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Reflections of a South Florida Swimmer

Chris Derks enjoys open water challenges

Christopher Derks | January 5, 2002

SWIMMING THE ENGLISH CHANNEL is a goal I set for myself at about 10 years old when I was exposed to open water swimming by Hall of Fame museum curator and Camp Chikopi director Bob Duenkel. While at Chikopi my pool swimming improved over the summer, but I distinguished myself from the other campers by excelling in the open water workouts and races we had with each other. That was the last time I swam open water until the summer of 1994, when I came back to swimming after a four and a half year hiatus in which I packed on over 50 pounds.

I swam with Coach John J Flanagan, then of George Washington University, in his morning Masters program. Two weeks after my return to the pool I found myself as a trainer at the 1994 25K nationals in Wilmington, N.C., for 1984 and 1988 Olympian Jeff Kostoff. I enjoyed the extreme nature of the sport and began to think about competing in the race one year later in Atlanta. As time went on I began to get into better shape and returned to my form of five years earlier.

In April of 1995 I competed in the U.S.S. [United States Swimming] 5K nationals in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., placing third and earning the title of "All-American." Two months later I won the prestigious 4.4-mile Great Chesapeake Bay Bridge Swim which boasts some pretty tough conditions as well as 800 competitors. Three weeks after the "Bay" swim I fulfilled my personal commitment to myself and competed in the U.S.S. 25K nationals at Lake Lanier, Ga. The race was five times around a 5K loop. Being a novice to marathons I wanted to have that race won and in the bag after the first loop. I set a blistering pace for the first 10K. It did not last. I was out of the race after 12K from dehydration and leg cramps. To this day I do not remember anything for nearly 24 hours after my untimely demise from that swim. The crowning moment on my comeback would have to wait, but not for long. I competed in the Atlantic City Marathon (37 K) in August against some of the toughest competition in the world. This race is promoted as the "Toughest Swim in the World" (which it is). After my failure in Atlanta, my goal was just to finish and not get killed. At the halfway point I found myself in second place and putting distance on the rest of the field without even trying. I was able to hold off a late charge from an Argentinean swimmer and finish second with the cheers of a roaring crowd to bring me in.

Atlantic City was my highest moment ever as an athlete, but it would bring me down to my lowest moment. In that race I tore many of the small muscles in the rotator cuff of my right shoulder. These problems plagued me for all of 1996 and to this day limit my training and even how hard I push myself in a race. I had arthroscopic surgery on my right shoulder on November 6, 1996 at the Georgetown Medical Center. I thought that having the surgery in November would give me enough time to be prepared in World Championship Trials that next June or July. I found out from national team coach, Rick Walker, that Trials were moved up to April, less than five months away. The very day after my surgery I was back in the water with my right shoulder "Saran Wrapped” to my body, fins on my feet, trying to get into shape for the race.

The 1997 25K nationals were held in Indialantic, Fla., and were hosted by Dr. Samuel Freas, president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. I had zero expectations for this race, only to finish. Early into the swim my expectations were coming true. I was not a player in the 1997 World Championship Trials—until we made the turn for home. The last eight miles of the swim were directly into a 15-mile per hour headwind. I was able to go from 10th place all the way up to third in a matter of two hours and was catching the eventual second place finisher, Nathan Stooke of Southern Illinois University, with every stroke. Too bad the race was only a 25K, because I simply ran out of water to swim in. Later that summer I was entered in many of the FINA professional races, but I again hurt my shoulder in a 10K swim for charity in Ocean City, N.J.

I competed in several marathons in 1998 through 2000, with some very personally satisfying finishes. I won the first two Tampa Bay Marathons (42K), and placed fourth at the Traversee Internationale du Lac St. Jean (32K) in Quebec, Canada. Mixed in these swims were modest finishes in races such as Key West, Manhattan Island, and U.S.S. 25K National events. During these years I moved from Hurricane Aquatics in Miami, where I was coached by former age group team mate Robert Caragol to the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team were I was coached for two years by Nobutaka Tan and most recently Duffy Dillon in 2001. The swimming year 2000 ended with me scratching the Lac St. Jean event due to the recurring shoulder injury. Nobu left FLST to start his own club team, and I was left wondering what I was going to do and where I was going to do it. I approached Duffy with my dilemma and he agreed to coach me.

