Jim McConica Recounts His Toughest Swim: From Catalina to the US Mainland

Less than a month ago, Masters great Jim McConica overcame incredible challenges to complete a swim from Catalina Island to the US Mainland. Catalina is the island immortalized as "the isle of romance" in the 1950s hit, "26 Miles," by the Four Freshmen (who have since graduated). But McConica had anything but romance on his mind as he struggled to overcome one obstacle after another to complete the daunting swim. Here's his first-hand account of his greatest challenge. — P.W.

By Jim McConica

VENTURA, Calif., November 1. First, I want to say thank you to all who were supportive of my crazy swim. The support crew of Kurt, Linda, and Mike (listed alphabetically) was wonderful. You gave me needed info, kept me on course, encouraged me, and fed me. Thank you, all.

This swim was one of the most challenging swims of my life. It turned
out differently than I had planned, but I am very pleased. Since completing the swim, I have been asked to explain in some detail what happened. Here's my story.

I have been preparing for months. The February Fitness Challenge,
where I swam 300 miles in one month, was a big part of my training. One of
the days I swam a straight 32,000 long course meters (LCM). That is the Channel distance… assuming one can swim straight. That swim took me 8 hours and 4 minutes. I did that swim tired, but my time was under the Channelrecord time of 8 hours 14 minutes. Mentally, I was ready.

The couple of days before the swim, I had trouble resting because
of the excitement. I could not switch my sleeping schedule and
I only slept for four hours the night before. As I was getting final
details set up, I found myself breathing hard with nervous energy.

We left Ventura at 6:00 PM for the docks of San Pedro. After loading
the kayak and supplies on the boat, we left for Catalina at 9:00 PM. We all tried to rest going over. Again, I could not sleep. We arrived just after 11:00 PM.

We searched for the best starting place at Arrow Point near Two Harbors.
It is a rocky cliff. I had to clear the water for the start. The bright search light that was used to find the best place brought out the flying fish. There was some ocean swell and I was getting sea sick. I got dressed in my suit. Kurt and Linda put Vaseline and other lubricants on me. As it turrned out, I needed to apply more during the swim. I did not break the "no contact rule."

The support crew got the kayak ready with the GPS and my drink mix as I got in the water at 11:45 PM. I swam to shore through the seaweed and the flying fish, climbed up on the rocks, checking my path for reentry. I did not want to get cut or hurt at the start of the swim. As required, my
"toes were dry" for the start.

I checked my watch and started at 11:55 PM. Fortunately, I was able to
enter the water without incident. The water temp was in the mid-60's, just fine, and I cleared the seaweed in just the first minute.

Direction is a big problem swimming at night. Linda, my first kayaker, and the boat crew had things set up well. The plan was for me to swim with the boat on my left and the kayak on my right. I swam for the right side of the running lights on the boat.

I could see the seaweed flowing back and forth in the surge. I also saw some big fish early on. I am not sure if they were sharks. I do know they were about 6 feet long and they were gray. Shortly thereafter, there was a big fish eye that looked at me. I could see it clearly. We definitely made eye contact. I am not afraid of sharks, but I respect them. I thought of the old joke where two sharks are looking up at a skinny swimmer and saying, "looks like lean cuisine tonight." It was an interesting moment.

The first hour was right on track. I could see my watch and Linda was
giving me distance readouts every 1000 meters. The plan was to swim
1000 meters every 15 minutes. We were on pace and I was feeling good.
I was holding my desired stroke rate of 68 per minute. I thought to myself,
only seven hours to go.

Then the currents came up. My next 1000 meters took 20 minutes. I had not slowed up, actually I thought I had picked up a bit. I had no idea it had happened until I got the split, but I knew at that moment it was not going
to be a record night. It was now decision time. Do I continue or call it a night?

There was no question in my mind: I wanted to complete the swim. Maybe
the current would drop off or turn to a plus current later. Anyway,
I started doing calculations of my finishing time. I refigured my finishing time every 1000 meters.

The currents were getting stronger, which became a big problem as we made progress across the sea. My finishing time was continually pushed out further and further. In the middle of the channel, I clearly remember
swimming for 30 minutes and refiguring my finish time and the swim was now
30 minutes longer. Yes, I was making progress, but my water time was going to be much longer. In the last 4000 meters of the swim, I was getting a reading every 100 meters. My slowest reading was 4 minutes. I have never been that slow in my life!

The big problem was I had geared my entire strategy around an 8-hour swim.
That 8 hours became 8 1/2, than 9, then 9 1/2, then over 10. I had not trained or prepared in any way for being in the water for close to 10 hours. That was the big challenge for me. It was a progressive thing. The more I swam, the longer the swim was going to be. Talk about mental devastation!

