By Brad Rudner.
Though he’s no longer a competitive swimmer, Michigan alum Alon Mandel (2007-10) is still seeking out challenges. His next one is the biggest yet.
Next week, Mandel will fly halfway around the world to New Zealand where he will attempt to swim the Cook Strait, a 14-mile stretch of open water separating the north and south islands. He’s doing it to raise awareness for Parkinson’s Disease and has set up a 501(c)3 GoFundMe with the proceeds going for Parkinson’s Research.
“In the three years it took to finish my master’s thesis, I got exposed to the difficulties of living with Parkinson’s Disease through a really close friend of mine,” Mandel said via phone on Thursday. “This isn’t about how much money I’m raising. It’s about the intent.”
“People who come from cultures like Michigan’s have the energy and ability to change the world, their own world, even if it’s small. The feeling I had of representing the block M all those years ago, I wanted that again, only this time, it’s representing an idea.”
Mandel was a four-time All-American in his four years at Michigan and represented Israel at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. After graduating, he served three years in the Israeli army and graduated with master’s degrees in environmental engineering and political sciences from Tel Aviv University.
Today, Mandel is a facilities engineer with Noble Midstream where he is responsible for two cryogenic gas plants in northeastern Colorado. He lives in Denver with his wife, Tal.
Mandel competing in open water swimming
Though he retired from competitive swimming in 2013, Mandel joined the Denver Athletic Club and stayed with the sport via Masters Swimming. At the 2015 U.S. Masters Spring National Championships, Mandel won gold medals in the 50-yard backstroke, 100-yard backstroke, 50-yard butterfly, 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard IM in the men’s 25-29 age group, in addition to setting multiple Colorado state age group records.
A sprinter in college, Mandel’s first foray into open water swimming came in 2015 when he swam across the Strait of Gibraltar, a nearly 11-mile gap between Spain and Morocco. That swim took four hours to complete.
Mandel estimates it’ll take between five and nine hours to swim the Cook Strait in 60-degree water. By comparison, when Sean Ryan swam the open water 10K at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, he completed the race in just under two hours.
Once he committed to the swim six months ago, Mandel started visiting a physical trainer once-a-week. He also swims an hour three-to-four times a week, most of them coming in the evening after work. When he started back up, his goal was to swim 10,000 meters per week, about a quarter of what he used competitively at Michigan.
“In training, there’s this thought that you have to swim so much to do so much,” he said. “I was mostly training my shoulders, to see if I could survive 40,000 reps. I didn’t care how long or how fast. I just wanted to see how I felt.”
But the training for a long and grueling swim is as much mental as it is physical.
“It’s very different than being in a pool,” he said. “You have to teach yourself how to not swallow salt water by mistake, and how to adapt to the water temperature and wave movement. I’m relying a lot on my background as a swimmer to shift gears. When the current is on your side, you’re in first or second gear. But when you swim against it, you have to go into fourth or fifth gear.”
There are a few unknowns. Because of the ever-changing conditions (water temperature, currents), Mandel doesn’t have a set date to swim, only that it’ll be completed by the end of April. He also doesn’t know if he’s swimming from the north island to the south island, or vice versa.
All he knows is that he’s going to do it alone, with only two boats following him for safety. The challenge — and the impact the swim can have on both himself and others — is motivation enough.
“Whether I’m successful in completing the swim or not, it doesn’t matter,” Mandel said. “I’m trying to create awareness for Parkinson’s Disease by doing this swim, and I believe I’ll be successful in that.”
— This story was contributed by The University of Michigan.