do the long swims any more, but am very good at coaching them.  Mallory is self-coached, which is working very well for her and she is swimming faster than she ever has before – even during her college years.  We were, indeed, a winning team!

After a two-day commute, we arrived at our hotel in Parana and immediately met some of the other swimmers.  Most had come from Santa Fe and having raced the weekend before, were sporting swim cap sunburns on their faces to prove it.  Many local open water stars from Argentina arrived, as well as swimmers and coaches from Australia, Spain, Italy, Holland, Canada, Macedonia, Syria, Croatia and other countries, all staying at the same hotel and eating our meals together in the dining room.  It’s a close-knit group and even though they are in competition with each other for place finishes and prize money, the bond of friendship is strong and Mallory and I were accepted into the group and felt welcome the first day.  Swimmers and coaches gathered after breakfast each morning and walked to the local swimming pool for daily sessions to loosen up and keep their feel for the water for race day.  The local children at the pool looked upon the swimmers as heroes and didn’t miss an opportunity to practice speaking English and have their picture taken with as many of them as possible.

We enjoyed much pageantry around this adventure.  A press conference (and party) was held the evening after we arrived and we very much enjoyed the festivities and hospitality.

I got a chance to catch up with my friend, Jorge Delgado, who was the FINA official in charge of the races.

Two days before the 88km race down river from Hernandarias to Parana, there would be a 2km sprint race.  None of the swimmers there would consider themselves sprinters, but this was a good opportunity to showcase the event’s sponsors and a good ice breaker for the swimmers.  The finish would be the same as for the long race, so it was an opportunity for them to check out landmarks and get in the river, swim hard and get rid of some nervous tension. Mallory did extremely well in her 2km “sprint”… garnering a 4th place finish.  Not quite good enough for a podium finish, but encouraged when she noticed she would only be racing one of the women who finished ahead of her on Sunday when they would be swimming their “game race” of 88km.

Mallory and I had been spending some of our down time making video for a documentary and you can see I’m hard at work as Mallory prepares to swim!  We’ll be telling the “behind the scenes” happenings of our travel adventures, the swim stories and some hilarious and surprising interviews with other swimmers and coaches we met on this trip to Argentina.

One of my favorite sayings about open water swimming – “Expect the Unexpected” – began to unfold on Saturday, the day after the sprint race, when coaches and swimmers boarded buses and headed to Hernandarias.  The race was scheduled to start there on Sunday morning and swimmers, with their coaches alongside in wooden row boats doling out feedings, racing advice and encouragement, would make their way down river back to Parana, finishing sometime that evening.  Because the river was low, the swimmers were expecting to be racing for 10-11 hours or more.

Here are some of our new friends from Holland, Canada and Croatia… our “roomies” in Hernandarias.

We could hear emus, peacocks, pheasant and other birds during the night.  They were the pets of the proprietors, along with many friendly dogs and a very cute puppy.

We spent the night at these cottages in Hernandarias and were treated to breakfast the next morning… then the rain began again…

And now, for the unexpected…  Upon our arrival in Hernandarias the afternoon before the race, we were greeted by a sudden and strong rainstorm.  We were all seated in the dining room of a building which would also serve as the start of the race in the morning when the wind started to blow very hard and the river began to swell from the sudden downpour of rain.  During our lunch on the pontoon, sudden bursts of wind screamed through the sliding glass doors opening out to the river, blowing them right off their tracks. In a flash, the Dutch and Croatian coaches caught the falling doors and held them against the force of the wind until the restaurant staff lowered the storm shutters.  Waves were cresting in the river and one of the Argentine swimmers said he had never seen the rio like that.  I remembered the comments from the pre-race informational meeting the evening before in Parana about “some wind” and what might happen in the event the event needed to be canceled for safety reasons.  This was what they knew had been forecast and all we could do was wait and see what the weather did… very reminiscent of the “Dover rollercoaster” to me, after spending many weeks there waiting to see what the weather was going to do and when or if I would be able to have a go at swimming the English Channel.  So, here in Argentina, we had the roller coaster again.  The swimmers were very brave and professional about it all and continued as though there would be a race, but I know the uncertainty had to be tough.
To make a long story short, we spent the night in the cottages in Hernandarias, with no wi-fi and lots of conversation and laughs, passing the time happily as we all kept an eye out the window.  Swimmers and coaches awoke to pre-race duties such as making feeds and collecting caps, goggles and feeding poles.  The weather seemed to have cleared and spirits were high at breakfast.  Until the rain began again.
We all continued on as if the race would happen.  Buses took us to the start line and I made my way to Mallory’s row boat and the two men who would escort us down river.  I put her feeds nearby and hoped they would not get too muddy before the race started.  Mallory and the other swimmers were suited and greased up and their race numbers were being put on.  The weather kept changing from minute to minute and the race directors were getting reports of more bad weather about four hours down river, where the swimmers would begin swimming straight into very strong headwinds.  At 9:00am FINA representative Jorge Delgado canceled the race for security reasons.  There was just no way swimmers could be allowed in the water when the safety of all participants could not be guaranteed.  It was, without a doubt, the right call to make.  Local politicos were not happy and protested, but it was good to see the well-being and protection of the swimmers taken into account above all else.

An alternative race (another “sprint” – 5km) was held the following day in Parana.  FINA points would not be awarded and the prize money was cut significantly, but the swimmers at least got to get wet, albeit only for about 40 minutes as the current was swiftly at their backs for most of the race.  I was in the row boat, next to Mallory and with the same two rowers from the day before, giving her hand signals to help her navigate the strong currents as well as dodge flotsam and jetsam along the race course.  One of the most important signals I was able to give Mallory was when she had swum a safe distance in front of a competitor and could stop for a moment and adjust her swim cap, as it looked like it was about to come off… a little disaster if you have hair long enough to get in your face!

Mallory was third female finisher, good enough for a podium finish.  She swam a smart race and gave it her all.  I am a very proud coach!

Mallory and I enjoyed visiting with Aussie Trent Grimsey, overall winner of both races.  Team FINIS!

Our Dutch buddies, Daan Glorie and his coach Marcel Stroet, were a highlight of our adventure.  Mallory and Daan swam together in the pool before the races and Marcel was a Godsend to me since I was the new kid on the block!

And there was quite a party the night before it was time to go home!

In case you’re wondering why there aren’t too many pictures of me and they are mostly of the swimmers, I have a theory… The coach is the schlep in the background making sure the swimmer is the STAR !!!

I look forward to many more coaching adventures…