March 28, 2016
Open water swimming is a sport that requires the support and assistance of a team. This time, as with all my other crossings, I counted on the guidance of Nora Toledano, who oversaw all my feedings. Having her always in view as we are getting underway, a real sense of tranquility comes to me.
Jeff Kozlovich and Steve Haumschild guided me in kayaks the entire way from Molokai to Oahu. Without their help I would never have made the crossing.
Michael Twigg-Smith, the pilot, took us across the Molokai Channel in a straight line, which I very much appreciate.
Ariadna del Villar took care of my health. It calmed me to be able to get my medicine from the hands of the doctor while on the journey.
Brad Howe, my fourth brother, was aboard the boat. As I always tell him, fortune goes with me when he’s there.
Without the support of Lucía would be difficult to fulfill my dreams. This time she shared the anguish of the swim with my daughter Ximena, and both of them were waiting for me on my arrival. It’s been a long time since they greeted me at the end of an event.
Moloka’i, Hawaii. March 23 — morning
One of the constants after open water is swims is insomnia. I’ve got so much adrenaline flowing through me that it is impossible to sleep. Besides, who wants to sleep after what happened yesterday?
Yesterday I not only crossed the Kaiwi (Molokai) Channel, becoming the 39thperson and first Mexican to do it, sharing with only five other people the distinction of having crossed five of the Oceans Seven, but also managed a major personal success: I was able to control my mind to achieve a result that it will be difficult for me to surpass.
There is a logical explanation to my Oceans Seven calendar. The first part is composed of swims in water that is not cold (Gibraltar, Tsugaru, Molokai), and the second very cold (North Channel) to cold (Cook Strait). The complexity of the swims increases through the schedule until it reaches its climax in Molokai and the starts to become more straightforward with the North Channel.
I tried to arrange my schedule largely around dates on or near holidays. So for two years, Easter 2016 has been dedicated to this swim without any of us having a hint of how complicated it would become.
The first sign that my time to prepare for Molokai could be shortened was the crossing of Tsugaru. As I got ready for that swim—throughout the whole season, in fact—my left shoulder was giving me trouble, and it didn’t let up during the event itself. When I finished, my shoulder was wrecked—and I had swum only 12 ½ hours. If I wanted to succeed in Molokai I would have to fix it.
Fortunately, I happened to read an article that prompted me to contact Ricardo Durón, a specialist in joint and muscle mechanics. Since last September we have worked on muscle balance and changes to my swimming style, doing many exercises to improve my kicking technique and correct my stroke. A high volume of training was no problem for me, but there seemed to be no possibility of working effectively on my speed. During all that time I was also not doing weight training: the soreness prevented me from moving my left shoulder much, on top of which Oscar Pérez, my trainer at the gym, had decided to move to Cancún and could no longer supervise me.
Like Nora, Ricardo recommended that I chat with Rafael Alvarez, manager of pools and high performance at Sport City and an expert in training methodology. Rafa is a very busy man—I never thought he would agree to take over that part of my program. To my surprise, he did, and in December we started working together to create stability in the shoulder joint as well as improve my overall balance. The goal was to build power that I could transfer to my swimming.
So by year’s end I had two additional support personnel on my team, specialists who were helping me to get my body back in balance. The first indications that we were on the right track were that I was able to stop crossing my legs during my kick and that I was feeling less pain in my left shoulder.
In this process of learning to swim again, there were several critical areas to address. We started with the legs, then the left arm and, finally, the right arm.
Working on the right arm immediately triggered pain I did not have before, however, as it compensated for the new movements. I tried to execute my stroke as Ricardo asked me to and in the process misaligned all my muscles. During my 8-hour training swim in La Jolla I had discomfort in my shoulder and finished the swim so sore that we agreed I would just revert back to my old form. Making that decision was easier than actually doing it, however, and on Sunday, when I finished my last workout, the pain he persisted.
On my return from La Jolla I realized that I was ready physically, if not particularly fast in the water. What I was lacking was the mental component.
I called my mental coach, Jaime Delgado, and explained what I was about to undertake. We met several times at home to review my mental training routines, and I found three that were very useful in the final weeks of preparation.
The first is a technique of creating a blank mind and just breathing while counting to 10. If the concentration is lost, you start again. If you can do it three times in a row without losing focus, you increase the time. As example of this technique’s effectiveness, I gave it to an athlete in training, and when she got on the treadmill she was able to reach 250 breaths without losing concentration.
The second is the Pearl exercise, in which one looks through an imaginary pearl. It generates energy that can be used anytime, anywhere.
The third were the Tai Chi exercises that I returned to with great discipline.
I started counting strokes and I realized that, depending on the series, I could increase the number I was able to reach without getting distracted, and that the act of counting gave me a sense of tranquility.
The Pearl technique worked well in the long series of strokes and the Tai Chi helped keep me loose.
All these tools would prove be very useful yesterday.