The water, itself, was beautiful. It was clear and mostly calm. Temperature was fine at 63 or 64 mid-channel. The phosphoresence was amazing. Every stroke created bright lights with the bubbles. As the fish swam beneath me, the bright bubble lights they created were truely a wonder. The lights were so bright, many times I thought someone had dropped a flashlight in the water. The bigger and faster the fish, the brighter the lights.

There were many fish. We even had five dolphins. There was occasional seaweed or other items floating on the sea, but it was mostly very clean. I was told we had at least one seal join us for a bit of time, but I did not see him. The ocean at night is wonderful. We had just the running lights on for the boat. The kayakers and I wore light sticks so we we clearly visible. With that limited light and the clear ocean, I enjoyed my unique ocean view.

I had problems with jelly fish most of the way across the Channel. Many
times I could see them and they are beautiful. The beauty did not mitigate the pain of their sting. It really hurt. It is like get many shots at the doctor's office by a nurse that does not know what she is doing. It is really bad when one of the tenticles gets stuck on your arm or your face.

They just keep stinging until you get it off. The swimmer can only wear a
Speedo-type suit, plus one cap and goggles. Mike also complained about
being stung and he was wearing a wetsuit!

Depending on wind conditions, I had to deal with the diesel smell from the engines. Most of the time, though, it was not a problem. We did have one huge tanker go by around 6 in the morning. That was scary. They are huge and can't stop or turn. I saw her coming from the south. She was headed straight for us. Fortunately, she was making a slight turn to her right and passed in front of us pretty close. The wake was a killer.

I was mostly concerned about Linda in the kayak. She knew it could be a
big problem. Kayakers know that if they get caught sideways in a wave, they could flip over. It would be very tough to climb back into the kayak. The drink would be gone and the GPS would have become water-logged.

The swim would likely have been done. I yelled at Linda to protect herself. Told her I would be fine. She pulled away from me and turned into the waves. That action saved her from going over. Those tankers are very
large, especially when one is looking up from water level. Very scary.

During the bulk of the swim, I did have to deal with my own seasickness. I had to be careful clearing my throat so I did not get sick. I have been sick in the ocean before and did not want to repeat it.

I had all the normal problems that one would expect: a bad headache, many body aches, shoulder pain, cold water and problems urinating. As the water gets cold, guys have a big problem urinating. I was drinking 6 ozs of carbo drink every 30 minutes. During the swim, I drank more than one gallon of fluid. I really had to focus to deal with the problems.

The feeding went pretty well. My kayaker would give me my drink
in a little Dixie cup. I could drink it and go in a matter of maybe 10 seconds. I did have one Ibuprofen pill every hour. That helped. I did have a problem with being disoriented during feedings. I would not know which way to swim. During the first several hours there was a boat with a bright yellow light that was close to our swim direction. I lifted my head many times to watch for it. Later he pulled away. I missed the help.

The biggest issue was the current. In my view, there would have been no shame in quitting because of the conditions. The record was not a possibility and eight hours was becoming longer than ten. This was my
toughest problem. Negative thoughts would come into my head. Why was I continuing? The whole purpose of the swim was to break the record. I was cold and hurting. The swim was going to take forever. I wanted out. I needed to chase those thoughts.

When those negative thoughts would start coming, I worked very hard
to get my mind right. This is the part of the swim of which I am most proud. I used every trick I know to get through those bad times. I thought of inspirational people that have persevered through tough times. I thought about focus and pride. Pain is temporary. I was not going to die, I just felt like it. I thought about many of the kids on the team when I see them reach down for something special. Amanda Sacher gave me a picture at the swim BBQ. It had words from Lindsay Benko. "When you are going through hell, don't stop".

I also thought about what kind of a person I am. I did not want to take the
easy way out that night. I did not want to be a quitter. I did not want
to let anyone down. I thought about my daughter with her medical situation. She will be happy to walk again, so why was I complaining
about a little pain for a few extra hours?

I also thought about a friend and training partner I lost to cancer several years ago. Leslie was a good friend who trained side by side with me for years. We would adjust workouts to make up for our speed differences. We lost her at age 35. She would have complained but would have completed the swim.

We all have demons to overcome. I am a firm believerthat one's ability
to keep a positive attitude is the key to life. We can achieve so much if we believe.

The last hour and a half was the toughest. I had now swum for about nine hours. I had just gotten a 4 minute reading for my last 100 meters. The swim could take 11 hours or more. Just keep going I said to myself. A little pride. You are not going to die. The pain will be gone soon enough and you will be happy with the effort. Just hang in there.