Open water marathons take conventional coaching methods and laughs in its face. Tight intervals of 50s and 100s are not on the menu. Lots of yardage and rest intervals are the norm. I think one of the reasons Duffy agreed to coach me were to broaden his horizons as a coach and accept a new challenge. I still don't know if his "challenge" was trying to make 10,000-meter workouts interesting or to deal with a 30-year-old head case trying to hold onto his youth for another year. When I began my training for the Channel in September of 2000 I remember walking onto the deck and saying to myself, "please God, just one more year." I had no idea if I was a washed up has been, or had one more year left in the tank. The next four months were characterized by lots of running and easy yardage starting at 3,000 a day. This was all Duffy's prescription, and I did it all under protest. He added 500 yards each week until the magic number of 10,000 was reached in March of this year. My shoulders held up pretty well, for the most part, with only a few low points along the way.

My Channel "tune-up" was the third installment of the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim. Duffy was able to accompany me on this swim. It meant a lot to me to have him along to see where all his good work was going. My trainer, Randy Nutt, did yet again a great job of getting me through a nine-hour swim against the tide. One week later I won the USMS 5K Nationals in Hollywood, Fla. In May I was third at the U.S.S. 25K Nationals in Clemson, S.C. This was probably one of the worst races I have ever swum. Dehydration contributed to my physical problems, but getting beat handily by swimmers 10 years my junior was tough to deal with. The writing was on the wall. On that day, I didn't have it, and I began to wonder how long I could keep this up without embarrassing myself.

One week to the day after my substandard swim in Clemson, I cranked out a great swim in La Jolla, Calif., with open water legend Bob West as my kayaker/trainer. I covered more distance in four hours in this cold water (62 degrees) swim than I did in South Carolina. My confidence for the Channel began to increase. One month after my La Jolla trip I went to Hampton, N.H. (my fiancée Erika Backstrom's hometown) for a weekend of swimming. This was by far the coldest water I have ever swum in. The first day I got through nine miles in three hours in some bone chilling water. On Sunday I struggled through 10 miles in water that was significantly colder than on Saturday. My confidence was again rocked pretty hard. I thought to myself that there was no way I would make it across the Channel if the water were this cold. I found out after my Sunday swim that the water on Saturday was 52 degrees and 50 degrees the following day. Confidence was high once again. Since the 25K in May, Duffy changed my training to more long and low-end aerobic swims in order to save my shoulders and prepare for the long haul across the Channel. Most swimmers would love their coach to give them easy practices where they are told to go easy, but not me. I still think, train, and race like a pool swimmer. I still think that I need to swim 100s on the 1:05 to be competitive. What Duffy, and all my other coaches, don't realize is that I'm not trying to go get faster, but rather I'm trying to delay my eventual demise for as long as possible!

I left for England on Friday, July 20th aboard Virgin Atlantic flight number five to Gatwick airport. My parents and I arrived at the Gladstone Guest House in Dover around noon on the following Saturday. I went down to Dover Harbor where all the Channel swimmers train everyday. I went in for a quick loosen up to get the plane ride out of my system. I talked to several other swimmers and one British coach named Fred who began to grill me about my swimming and training methods. I told him what I did back at FLST and that I planned to start my harbor training at about 10K and drop all the way down to a 3K the day before my swim. Fred told me that I was doing everything wrong and that "all Americans are lazy and don't do the necessary training to make for a successful crossing." I didn't see Fred until after my swim because I trained in the harbor at 6 o'clock every morning when there was nobody around except for bums, drunken soccer hooligans with their warm ale, and two guys in a double rowing shell who did a very good job of running into me while under full power.

The weather in England was very good and the forecast for the week reflected that. I knew from early on that I was very likely to swim on Sunday the 29th. This was most helpful because it was very easy to finish off my taper and keep guessing to a minimum. Three days before the swim I met with my driver, Reg Brickell, at his favorite pub in Folkestone where his boat the "Viking Princess" was moored. Reg looks like a modern day pirate. Torn jeans, no shirt, weathered face, and large gold earring to complete the ensemble. After meeting with Reg and discussing details of the swim I walked around Folkestone harbor with my trainer, Craig, and my father, Ed, who was snacking on a bowl full of whelks (nasty bottom feeding snails). There was a crew from the BBC doing interviews with a Chinese swimmer (who swam the same day I did and eventually became the first Chinese to complete the Channel). The reporter asked me if I was a swimmer and if I would agree to an interview, which I did. The next few days leading up to the swim had no significant events take place. The day before the swim I began to hydrate with Gatorade and Carbo-Fuel like I had dozens of times before. People telling me the Channel is the most difficult swim in the world bombarded me all week. To disrespect it meant certain failure. Locals personified the Channel like it was their child, or lover. How dare I ruin the pristine English Channel by swimming across it? This was not even a race and I was feeling some of the most intense pressure of my swimming career. Failure was not an option. To fail would have been utter disappointment compounded with an exorbitant amount of shame, and the ridicule of others. Every swim I have done to this point was meaningless to me, and even more so to the critics around me. I momentarily forgot that I had done over twenty escort swims with a total distance of nearly 400 miles. I was the most experienced swimmer in England this year and I almost forgot that.

