How Bob Swims Got Started

It is hard to believe, but Bob Swims is now a year old. That may sound like a long time, but the last 12 months have gone past so quickly that it feels as if I’ve sprinted 0 to 60 mph in a Corvette. It began as a simple desire to tackle a new challenge, but has now grown to be so much more than that. 

A few years ago while working on living a healthier lifestyle, I discovered that I was still capable of reaching a high level of fitness. I also realized that barring an injury, I could realistically take on a significant physical challenge. So I started to think to myself, why not? Admittedly, part of my motivation was that at 57 I didn't think I had that many more years to tackle something so physically demanding . . . at least not safely.  I like to think that with age comes wisdom, and thankfully, that’s just when you need it the most. If I was going to take a shot at something big, this would have to be the time.

I considered some of the possibilities. I’ve enjoyed competing in triathlons the last few years, so should I attempt to complete an Ironman? Assessing my physical condition I knew I had certain things to consider, specifically a questionable knee. Giving it due deference, it became clear that completing an Ironman was out. My knee would simply not hold up under the long pounding training runs. Moreover, I had too much respect for all the orthopedists that have “visited” my knee over the years, and who have worked tirelessly so I could remain active.

The second thing that came to mind was a solo wilderness trip in Denali National Park. It would replicate an amazing trip I did in 1978. I longed to return to the stark beauty of Denali, particularly in the spring when the sun shines so bright on the snow. While the weather can still be very cold, the days are growing longer and the scenery is simply breathtaking. Cross-country skiing also has the advantage of being a low impact activity.

Spring Ski 4-2Denali 20,335 ft./6,198 meters

Photograph by Bob Needham

Returning to Denali and heading out into the Park for 2 weeks once again would be a fantastic trip. I knew it would give me a chance to experience anew one of the great trips of my life. I also felt confident that I was sure to experience many new things along the way. It would be physically very demanding, and would require me to utilize all of my knowledge and experience. 

It's hard to describe to people what it is like being out in the wilderness alone: relying on your own judgement and abilities. Those of us who have done it, share in the knowledge that we have had the privilege of experiencing something unique. However, before you head out, you must train your body and mind. You must also commit to learning everything you can about the terrain, climate and weather conditions. Admittedly, there are risks associated with such a trip, but these risks can be managed and, in my opinion, are offset by the immense quality of the wilderness experience.

Spring Ski 2bPhoto by Bob Needham (shot with my camera's self-timer)

Nevertheless, I began to realize that what I really wanted to do was to take on something completely new. And then it occurred to me: I should attempt to swim the English Channel. 

The English Channel at it’s narrowest is 21 miles wide. Swimmers start in Dover and swim to France across one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. The average water temperature in August is a scant 60°, and it is considered the Queen of all channel swims. There is a lot that can be said about swimming the English Channel, but it can all be summed up in 4 words: It is very difficult.

However, swimming the Channel posed some particular problems. One was that I had never swum beyond 5K in open water. Second and more importantly, I had a compromised shoulder from an injury over a decade before. The question was: would it hold up to the demands of channel training. It had been tolerant of my combined triathlon and swim training, and I never had a problem in a race. However, if I was going to chase this dream I would have to be able to do what all athletes have to do sooner or later: work through or around an injury. As an athlete you simply don’t have the luxury of training and performing only when everything is working perfectly, and this is even more true after you’ve put some serious miles on your body. So my decision was clear. I would have my shoulder examined by an orthopedist, and start laying out my plans for swimming across the English Channel.

DoverstNautical Chart of the English Channel

Looking back, I’m not sure when I first considered swimming across the Channel. Funny thing is I do remember that when I received my Water Safety Instructor Certificate at the University of Colorado, I was told that I had the build of a channel swimmer. At the time I didn’t think that was much of a compliment, although I’m sure it was meant to be one. But it was not until years later that I actually decided to attempt a crossing. It was after graduating from the University of Oregon Law School when I was swimming the best of my life. I went so far as to tell a couple of close friends that I was going to do it. I also requested information on the swim from the Channel Swimming Association, which as the sole sanctioning body at the time, provided information on the rules regulating all attempts.

But life caught up with me before I could get started. There were many things over the years that diverted my attention away from channel swimming. First, there was a lack of money. Channel swimming is not an inexpensive sport. There are the costs associated with getting to England, staying there and hiring a boat and crew, not to mention the costs of training for a year or two. When I felt I could put together the necessary funds, I lacked the time to take the challenge on.  Again, channel swimming involves a huge commitment of time to train along with the 2 to 3 weeks a person spends in England finalizing their training and waiting for the weather to break.

1983 ECA Letter

This letter dated on my 30th birthday has been a reminder of a dream I have carried for many years.

