Taking English Channel in stride

21-year-old might have been 1st Mid to make the swim

September 13, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

Joel Larson was a sophomore, sitting in a Naval Academy history class, when his professor offhandedly mentioned that some people, for whatever reason, are inspired to swim across the English Channel.

And with the nonchalance that others might have when deciding whether to go to the movies or eat a bologna sandwich, Larson thought to himself: Why couldn't I do that?

As it happens, he could. Last month, he swam the 21-mile- wide Strait of Dover, the narrowest passageway in the waterway separating England and France, apparently making him the first midshipman to swim across the channel.

And in the 14 hours and 26 minutes it took Larson to complete one of the most recognized endurance feats in the world, he says he never doubted himself.

"You can't have that attitude, I think," he said. "You have to know that you're going to finish. If any doubt comes into your head, you're so cold and you're so exhausted, it would be really easy to quit at that point if the idea came into your head."

He was only a casual swimmer before this, although he ran track and cross country at his high school in Little Rock, Ark.

Larson, 21, did some research, bought a few books and a wet suit and began training in the Chesapeake Bay and in pools, swimming two to nine miles a day to perfect his technique. He had to plan the swim about a year in advance, booking a private yacht to follow along next to him with food and water.

When he told other Mids about his plans, they seemed unimpressed.

"People here are such overachievers, no one was really in awe," he said. "They were just like, `Oh. Good luck.' You've got handfuls of valedictorians and All-American athletes. Everybody knows what having a hard work ethic is, and applying that to swimming was just like, `OK, cool.'"

He didn't always get the time he needed to practice, since Mids are notoriously pressed for time. And he spent the summer "yelling at plebes" as an upper-class leader during the grueling initiation for incoming midshipmen and "hanging out, working out and swimming" with Navy SEALs.

The waters were choppy on the channel Aug. 9, with 3- to 5-foot waves. The sky was overcast, a bad omen when you're swimming in 60-degree water.

With his parents following in the yacht, Larson started at 8:14 a.m., drinking 16 ounces of water every half-hour and flipping on his back to "eat" carbohydrate gels that would keep his muscles from shutting down.

"After 10 miles, my shoulders felt like they were gonna split," he said. "Every swimmer gets tendonitis after swimming that far. It's just excruciating pain, and every single stroke hurt after that."

When he got to the beaches of France - where English Channel swimmers are allowed to stay for only 10 minutes before they must return to their boats - he threw off small fins he had worn on his feet and "ran down the beach in amazement.

"I probably wasn't running that fast, but it felt like it," he said. "I hit the beach and I grabbed some sand and put it down my wet suit. I felt like I was still going, after 14 hours in the water. You feel like you're still kind of bobbing up and down."

Because no others are known to have done it, he is now regarded as the first midshipman to swim the channel.

But there are some purists out there, in England and beyond, who say Larson's swim doesn't count. These are the people who trace all swims back to Capt. Matthew Webb, a British naval officer, who is said to have finished "without artificial aids" in 21 hours, 45 minutes in August 1875.

These are the people who swim it without a wet suit, grease their bodies with a special lard and gain weight to withstand the cold water.

Larson couldn't have gained the weight, since he has to pass rigorous physical fitness tests at the academy and at 5 feet 7 inches and 150 pounds, is fairly skinny.

When he woke up the next day, he could barely move, although his mind was already wandering to what he would try next.

In the near term, he wants to be a Navy pilot. Sooner or later, he wants to scale seven summits of the world, which include Mount Everest, K2 and several other treacherous peaks. Larson can't remember them all, even though he made a plebe memorize them for him this summer.

He's only been back in the water once since the swim, and he isn't too eager to jump in again.

"It was a good feeling after you swim that far," he said. "But not being a varsity swimmer and after training for that long, I'm ready to move on to something else."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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