My English Channel swim started at approximately 6:45 in the morning in the midst of a media circus. Starting at the same time was the first Chinese swimmer to ever attempt a Channel crossing. The Chinese swimmer was escorted by a replica of the HMS Victory (a 18th century two-masted sailing frigate), helicopter, and several dozen reporters/photographers from around the world. Upon the Chinese swimmers entry into the water many of the photographers rushed to interview/ photograph me. I spotted the Chinese swimmer about ten minutes, and passed him 45 minutes later. The weather was eerily calm on the usually turbulent Channel. There was absolutely no wind or waves (with the exception of bow wake from 1000 foot tankers and ferries) to slow me down. I took "feeds" from my long-time trainer, Craig Lauinger of D.C. Masters swimming, every fifteen minutes. The feeds consisted of Gatorade (and occasional cups of water), and Ultra Fuel (a high carbohydrate sports drink) on the top of every hour. Many Channel swimmers like to drink every hour or so. Since I am used to racing these marathons my body is accustomed to taking in fluids every 12-15 minutes (depending on the type of swim). Many swimmers lose lots of time during their feeds because they are busy talking to their trainer, eating, or generally just not in a hurry. I pride myself by having some of the fastest feeds in the world. I am able to drink approximately eight ounces of these fluids in less than five seconds each time I stop. Actually I don't stop at all. I grab the cup (which is placed to my right), roll my body away from the cup while grabbing it with my right hand, then chug it's contents while I'm rolling, and swallow only when I'm back swimming again. I sailed through the halfway point in just under three hours and 40 minutes. The first half was only a few minutes slower than record holder Chad Hundeby's pace of 17 [minutes per mile] in 1994. My stroke rate was 36 arm cycles per minute with a two beat kick for most of the swim. In the fifth hour my luck with the good weather began to change a little. The wind began to pick up from out of the Southwest and churn up the water with enough wave action to slow me down. Reg was able to position himself in front of me to break up many of the incoming waves, however, in doing this, billowing clouds of diesel exhaust found it's way down to and into my lungs. At the beginning of the eighth hour I was beginning to fall asleep (presumably from the carbon monoxide in the exhaust fumes) and was only waking up because I was taking four to eight strokes per breath and ran out of air. (I usually breathe every two strokes exclusively to the right.) I was still coherent enough to request a "Power Gel" dissolved in water and a cup full of "M&M's" to wake me up. The candy seemed to do the trick, because with in a few minutes my stroke rate went from 27 to 36 cycles a minute complemented by a six beat kick. I was able to keep this pace up for the entirety of the swim. My final hour and a half were probably my fastest swimming of the day, but were actually my slowest due to the changing tides nearing the French coast. Never did the phrase "so close, yet so far" have any more significance than at that time.

The last mile of the swim was some of the toughest conditions I've ever swum. On an average day I can turn out miles in the 20-minute range. My final mile of the Channel took over 45 minutes to complete. The last 300 meters of that mile took 10 minutes. The tide was trying to pull me "out" and to the right. When my left hand touched bottom it dragged several feet along the sand. Until then I had no idea the current was pulling so hard. The water got really shallow and I had to walk the last fifteen yards until I was completely out of the surf. I raised my hands signaling to the boat that I was completely out of the water, and the "Viking Princess" sounded her horn marking the end of the swim. A crowd of about twenty people surrounded me with a rousing ovation. Unfortunately, I don't speak any French and couldn't express my appreciation to the "fans" in any words other than "Merci"! Upon completing the English Channel, swimmers are supposed to bring back rocks from the French shore to commemorate their swim. I had the luck of finishing on the only sandy beach in France. No rocks anywhere, just sand! I am not very happy with my time of 8:32. I was on a pace to break 7:30 for most of the swim, and to come up substantially short of that goal has tainted my accomplishment, in my eyes. I know it is somewhat selfish, or ungrateful to feel this way since there is such a high failure rate (some years as high as 70%), but I can't help it. Hopefully, with time, the satisfaction I desire will come to me with increased reflection.

The greatest challenge of all will come next; what will I do now? The time, effort, and expense of training and traveling have taken its toll on me emotionally, physically, and mentally. I have two bad shoulders, knee, ankle, and back, which have slowed me down these last few years. My dreams of swimming at an international event representing the United States have faded to a mere flicker. There are still races to be swum, lakes to cross, and islands to go around, but none will ever be nearly as important as the English Channel. Only time will tell where next tide takes me, but when I arrive everyone better be ready to race.

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