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Human Interest / Open Water

Breaking Records and Helping Others

Night Train Swimmers rock the MAUS!

Laura Jones | December 31, 2010

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. And you swim 108 nautical miles – approximately the distance from Wilmington, Delaware to New York City - the same way.

No elephant is too big for the Night Train Swimmers who “are always looking for a good cause to support and interesting swims to complete,” says leader Vito Bialla. Most recently, the interesting swim was the record breaking Mexican American Unity Swim in Lake Powell, Ariz. on September 24-26, 2010, and the good cause was the Wounded Warrior Project.

Bialla, 62, swims for The Olympic Club in San Francisco and founded the Night Train Swimmers in 2008. He is an experienced ultra endurance athlete on land and in the water. (You can read more about Bialla in the July – August 2010 issue of SWIMMER).  Joining him for the MAUS swim were three superb Mexican swimmers and two American multi-sport ultra endurance athletes: Matthew Davie, 29, also a member of The Olympic Club and Phil Cutti, 37, who swims for Stanford Masters. Steve Munatones, founder of The Daily News of Open Water Swimming blog and Open Water Source, was their observer.

Davie explains how they picked the Wounded Warrior Project as the beneficiary of the MAUS swim: “Vito is a Vietnam vet and we always look for a place where we can have an impact. We went to New York to work with them and met many of the wounded warriors. They were actively involved and excited about the swim. They are an amazing group of people.”

With that motivation, the swimmers smashed the lake relay world record, covering 108 nautical miles in 55 hours, 20 minutes, and 25 seconds. Each swimmer swam for an hour in the same rotation, so everyone swam nine or ten hours, about 18 to 20 miles, during the relay in a little over two days. A fun bonus for the swimmers was the option to use the slide on the boat for an unconventional start to each leg.

Training for and tackling a 100 plus mile relay in the untested waters of Lake Powell takes a lot of passion and some serious attention to logistics. Finding the right body of water was the first logistical hurdle. (Two earlier attempts to break the relay world record on the Sea of Cortez were thwarted by difficult water conditions and uncooperative jellyfish.) “We did a search based on water temperature, wildlife and ability to swim in a long body of water. Lake Powell was the best,” explains Bialla. “We got a bunch of recommendations, and there was a lake in Florida we considered, but I’ve lived in the South and didn’t want to face alligators at 2 a.m.”

“The water was really nice,” Cutti added. “We saw a lot of birds and a few fish, but nothing that would keep us from getting in the water.”

How do they fit so much training and fundraising into busy, big city lives? “You swim when you can,” says Cutti. “You just work it into your schedule. We have a regular Wednesday swim, too, usually open water. You’re gaining more than you’re giving up. And our families and friends are so supportive.” Davie agrees: “It’s the passion of it. We’re lucky to swim in San Francisco. It’s fun, it’s with good people, it’s for a good cause. It makes it easy to fit it in.”

Bialla echoes his teammates feelings. “It’s become such a passion for us and the camaraderie is so strong. It’s like our religion.” But these swimmers have fun too, even swimming to a World Series game in costume on Halloween. “That’s just who Night Train swimmers are,” explains Bialla. All three say they swim about six to eight hours a week.

As for the actual swim, having a good kitchen about the support boat was a lifesaver. “We had steak for dinner one night and burgers the next,” Davie said. “It was as close to a normal diet as possible.”

And the best part of the relay? For Davie, it was “swimming at night with a full moon. It was unreal.” Cutti loved the “10 or 15 minutes before and after getting in the water; the group really encouraged each other.” And Bialla, who organized the whole swim, said that “having everything come together with nothing going wrong,” was the best part. A close second was the moon for Bialla too, and the fact that, at night, it was so quiet “you could hear yourself swimming.”

Their advice to others who want to try similar swims is to be really organized, plan everything in advance, and have one person in charge of details. That way, when the swim is on, all the swimmers have to do is swim. Which is what Masters swimmers all love to do.

And a little luck doesn’t hurt. Bialla found his Mexican swim partners by luck. “I was on the hunt for a boat for our original attempt to swim the Sea of Cortez in 2009. So being a former sailor I called my buddies in the Yacht Club. Carl Lewis is a former commodore who also has a house in La Paz says ‘hey you should meet my neighbor, she swims.’” Edna Llorens was that neighbor.

“So I looked her up and here is this wild, funny and entertaining woman so full of life she bowled me over. She took me on a two hour swim and thank god I could keep up. When we arrived back at the harbor she … asks if I want to swim some more.” (Joining Llorens and rounding out the Mexican side of the team were Nora Toledano and Patty Kohlman).

They all make it sound easy, and maybe it is when, as Bialla, Cutti and Davie all say, you have big goals and get back so much more than you ever put into swims like these. “Night Train just wants to be the king of long distance relay swimming in open or closed bodies of water. It’s fun to raise money, we like to do it, and swimming is great,” says Bialla.

Finally, you don’t have to speak Spanish to understand the sentiment of unity expressed on the swim’s website by Alex Llorens at the successful conclusion of the swim:

Si se puede!

6 personas

2 naciones

1 causa

Mucha determinación y ganas de triunfar.

Felicidades! Lo van a lograr!

For more, go to nighttrainswimmers.org and mexicanamericanunityswim2010.com

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Laura Jones

Laura S. Jones, a lawyer by training, has written about sports, health, and science for a variety of publications since 2001. She's also the author of a short story collection, "Breaking and Entering," published in 2011. Jones is an avid, although not speedy, open water swimmer and particularly enjoys 5K and 10K ocean swims with her much faster husband, Rob. She'll occasionally humble herself with a 400IM or 500 free in a pool meet, and a triathlon or two.

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