Paralympic Spotlight: Tiburon Negro Sergio Valencia

By Lloyd N. Darden

SAN CLEMENTE, California, June 17. ALL right, you talented swimmers for whom the sport is a hobby, lend an ear to this paraplegic who prefers to swim full time.

The Sergio Valencia story began in 1978, when an automobile accident in his home town of Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, rendered Sergio a paraplegic at the age of 18. He sank into a state of severe depression, hibernating in his room at his mother's home, and more than once attempting suicide.

Seven years later, his older brother, Marcos, was able to pry him out of the room and help him find a job.

Sergio found a position in a small manufacturing plant, where he performed effectively at a desk job and impressed the boss. But there was one problem: while seated, he developed paraplegia-related pains in his back.

The pain subsided on weekends, and since Ensenada was a beach town, Sergio began teaching himself to swim in the ocean. He learned the crawl, albeit with a rather choppy stroke, and progressed rapidly. "In the ocean, where my legs are no problem," he said. "I am free!"

He began spending all his free hours in the ocean. Two days a week, he became exhilarated. But five days a week, he was in pain and without time to get to the beach.

So, he quit his job! Was that taking a chance? Not with his state of mind. He understood the price for victory: train, train, train. So he maintained a regimen of swimming and calisthenics four hours a day, six days a week.

Townspeople became aware of his swimming a short distance offshore, with his black wetsuit-clad arms appearing alternately, resembling the fin of a darting shark. So he latched onto the name, "Tiburon Negro" (Black Shark).

By mid-1988, the paraplegic Black Shark became the first person known to have swum the 12 miles from All Saints Island to Ensenada. (In the swimming world of the United States, we heard nothing about this amazing paraplegic, although the beach town where I live, San Clemente, Calif., is only 150 miles north of Ensenada. But "Tiburon Negro" was a hero in Baja).

The All Saints feat captured the admiration of Carlos Hussong, a prominent Ensenada businessman, who offered to take Sergio to Tarifa, Spain. Hussong's goal was for the Shark to swim through the Gibraltar Strait, which separated Spain from Morocco. Hussong hired a trainer in Tarifa who spent six weeks acquainting Sergio with the Strait's raging waters caused by the convergence of the warm Mediterranean and cold Atlantic.

In records kept since 1817, the Strait had spelled defeat for 250 of the swimmers who had attempted to cross it; only 42 had made it. Yet paraplegic Sergio became no. 43.

The Moroccan officials, startled upon observing his handicap, announced in awe that he had finished in 5 hours, 58 minutes, the fourth fastest time then on record for the 13-mile swim. More than two miles per hour—an outstanding speed for a course that included waves the height of a pole vaulter's bar and currents with the force of a freight train.

Presumably the fastest rough-water swimmer in the world, the Shark became even more dedicated to training, and he (with financial help from Marcos) sought new challenges. He conquered the inland and coastal waterways of Mexico where insects, reptiles and man-eating creatures were common.

Sharks were a major threat. Sergio describes a day in the Pacific when he found himself amid sharks contentedly munching on a school of Bonita tuna. The sharks suddenly moved around Sergio, "seeming to regard me as their main course," says Sergio.

As one shark appeared ready to attack his upper body, he wondered if the others were already feeding on his legs, in which he of course had no feeling. "I was so scared!" he says. "Tears were running behind my mask, and I prayed fervently. And the sharks abruptly swam away."

As he overcame problems in uncharted streams, he found that those swimming experiences helped him become more adept at using the braces which he used for walking in those days.

Sergio's longest swim in terms of both distance and time occurred after Marcos died of a heart attack in November 1993. Years before, the Shark had promised his benefactor brother that he would someday honor him with a swim of 24 consecutive hours.

It takes courage to undertake something difficult for the first time in front of everyone you know, right? Well, Sergio boldly chose a route visible from the shore, set a date in 1994 for a midnight-to-midnight jaunt, and invited the press. And while reporters and others in support boats cat-napped, he kept swimming, totaling approximately 50 miles.

Although the Shark continued to deliver solid performances, the 24-hour swim was a tough act to follow. His most prominent appearance was a 2006 Tijuana-Coronado Islands swim comparable to his famous All Saints Island performance.

Then in 2007, Sergio decided he needed new worlds to conquer, and he put out the word that he wanted to swim in the U. S. Hearing of this unique performer for the first time, I acted as a poor man's Carlos Hussong and brought him to San Clemente for our annual Ocean Festival. The Festival board scheduled the Black Shark as a solo event, to swim 8.5 miles. The waters were very calm, and it took him just 5 ¼ hours, enabling him to conclude the swim on San Clemente beach at noon, the last day of the Festival.