Finally, there were the demands of my career and family, and ultimately both serious physical and mental health problems as well. The demands of channel swimming are great, and were much more than I could manage through those years. While many marathon swimmers have successfully managed a career, family and health problems, I could not. Frankly, I am simply in awe of their dedication, hard work and ability to stay focused. However, each person has there own strengths, and mine is my ability to hold onto a dream for as long as need be until I am able to pursue it. In fact, I saved the letter I received back from the Channel Swimming Association in 1983 to help keep my dream alive all these years.

Shortly after I began laying out my new plans to swim the Channel, I sent along a friend request to Lynne Cox on Facebook. She accepted the invitation and sent along a friendly note. While I have yet to meet Lynne in person, it was clear from my first contact with her that she is a warm, humble person who is completely unselfish with her time. At first I made no mention of my plans, and our discussions drifted toward her writings and a few things we had in common. (For example, I could swim and she could walk on water. At least that's how I saw it.) Actually our paths did cross briefly a few times in the past, and it provided the basis for some interesting discussions.

Screen shot 2011-02-04 at 5.24.26 AM

Lynne Cox

One of the things we discussed was the experience and joy of swimming alone offshore. I had been doing it since high school and there was something almost mystical about the experience, not unlike being out alone in the Alaskan wilderness. However, in speaking with Lynne it was clear that the breadth and depth of her experience was far greater. Thankfully, much of what she experienced is so richly woven into her book Grayson, the true story of her encounter with a whale while swimming alone off Seal Beach in Southern California.

It was during these conversations with Lynne when I began to realize that my project was much greater than I had originally envisioned. I’m sure I am not alone in saying that, there is something special about Lynne, and the way she has lived her life, that opens your eyes up to see the limitless possibilities that stand before you. 

It then hit me. I would swim not simply to fulfill my personal ambitions, but also to find a way to reach out to help others. So I put a plan in motion. To prepare to swim the English Channel I would need a couple of years of training along with experience in marathon swimming. Even in the early 1980’s when I first thought of swimming the English Channel, I decided I should first attempt the 21 mile Catalina Channel off Southern California. It now only made sense that this should also be a part of my current plan; so I committed to making it my first big swim in September 2011.  To wrap things up, I concluded that it may help to raise money for a cause if I capped off my project with an attempt to complete the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Together, the 3 swims are considered the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. As of 2010 only 41 people have completed all 3 swims, and my pursuit of this challenge might garner enough attention to aid in my fundraising efforts.

So I was left with the decision of how to best use these swims to help others. A number of important causes came to mind, some very dear to my heart, but one stood out above all others: suicide prevention and awareness. What made this cause so important is that I am a survivor of a suicide attempt, and I have personally made the journey through the darkness and found so much beauty in life on the other side. So it was decided, I would use my efforts to bring attention to the serious and tragic health crisis that suicide presents.

I did some research and discovered the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  The AFSP is the leading national not-for-profit organization exclusively dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research, education and advocacy, and to reaching out to people with mental disorders and those impacted by suicide. I felt that they were the perfect beneficiary of the funds I would raise.


But the story was not yet complete. As I went forward reaching out to people through my website and my Facebook pages, Bob Swims became more and more about suicide awareness. I found that in coming forward and freely sharing my story, others in turn reached out to me. It has been a very humbling experience. I have already been contacted by people who are struggling with thoughts of suicide, people who have friends or loved ones at risk, and people who have lost a loved one: some very recently and others where years have passed and they had rarely mentioned it. This was a part of Bob Swims that I had never anticipated or planned for, and has had the greatest impact on both me and the direction of my project. With each new contact I feel honored to be brought into a most private part of their life. I am not a professional counselor so all I can do is share my personal experiences, and hope they offer some insight or support to the other person. This is the most meaningful work I do in the project. A gift to me from the people that come forward.

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One year ago when I put together the blueprint for Bob Swims. I had a clear notion of what things would look like. There would be a lot of long training hours in the pool and in open water: some in cool water and some in downright cold water. I even thought I could imagine what life would be like after I successfully crossed the English Channel in August of 2013, if the gods looked kindly upon my effort. However, I can say with confidence that having watched Bob Swims grow over the last 12 months, that I can no longer say with any certainty what Bob Swims will become between now and the time of my English Channel crossing.

Bob Swims has developed a life of it’s own. It is filled with the many people who have reached out to share their stories, or to help find answers for someone they care for. It’s filled with the many, many people who have selflessly offered up their time and extensive marathon swimming experience to help me in my preparation, and the people who have joined My Team by making a donation to AFSP through my website. It is filled with the enthusiasm of the people who have offered me encouragement, and have welcomed me into their lives. Bob Swims has already transcended both bob and the swims into something much more important, and I feel graced to be able to be a part of it. Yes it has been an amazing 12 months, and it is now only just the beginning.

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