Since my return from Tsugaru, work constituted an additional, major change in my life. The success Bernardo my partner and I had in Puebla paid off in October, when we were contracted by the Ministry of Education and Culture of Sonora.
On top of that I agreed to serve as Secretary of Sports in the Institutional Revolutionary Party. All these new responsibilities were added to my existing ones at NET, as a consultant in Puebla, and a partner in several other projects.
One day Ximena said, “Dad, you’re going to run out of days in the week.”
If I wanted to succeed in Molokai, my life would have to be organized so that I could attend to all my responsibilities and not let any of them slip.
I arranged my schedule so that there was no possibility of missing even one of my workouts. On every trip I made sure there would be a pool available. Every day that I spent in Mexico City, I was assured of a session with Rafa or Ricardo, while going to Las Estacas every weekend and to La Jolla once a month.
On Sunday night before the crossing, Lucia asked if I was nervous. I said no, but that made me reflect on why it was that I was so calm. I came to the conclusion that he had done everything I should have done—all that was missing now was the swim itself. That made me relaxed.
I remember that on Monday morning I had only a little food at breakfast—I did not want any surprises during the swim. Then I went up to my room and performed my last of Tai Chi routine.
The team and I agreed to meet at 10:30 am to go to the airport then fly to Honolulu and, from there, to Molokai.
Upon our arrival, Jeff, one of my kayakers and observers, suggested I take a picture with the set design of Molokai in the background. “All those who try to cross the channel do it,” he said. He had used the correct term, those who try.
Our plan was to get to Molokai and evaluate the starting area. The first option was in Kaluakoi. As Steve said in hisarticle, Making Molokai: A Surfer’s Dream And Swimmer’s Nightmare, “It was a beautiful day for epic surf… The waves had completely washed away the beach where there was a 2-3 feet rock to jump off to be greeted with pounding shorebreak—a surfer’s dream and swimmer’s nightmare”.
We returned to the van and headed to the southwest of the island to the port of Hale’o’lono. Soon the road turned to dirt. On the way we talked to the taxi driver, who told us that only 7,000 people live in Molokai. The contrast from Waikiki was tremendous. We had gone from a bustling city to a deserted island.
In the port, evidently abandoned for many years, we got on the boat and sailed to La’au Point. There we would find the beach I would leave from. It was 14:30 am on Monday 21 March.
Both Jeff and Steve began to prepare, just as Nora, Ariadna and I did—they with everything they needed in their kayaks, I for my swim.
Despite the fact that the sky was cloudy and we did not expect an intense sun in the afternoon or the next morning, I applied heavy coat of sunblock on my body and Lassar paste on my neck, armpits and between my legs.
I said goodbye and jumped into the water. Walking slowly toward the beach, I felt the sea, my breathing, my arms. Everything was calm, everything was in its place.
Once my feet were on solid ground, Jeff and Steve gave me the signal. I walked into the waves and started swimming. It’s rare to have a kayak with me right at the beach; usually you meet it minutes later.
Unlike other swims, where the boat is following the swimmer and kayaking is secondary, here the kayak is essential for the swimmer: in seas this choppy, a boat is difficult to handle at low speeds.
I push through the waves, and from my first strokes I see the kayak. My swim has started. I have no idea what fate holds for me.
In the final stretch of my mental preparation I had used my memories of my first crossing of the English Channel in 1999 and the Catalina swim in 2008 to visualize situations that might be replicated in Molokai. I remembered a very long day on the Channel. I had suffered greatly in physical terms and it was only by using mind tricks that I was able to complete it. But that was 17 years ago. How would my body respond during a swim of more than 18 hours?
As for Catalina, I recalled the huge waves I’d faced. I could not stay on course and was totally frustrated. Several times I thought of getting out.
My calculations were that Molokai would be a combination of both, with one big difference: it would not be cold.
At the end of our pre-swim meeting swim with Jeff, Steve and Michael, Steve asked me, “Knowing everything you know about the crossing, how long do you expect it will take?”
“Between 16 and 18 hours,” I replied.
That number was drawn from several events and training swims in previous years, but I had never felt comfortable with it. Though I repeated it every time someone asked me, inside I doubted whether I would be able to swim 16, or worse yet, 18 hours straight. It was sucha long time.
Given all that, I would have to find a solution or I would be out the water very quickly.
1, 2, 3, 4…I started counting when I saw the kayak. I got to 100 and started again. After the first hour I had swum barely 4 kilometers. I was surprised at how little distance I had covered.
After two hours, Jeff replaced Steve in the kayak. That was their rotation. In the third hour, I went over the situation with Nora. Obviously, we were totally out of schedule and I did not know what to say about that. I quickly adjusted my expectations about my speed from 3 kilometers per hour to 2.5 kilometers.
It began to get dark. Supplies were made every 30 minutes, always with the same routine: you approach the boat, they pass you the bottle, you eat quickly but without choking…and you then you keep swimming.
