Courage, training and long, cold swim

Veteran: A Baltimore County man, who lost his legs to a mine in Vietnam, is about to make his third try at swimming the English Channel.

July 22, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

FOLKESTONE, England -- Vietnam took Eugene Roberts' legs, but not his competitive heart.

He's a groundbreaking marathoner and swimmer, a 53-year-old grandfather from the Baltimore area who refuses to let age or circumstances prevent him from realizing his dreams.

His enduring goal is as crystal clear as the French coast that lies some 21 miles across a cool, salty and historic body of water.

He wants to swim across the English Channel.

Perhaps as early as tomorrow, Gene Roberts will plunge into the chilly water near the white cliffs of Dover in his third attempt to swim the English Channel and land on the sandy beaches of Cap Gris-Nez in France.

Since Matthew Webb sipped brandy and performed the breast stroke to make the first successful crossing from England to France in 1875, more than 500 people have accomplished the swimming feat, using guts and grease to endure frigid temperatures, swirling currents and physical exhaustion.

Few who dare cross the channel have overcome the kind of obstacle placed before Roberts.

In May 1966, as a young Marine private in Vietnam, he was grievously wounded in a mine explosion in Da Nang, eventually losing the lower parts of his legs -- one cut off below the knee, the other at the thigh.

Five other soldiers were killed in the blast.

Clerk and athlete

Yet over the years, Roberts, who lives in the Rolling Ridge area of Baltimore County and works as a clerk at the nearby Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, has proved himself an unstoppable force.

In what is believed to be the first time a wheelchair athlete finished the Boston Marathon, Roberts raced in the 1970 event and completed the storied 26-mile, 385-yard route in a cold, hard rain.

What made the accomplishment even more amazing was that Roberts, who uses prostheses, had never gone more than a quarter-mile in a wheelchair.

He went back to Boston the next year and went "hand-jogging" wearing leather pants and gloves and swinging his body relentlessly across pavement and grass before crossing the finish line in about 23 hours.

And then, he turned swimming into a finely crafted art of endurance, graduating from laps at indoor pools to a 1970 crossing of the Chesapeake Bay.

For Roberts, beating the English Channel is now personal. He tried to cross it in 1971, and then tried again in 1973, failing both times as his body was wracked by cold.

Then, like putting a book on a shelf, he tucked his channel dream away, never figuring that it would lure him again.

But here he is, in this ramshackle port town on the English coast, accompanied by his wife, Alicia, preparing for the swim of his life.

"When you're defeated, you want to come back," he says. "Every other feat I've tried, I've done."

There is gathering anticipation that he just might beat the channel.

Half succeed in crossing

Each year, swimmers from around the world gather in the English summer, to take their turns at trying to conquer the channel.

Buffeted by tides and water 60 degrees or colder, the crossing usually takes swimmers between 10 and 14 hours, but can last as long as 26. About half of those who make the attempt succeed.

Physically challenged athletes have completed the course. Last year, Australian John MacLean became the first paraplegic to cross the channel.

"We don't keep a record of people's physical characteristics. We note some have had disabilities to overcome. Some have been amputees," says Duncan Taylor, Channel Swimming Association secretary and the man who will pilot the boat that will follow Roberts on his journey.

Taylor doesn't make predictions on who will find success in the channel.

But he notes that Roberts has trained hard and acclimated himself to the weather conditions since arriving in Folkestone on July 2.

For his part, Roberts says he is "comfortable" in the water and "that will make all the difference" as he attempts to swim freestyle to France.

Yet as he sits in the lobby of a modest bed-and-breakfast hotel here, his bright smile and upbeat voice dominating the room, it is remarkable to consider how far Roberts has come.

The early athletic promise he showed while running at Forest Park High School in 1964 was seemingly dashed two years later in the mine explosion in Vietnam.

"I'm the kind of guy who takes things as they come," he says. "I usually bounce back. Life goes on."

Muscles sculpted by hard work and a deep faith in the power of prayer spurred Roberts through the years. The devout Baptist competes by a simple motto: "Just do it in Jesus' name."

Time to try again

His desire to come back to the channel was ignited in 1993, when he took a Caribbean cruise and found himself swimming day after day.

He told his wife he'd like to start training again for the goal that eluded him years before.

"I thought he was getting too old for it," says Alicia Roberts, a Baltimore school teacher. She was pregnant with the youngest of their four children the last time Gene made the channel attempt.

"But I never discouraged him. I knew he could do it."

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