A test of endurance

Baltimorean plunges into tough training, hoping to become the 115th person to swim California's Catalina Channel

October 07, 2005|By TOM DUNKEL | TOM DUNKEL,SUN REPORTER

I think he likes swimming," Jill Attia says of her husband, Peter, whom she married one year ago, "because he doesn't have to wear his wedding band."

Jill is kidding. Not that Peter would know. He didn't hear a word she said, even though he's only five feet away.

Peter is in his aqua bubble, busy swimming laps across Lake Barcroft in Falls Church, Va. He has covered about three miles so far on this sunny Sunday afternoon and intends to do 13 more, a total of eight uninterrupted hours in the water.

Ducks don't spend that much time in Lake Barcroft.

Jill is paddling alongside in a kayak, helping to keep him on a straight-line course, fending off wayward boaters, monitoring his snack intake. After all, they vowed to stick together in sickness and in health, plus months of marathon-swimming training.

The Attias live in Canton. Both work at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Peter, 32, is a surgical resident and Jill, 28, is a nurse practitioner. They try to make the three-hour round-trip drive to Falls Church once a weekend so he can do a long workout without going buggy swimming circles inside the pool at his Baltimore health club.

He's a relative newcomer to the sport, having taken up swimming in medical school after concluding his knees could no longer handle the strain of running and cycling. It was simply a means to a fitness end.

"My goal when I started swimming," says Attia, "was to be able to swim a mile."

That was then. This is now. Late Monday night, he is going to attempt to swim some 26 miles (which could stretch to 30 if the weather and currents don't cooperate) from Catalina Island to the California coast, America's answer to the storied English Channel. Only 114 people have ever done it.

Open-water distance swimming is an endurance contest that appeals only to a small subculture of athletes. It requires more than superb physical conditioning, says Cheryl Wagner, who organizes an annual swim across the Potomac River in Washington.

"It takes a certain mind-set and patience. It teaches me a lot of life lessons," explains Wagner. "There's always something happening: a stomachache or sea sickness or your goggles break or the weather changes."

"That's the cool thing about open-water swimming," adds James Kegley, a six-time winner of the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. "It's not you against the clock. It's whatever Mother Nature throws at you."

The best defense against unexpected obstacles is preparation, which happens to be a Peter Attia strong point.

Buying Jill an engagement ring, for example, wasn't a matter of whipping out a credit card. Attia first read a book about diamonds. Then he insisted upon going to a jeweler who would let him look at prospective rings through his surgical loupe.

"I think in general," says Attia, "that's a good principle in life: Do your research."

Thus, he has become a student of swimming technique, studying how fish move through water, boning up on buoyancy and proper body balance.

He has learned to slightly lift his eyes to sight the horizon, rather than crane his neck. He has learned to stroke using his shoulder, back and side muscles to supplement the arms. He'll ball his hands into a fist, stick them in surgical gloves and then go for a swim -- it helps develop a smoother, unified stroke.

While vacationing at the Grand Canyon this summer, he took daily dips in the 49-degree Colorado River, steeling himself for what he'll encounter in the Catalina Channel.

"Your immediate reaction is one of profound heat," he says of plunging into icy water. "You feel like your body's on fire."

Attia, a muscular 5 feet 10 and 177 pounds, glides effortlessly across Lake Barcroft, riding low in the water. His legs seem to be on a work slowdown. They flutter rather than kick, and only come to life about every other stroke. "Efficiency," he says, is the key to marathon swimming success.

His prep work also includes immersing himself in history. Attia knows that actor Matt Damon's uncle, at age 70, recently became the oldest person to ever swim the English Channel.

He knows that in 1927 George Young became the first to conquer Catalina Channel, taking home the $25,000 prize in a winner-take-all race organized by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.

Some 15,000 spectators gathered to watch Young wade ashore, guiding him in the dark with their car headlights, the sole entrant to finish from a starting field of more than 100 swimmers.

Why follow in Young's wake? Part of the answer is Attia's competitive, perfectionist personality. But the primary motivation, he insists, is hero worship.

Attia grew up in Toronto. As a boy he recalls being mesmerized by fellow Canadian Terry Fox. In 1980, Fox, a 22-year-old, curly-haired cancer patient who'd had his right leg amputated above the knee a few years earlier, embarked on an epic "Marathon of Hope" to raise money for cancer research.

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