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Breaststroking Across the Catalina Channel

by Laura Jones, Staff Writer

Jason Lassen of Oregon Masters didn’t want to run anymore after completing Ironman 70.3 Boise in June 2009. So Lassen, 38, approached fellow Masters swimmer Michelle Macy at a meet and said he wanted to try open water swimming and do something “few people had done.” “So,” Macy remembers, “I said why don’t you swim Catalina breaststroke?” Why breaststroke? Macy knew Lassen was already swimming breaststroke in distance freestyle events in Masters meets and that he was fast. Lassen explains how that happened: “I started swimming four and a half years ago with the Bellingham Masters team. The coach had us doing little 25 yard races in each stroke. I usually touched the wall last until it was breaststroke time, when I beat everyone.” So breaststroke it was.

About a year after his conversation with Macy, at 10 p.m. on September 29th, 2010, Lassen started stroking across the Catalina Channel. He was not the first person to swim it breaststroke. In 1927, Henry Sullivan became the second man and the first American to swim the channel, and the first to swim it breaststroke, with a time of 22 hours and 45 minutes. Lassen beat that time handily in 15 hours and 59 minutes. And for an added twist, Lassen shares, “I wanted to make my swim as fair as I could, so we did the swim without GPS.”

While he says he hit a mentally tough patch during his swim around dawn, physically it wasn’t too hard and his favorite part was swimming in the ocean at night with the glowstick. “My air bubbles were fluorescent green, and I was entertained by that. It gave me something to watch.” Lassen’s wife Megan Lassen, also a Masters swimmer who was on the boat posting updates to Facebook and trying not to get seasick, adds that for her “it was really hard to watch him get into the dark water at the start. But he just jumped right in.”

Lassen's training schedule in the year leading up the swim was rigorous but provided the occasional laugh. “I’d buy a pass for 24 Hour Fitness and swim there Saturday and Sunday nights. I didn’t get the impression they understood what I was doing, though. When I said I was going to swim all night in their 25 yard pool, their response was ‘You can’t sleep here.’”

Along with Macy, David Livengood joined Lassen for a lot of his cold-water training, which they began in March 2010. “Passing it on [tips about warming drinks and adapting to the cold] and helping people achieve their dreams is what is wonderful about the open water community here in Oregon.” Macy concurs. “[Lassen] just had a great dream, and of course I wanted to help. He had no specific coach but he talked to a lot of people and pieced together a plan that ultimately resulted in success. It was a community.” Lassen also emphasizes the support he got and the team nature of both the actual swim and the training.

Lassen says his swim is proof that “it’s possible to enter the sport as an adult and find your niche and do really well. Open water is especially good for newer swimmers because the competition is more easygoing. I’m not terribly fast, but you don’t have to be fast to do this. I do think, though, that cycling helped me build an endurance base.” Livengood agrees about the cycling: “There is no question in my mind that his being a cyclist helped him with breaststroke. He’s got some real strong frog legs.”

So what’s next? Maybe a breaststroke triple crown: “I’m looking at what else is out there. There is a really fast [breaststroke] record for the English Channel I may go after. There are definitely a lot more swims I’d like to do, including Manhattan.”

But it is unlikely that he’ll get a more interesting reception at any future swims than he did when he arrived at the California shore. “At the finish, there were all these people cheering and waving. I found out that they were the cast from The Biggest Loser. It was kind of ironic to me that they were the ones on the beach since I had to work so hard to put on weight to help with the cold.”

To read more about the Catalina Channel Federation, go to swimcatalina.org.

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