We had been too late to get his name listed in the program. So, when some 800 aquatic performers and spectators on the beach were informed that a paraplegic was arriving in the surf, they went wild. Everyone was cheering and/or crying, touched by a disabled person's spunk. Sergio later stated that the size and warmth of the San Clemente crowd had given him his most pleasurable welcome since his arrival in Morocco almost 19 years before.

He was then 46, which made his speed of 1.5 miles per hour more than respectable.

Two Hollywood organizations had already made contact with Sergio, proposing a movie or TV show. And now the city of Ensenada attempted to interest its sister city, Redondo Beach, Calif., in a Shark performance. While Sergio was exploring those possibilities, he and I stayed in contact and I had several glimpses of a different side of Sergio.

First glimpse, the day after the Festival in San Clemente: I watched Sergio have a Q and A session (through a translator) with a moderately disabled elderly American lady in need of positive thoughts, which Sergio effectively provided.

Second, an American mother whom I arranged to have a meeting with Sergio in Ensenada reported to me that Sergio had helped her 10-year-old son (who had previously witnessed his brother's death in a water accident) overcome his fear of water. No translator had been present, but the magnetic Sergio had silently taught the boy body movements, which built his confidence. He left the session a changed person, his mom said.

Incidentally, after the two above incidents, Sergio began studying English with dedication.

Third, while on a visit to Ensenada, I heard the Black Shark address the students of a trade school for disabled boys and girls. The kids had never met the Shark before, but knew all about him. Sergio talked about goals and hard work, and closed by saying, "There's a shark inside each of you." The kids were elated.

By early 2009, the Hollywood executives and Sergio had stopped talking, and action by Redondo Beach seemed doubtful So, Sergio asked if San Clemente would like him to participate with a longer swim in that year's Festival.

I said yes, but asked him if he would like to apply to participate in that summer's Alcatraz swim the week preceding our Festival. Annually, hundreds of strong swimmers bravely tackle a ferocious strait–which long ago kept inmates from fleeing the prison then on Alcatraz island in San Francisco bay.

Sergio, having dreamt of an Alcatraz swim for years, of course said yes. The swim is only 1 ½ miles long from a point just off Alcatraz to San Francisco, but its waves and currents are comparable to Gibraltar's.

The Shark enjoyed being tossed wildly about by the chaotic waves, and when he reached the shallow San Francisco surf, he was carried from the water by four exhausted fellow swimmers. "They treated him like a brother," relates Hector Castillo, Sergio's companion on the trip, who was awaiting the Shark on a concrete surface with a wheelchair.

Inside the locker room, there was exuberant camaraderie with swimmers sharing their experiences. The highlight of the gathering for Sergio came when he was awarded a shark's tooth by the event manager, Gary Emich—particularly touching, since Sergio was just one of 700 swimmers Gary coordinated in the swim.

The San Clemente Festival a week later was a sweet-sour experience. The Shark required twice the time to swim a course only a mile and a half longer than his 2007 route. But when he concluded his swim at San Clemente, he was touched to find his core supporters awaiting him on the beach in the twilight, long after the Festival had closed.

He didn't share the prevailing sentiment that he had entered the twilight of his swimming career. True, his speed had diminished, but he was and is strong as a horse and has remarkable endurance. I visualize his occasionally swimming in Tahoe or the Great Lakes, where the currents he would face would not be so strong as to leave him swimming in-place. And he could also swim in brief rough-water events where his strength would be a bonus.

Nine months later, this past April, I dropped down to Ensenada to visit him. I asked him if he was happy that he had pinpointed his life toward full-time swimming 25 years before.

After a resounding "yes," he said, "When I'm swimming, my legs are no problem, and I develop confidence and creativity which stay with me–whether I'm in water or on dry land."

He then related that philosophy to his recent activities on land… One was his teaching swimming to wheelchair guests at a local hotel, Another was his starting a business of leasing equipment to the local government, the very first business venture of his life. A third was his assertively soliciting funds for the needs of a nine-year-old girl with brain cancer. All three of these activities had utilized the creativity developed in swimming as a paraplegic, and the business start-up had utilized his courage as well,

I opined that conceiving and carrying out the midnight-to-midnight swim–and putting his reputation on the line—had been an even more masterful use of creativity and boldness.

I then asked him what he would say to a paraplegic considering open-water swimming.

"I'd say, ‘Go for it full time if you're willing to train hard. On long swims, mull over your opportunities on land and water. The whole world is your clay.'"