Exclusive: Actress Alexandra Paul Conquers the Bonaire Ecoswim

By Tito Morales

LOS ANGELES, Calif. February 24. ALEXANDRA Paul is not your run-of-the-mill Hollywood actor.

She’s an ardent environmental and political activist whose opinions on such hot button issues as nuclear disarmament and the war in Iraq have led to her being jailed on more than one occasion.

She eschews plastic surgery and the usual materialistic trappings associated with being a high profile celebrity.

And, oh, yeah, just last November she knocked off a challenging 10 kilometer ocean swim off the Dutch Caribbean Island of Bonaire.

A Lifestyle Leads to Big Things

Paul, 41, grew up in Cornwall, Connecticut, where she developed a love of swimming early in life.

“When I was a kid, from 8 to 12, I swam for a swim team,” she says.

She and her twin sister, Caroline, spent summers racing across Cream Hill Lake, and, as a foreshadowing of things to come, she eventually became a bona fide junior lifeguard.

“I never had to save anyone,” she muses.

For as long as she can remember, Paul has embraced an active lifestyle. Little did she suspect when she moved to southern California to pursue a career in Hollywood, however, that her passion for remaining physical fit would eventually lead to the starring role that would put her on the map.

A television producer, hearing through the grapevine that Paul was a good swimmer, asked her if she’d be interested in auditioning for the role of a beach lifeguard in a concept he had developed. The series was “Baywatch,” and the show mushroomed into a blockbuster phenomenon which would eventually air in some 140 different countries and become one of the most popular television programs in history.

Paul’s lengthy career has been punctuated with roles opposite such stars as Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner, Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia. It was her portrayal of Lt. Stephanie Holden, though, that catapulted her notoriety through the stratosphere.

Unlike many of the other performers on the show, Paul always insisted on doing her own swimming — especially after one instance when a stunt double was used because of a conflict in Paul’s shooting schedule.

“When I saw the footage of her swimming, I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls with a laugh. “Usually the stunt person is supposed to be better at doing something than the actor they’re doubling for. She was good at jumping off fiery buildings and things like that, but she just wasn’t a very good swimmer.”

Never again, Paul told her producers. I don’t care what it takes, but I’ll swim for myself — thank you very much.

The Decision to Go Long

Paul is certainly no stranger to endurance pursuits. In 1997 she completed the Hawaii Ironman. Three years later, she ran the famous Boston Marathon.

But tackling over six miles in the ocean — even Paul herself admits that when she first came upon the idea, her initial reaction ranged from curiosity to fear to self-doubt.

Paul’s decision to undertake the 10 kilometer swim in Bonaire, a picturesque island located some 50 miles north of Venezuela, was, in part borne of necessity. Knee surgery toward the end of 2004 destroyed hopes of running a planned marathon, so exercise-wise she turned the bulk of her attention to her swimming.

“Someone said that a six mile swim for a swimmer was the equivalent of a marathon for a runner,” she explains, “so I thought maybe I’d like to try one.”

With the help of her husband, Ian Murray, a USAT Certified Coach affiliated with the Southern California-based triathlon organization, L.A. Tri, Paul plotted out a course of action for successfully attacking the distance.

All of her swimming training took place in chlorinated water.

“I was in the pool for several hours quite a bit,” she says of her training. “I wasn’t nervous at all before the race. With the Ironman, you have worries about whether your bike is going to break down or something like that. With this swim, though, I knew that I would finish. I was just a little worried that I might bonk.”

She didn’t. In fact, she felt so good at the conclusion of her race during which she saw a turtle, some stingrays and schools of beautiful fish that she and her husband waded right back into the water to swim an extra 2-3 miles to explore a small island they’d swum past while out on the course.

“Now I know that I can go a little bit farther,” Paul says, explaining how she’s now setting her sights on finding a 10 mile ocean swim — preferably something equally as picturesque and warm as Bonaire.

From One Goal to the Next

For Paul, long distance swimming has become a panacea of sorts for all of the uncertainties associated with a life of acting.

“It’s certainly healing and relaxing for me,” she explains. “I just really love it because it’s so meditative. I feel the closest to God when I’m exercising. That definitely is part of it.”

The acting life is as challenging on one’s patience as it is on one’s psyche. Between all the highs of winning roles and the stresses involved with performing in front of the bright lights, there are interminable stretches where the phones refuse to ring, the television and motion picture cameras are nowhere in sight, and one is left to wonder whether when, if ever the next break will come along.

For Paul, immersing herself in endurance pursuits has been the perfect antidote for such lulls. When preparing herself for such challenges as the Bonaire Ecoswim, she knew that her success or failure would depend not upon the whims of a casting director, but almost entirely on her own diligence.

“When you’re an actor, you don’t work every day from 9:00 to 5:00,” she explains. “It would feel strange not to have other goals. But I also do it because it keeps me in shape, which is important for an actor, especially as I get older.”

Paul, who supplements her trips to the pool with riding a stationary bicycle and lifting weights at the gym, would be the first to admit that she’s never been a particularly fast swimmer.

“I’m very steady,” she explains with a laugh. “I’m like the turtle. But that’s okay, because in Bonaire my goal was not to swim fast. I just wanted to do the journey.”

Paul and her husband had an opportunity to watch some of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Long Beach, and they were both amazed by the performances they witnessed.

“They’re the complete antithesis of someone like me,” she says. “Swimming fast has never been my thing, but I have a lot of respect for them. I know the training that goes into what they do.”

A Trail Blazer

Paul, in a sense, has become a trailblazer of sorts in the film industry for her endurance pursuits. Since she successfully conquered the Hawaii Ironman several years ago, others, such as Maxine Bahns, have followed in her footsteps.

The whole idea of actors partaking in organized sports such as swimming, cycling and running has grown so commonplace over time, in fact, that events such as the annual Nautica Malibu Triathlon has an entire division devoted exclusively to celebrities.

Paul, though, discounts her influence on the sport of triathlon — and instead points to Oprah Winfrey, and her positive promotion of marathon running, as someone who has made a visible impact on society’s fitness.

Truth be told, in fact, Paul would be just as happy undertaking her challenges completely by herself, away from all the crowds. Trying to draw attention to herself or her feats, in fact, is the last thing she’s after when she sets a goal such as completing a 10k in the ocean.

This is not to say, however, that Paul has not inspired others.

“It’s kind of comical, actually,” she laughs, relating to a familiar back-handed compliment she’s received over the years. “I’ve had people come up to me after the Ironman and say, ‘I figured if you could do it, I could do it…’”

When asked whether her triumph in Bonaire may also lead others in the film industry to take up long distance swimming, Paul, in typical un-Hollywood fashion, laughingly responds, “I hope not.”

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