Disabled athlete's Channel dream halted

Boat failure, tide stop Md. swimmer's crossing

July 25, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

FOLKESTONE, England -- Imagine swimming two miles through salty water as smooth as glass, of looking up and seeing the coast of France in the distance, of drawing ever closer to a dream that has been with you for decades.

And then, the boat that is supposed to follow your every stroke on a route across the English Channel encounters engine trouble and begins to drift, and the swim of a lifetime is called off for eight hours.

And you have to start again eight hours later. From the beginning. And everything goes wrong, and you finish far short of France.

That is what happened to Eugene Roberts, the 53-year-old grandfather from the Baltimore area who lost his legs to a mine in Vietnam, but who has carved out an inspiring athletic career by competing in marathons and swimming long distances.

He had to start his Channel swim twice Friday. And by the time he got back in the water, the elements had turned against him.

Roberts' dream of swimming across the English Channel evaporated early yesterday in a rough sea and under an orange-tinged moon as stiff winds and tricky currents cut off the attempt.

At 1: 18 a.m. yesterday, nearly six hours into his second start and blown far off course, Roberts was plucked from the water by the skipper of the 30-foot fishing boat the Mary Mayne.

It was a difficult moment for Roberts, who was fueled for the swim with honey and prayer.

"I had my mind made up to go across there," he said. "It wasn't meant to be."

In sports, success and failure are so often defined by cold-hearted statistics of won-lost records, batting averages and golf strokes.

But how can simple victory and defeat be measured in such tasks as climbing Mount Everest, aiming for the South Pole or swimming across the English Channel? What statistic is there for going where few dare, for falling short, yet trying until the very end?

Those were some of the questions that Roberts pondered in the wake of his attempt to swim 21 miles from England's shores to France, a feat accomplished by more than 500 people.

"It was a success," he said. "I take it as a victory, regardless of how it went. I tried my best. I didn't quit. I was ready to continue swimming."

In two previous attempts in 1971 and 1973, chilly water forced Roberts to end his quest.

But this time, Roberts -- who twice completed the Boston Marathon, once in a wheelchair and once on his hands -- was ready to go on -- for hours, if necessary.

"If I didn't do my best, I should feel bad and feel remorseful," he said. "But I did my best."

Roberts, who lives in the Rolling Ridge area of Baltimore County and works as a clerk at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, touched a lot of people here during three weeks of preparation for his swim.

A group of Egyptian swimmers who competed as a relay team to cross the Channel offered him words of encouragement yesterday. So did the staff at a bed-and-breakfast hotel where he and his wife, Alicia, stayed.

The effect he had on people could be gauged as he walked along the harbor front and prepared for his Channel crossing.

When people ask how he lost his legs, he replies, "An accident," neglecting to fill in the blanks, of how, as a young Marine in Vietnam, he was wounded in a mine blast that killed five soldiers.

One burly fisherman asked Roberts, who has artificial legs, where he was going, and he said, "To swim the Channel." The man stopped, and said, "You're winding me up?"

Roberts told him, no, he wasn't.

And the man said, "You're the heart and soul of the world, man."

Joe Smith of Deal, who was among those who accompanied Roberts on the boat, offered words of encouragement before the swim. "Stuff the trying, I want to get across, same as you," said Smith, who aims to make a Channel crossing in September.

Then, in the initial start by Dover's Shakespeare Cliff, with its crescent-shaped beach, a dozen people were there, applauding as he swam from the boat to the shore, came out of the water, hoisted himself on his hands across the wet sand, and then, plunged back in for the official start.

The first swim was going so well, too. The Channel was uncommonly calm, conditions old salts say happen only a few times a year. And Roberts was swimming beautifully for one hour. But when the engine of the boat overheated, the first attempt was abandoned.

Others might have been furious. But not Roberts, a devout Baptist. He shouted at the top of his lungs, "Praise Jesus."

"That's life. That's life. Got to roll with the punches," he said after pulling himself back on the boat.

Back on shore, he slept. And ate. And prepared to swim again.

But for the second swim, which began at 7: 34 p.m. Friday, the wind was up, the sea was rough, and Roberts, as hard as he tried, was being pulled inexorably off course.

It was left to Duncan Taylor, the Mary Mayne skipper and secretary of the Channel Swimming Association, to make the call to abandon the attempt before Roberts passed one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

"Not a pleasant decision," Taylor said. "It was very painful."

Alicia Roberts was proud of her husband. "He did his best," she said. "I know he could have crossed the Channel under different conditions."

Yesterday, the couple planned to get to France, anyway, not by boat, but by taking a train through the Channel Tunnel.

Roberts began to contemplate the next phase of his athletic career -- swimming as a hobby, probably no more Channel attempts.

Pointing to his prostheses, he said, "The way they're making these legs, I might do some running."

Pub Date: 7/25/99

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