Than the water temperature dropped. I was really broken down and did not have a lot of strength to deal with temperatures below 60. I was expecting
the temperature to drop at that point but I had planned to be out of the
water long before and I had hoped to be stronger physically.

This was the
toughest part of the swim. They saved it for last, as a kind of cruel
dessert. The Channel was trying its best to beat me. We had come too far
to quit. I just kept putting one arm in front of the other. My stroke count
had drifted slower as the night went on. I slowed down to about 60 per minute. The water was very cold to me, but we were getting closer. Linda counted down each 100 meters to me. I checked each split on my watch. Most of the time it would take 2 1/2 to 3 minutes per 100.

Finally, I could see the shore.

Mike and Kurt both had gotten in the water with me as pace swimmers. I was able to pick up some when they got in. It helped take my mind off the pain and cold. Interestingly, Mike said after that he was cold even with the wet suit. In his defense, he was swimming my slow speed and could not possibly get warm by swimming that slowly.

Kurt was in the water with me at the end. He got out with maybe 400 meters to go. The Boat Captain, John Pittman, wanted to take me down the beach to a safer landing area with fewer rocks.

I said "no way. Take me to the nearest land."

I wanted to be done. If I got cut, so be it.

I landed on a very rocky part of the beach at the base of the old
Marineland. All was fine, as I stood up on one of the rocks with "toes

David Clark was the official for the swim from the Channel Federation. David is a very good guy who has been a positive force for channel swimming for years. He has swum both the English and Catalina Channels. From his view on the boat, I had not cleared the water. Linda yelled at me to climb higher. I did so and the whisle sounded ending the swim.

But now I had a new problem: a set of waves was coming. I could not climb
up or down in time. I dropped down between some rocks with barnicles and tried to brace myself. I thought, "this is going to hurt." It did.

The waves bounced me on the rocks and I was cut pretty severly. I decided this was no fun so I threw myself on the next surge of a wave and bouced back out to sea over the rocks. I had to swim back to the boat.

Now I was really cold and bleeding a lot from my hands, back and
feet. Bleeding is very unusual when one is very cold. With your blood
staying in your core, there is very little blood in your skin to bleed.
I knew the cuts were significant because of the volume of blood.

When I reached the boat, Mike, Kurt and David all helped to pull me
out of the water. They grapped my hands, I yelled at them to pull me
out by my arms. The pain of my cuts on my hands was significant.

Kurt later said he was never so scared. I was full ghost white in color
with lots of blood and uncontrollable shivering. It was the first stage of
hypothermia. I had some trouble talking but I knew what was happening.
and so did David. They did the exact correct things: Got my suit off, wrapped me up in towels and laid me down on a bed. They put warm wash rags under my arms and on my neck, then wrapped me up in more blankets and sleeping bags.

Kurt fed me cookies. I had purchased three types of cookies plus bread, peanut butter,and honey. By this time there were only two chocolate covered cookies left and Kurt became much less concerned that I would be OK when I complained about that. He made me cookie sandwiches. They were great. It had a two cookie with honey and peanut butter between. I felt bad because the honey was getting all over. I could not wipe my face off. I am sure I looked pretty bad.

The boat captain fired off the motors quickly and we headed for the docks. I was asleep in a flash. Did not wake up until after we had docked and everything had been unloaded. We walked to a breakfast house just across the parking lot. During the swim, I talked to Kurt about my desire to have pancakes, bacon and eggs after the swim. My parents were at the finish of the swim and Mom was now holding a table for us all.

The last problem occurred after the swim. Because we finished after 10:00
in the morning, the restaurant had stopped serving breakfast. My parents and all the support crew ganged up on the waitress. She had no choice but to serve me breakfast. The gal insisted I was the only one who could have breakfast. Everyone else had to have lunch. I was served before anyone else. The food tasted great after all those cookie sandwiches.

I could not eat it all. Mike and Kurt polished it all off in addition to their lunch.

I did go to the rest room to wash my hands. The cuts hurt so bad under the water, I had to stop. My body was also having trouble regulating my temperature. I got very hot. We drove home and I slept in the truck part way. I ended up sleeping 13+ hours that day and night. The next night I slept 9 hours. I normally only sleep 6 hours.

It is now Sunday night, three days later. My cuts are much better. The pain in my muscles and joints feels much better. My time was ten hours and nineteen minutes. Of my four completed Channel swims, this was my slowest time ever. It was my most rewarding swim.

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