For the entire journey I’d been stung by jellyfish. You don’t see them, but you feel them. Now a jellyfish attacked my arm. It burned a lot, but I remembered that it cannot cut me, and that I had to absorb the pain. As I was busy thinking about my arm, another attacked me on the back. It hurt. I found the good side of the experience as quickly as I could: I am preparing for the North Channel, where I’ll probably find a lot more of them.
In one of the feedings I told Ariadna that my head hurt. By putting a light on my goggle straps, they’d become tight. I started to raise them at each stop and rub my nose.
The night went on, and I couldn’t stop returning to 1 after I’d reached 100. I’d been counting most of the day. At a certain point, I realized two things: I was very relaxed and I hadn’t hurt anything.
At the next checkpoint it would be midnight, which would mark 9 hours of swimming. I asked for information on my progress and was not told anything in reply, so I knew the total time would surely be more than 18 hours. My new estimate of my speed was 2 hours per kilometer. That would take me more than 20 hours.
We had a full moon and occasionally I could see it. By 3 am I should have been in the water for 12 hours. They told me the distance we’d traveled and I realized that if I were in the English Channel it would have been about 18 hours.
At times I set aside the counting technique and the concentration that gave me, thinking instead that in three hours the sun would be out, at which point I’d have been in the water for 15 hours. I assessed the damage to my body so far.
My neck was pink and raw from my breathing movement. My back and the left armpit burned from jellyfish bites, and my head hurt from lifting lifting it so many times to find benchmarks. My shoulders, however, were perfect. Every time I’d felt pain I have adjusted my stroke, and hadn’t lost my form once.
The sun started to come out, I saw the moon go into hiding—and the wind picked up. Something was not right. Windguru said the winds would be slowing down at that time, not rising. The waves continued, leaving me to receive my feeding at 6 o’clock in the middle of a bloom of jellyfish. One of them hit me in the face, very close to the eye. If not for my goggles I would had been bitten in the eye. This time the bite was very painful, and I was slow to recover. I lost concentration for a moment, swallowing seawater, and for a moment I wondered if I should stop.
Unlike other occasions when I had to ask the same question, this time the answer was simple. I could not afford to stop.
All the climatological information we’d collected before crossing indicated that we’d have excellent conditions. What I had lived through for the last 16 hours was far from what was categorized as a simple swim. And having to do it again was not an option. If I had to take to 24 hours to do it then I would.
The next two hours we kept going without making headway. The currents would not let me move, and it was only with the greatest effort that I finally got past it. I’d been in the water for 18 hours when Steve started rowing again. In the next 19 minutes I would break my personal record for the most hours I’d spent swimming. I thought about telling him, but really, my attention was elsewhere.
18 hours, 32 kilometers. If everything went right, I still had 5 hours of swimming in front of me. Even under normal circumstances, there’s a definite degree of difficulty to a 5-hour swim test. 5 hours after 18 is a great challenge. Where was I going to find the strength to achieve it?
The last half hour I’d been convincing myself that to have made even 10 kilometers under the conditions we had been through was a luxury few people would ever have in their life. It was my decision to seize it or waste it.
The first thing I did was to forget those 18 hours. They no longer existed, they were lost into oblivion—certainly if I did not finish the swim they would count for nothing. So they had no use.
Then I figured it would be two hours with Jeff next to me, two hours with Steve and then the last stretch with Jeff. This was relevant because even though both are excellent kayakers and helped me a lot during the crossing, I felt better with Steve. Something about his style made my swim feel more in rhythm. With him in the middle rotation, I would have a space to recover if for some reason I got into trouble in the next two hours. The last hour I would be on the adrenaline high that comes on when you know the coast is nearby.
1, 2, 3, 5…100; 1, 2, 3… and it was the period between Jeff’s shifts. At 6 km to go, the wind started to rise again. The waves threw me from side to side, but I managed to stay balanced. Both Steve and I were making a concerted effort to move forward.
On one of the feeding stops I told Nora, “Yes, now I am tired, the wind is very strong.” As Steve ended his turn and changed with Jeff, Nora told me, “One more feeding and then it’s the beach—we’re almost there.”
I was delighted that my exhaustion came at the right time. I was almost finished.
On the beach waiting for me were Lucia, Ximena, Hugo and Joaquin. I listened as the lifeguards ask other swimmers to greet me with applause, explaining that I had just crossed the Molokai Channel.
It was a memorable swim. I cannot find words to explain what I’ve accomplished. If I were a musician I would say that I had conducted a symphony to perfection, to a level of such beauty that tears welled up in my eyes.
Unlike other swims, in this crossing I did not have to fight—on the whole I swam with a real sense of quiet inside. I raised my body and mind to such a level of harmony that even after nearly 24 hours there was no pain in my shoulders or tiredness in my body. What I felt was the sense of peace and tranquility that you receive when you look.