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Lucian Wischik: No Rules, No Limits

by Laura S. Jones

File this story under L for “Love of a lake,” and under W for “Wow, we have a lot of really interesting people in U.S. Masters Swimming.” Put your two files together and you also have the initials of an inspiring Masters swimmer.

Save nothing for the journey back and you’ll go some pretty interesting places—that is Lucian Wischik’s philosophy in a nutshell. The name of his workout group alone—the Seattle Open Water Irregulars—tells you that he also has a sense of humor. And that he references Beowulf’s literary swimming exploits in casual conversation tells you more about this thoughtful swimmer.

Wischik, 37, is a member of Pacific Northwest Aquatics. He has lived in Seattle for seven years; prior to that he called Bologna, Italy home. But he is a true citizen of the world: born in Australia, lived most of his life in England, and has a French passport and Polish blood. He never really swam, though, until he saw Lake Washington. Then on September 11, 2011, he swam the entire 20 mile length of the lake. It was not your typical crossing; in many ways, it was so much better because it was unique and personal.

When I asked Wischik why he decided to do the swim in the first place, he admitted that he still hasn’t figured out why. “[The lake] has had such a draw on me. I started open water swimming because of the lake. It just kind of grew in my mind.” He drives to work every day over the lake; he even bought his house on the lake. After the exhausting swim, Wischik figured “Okay, that’s out of my system. But about a week later, I decided I could do it better, faster.”

Wischik covered the 20 miles in 19 hours, taking an hour and 45 minutes worth of rest between five stages. He swam breaststroke and in a wetsuit. Why breaststroke? “It is the only stroke I know how to do,” Wischik admits, although he plans to learn freestyle soon. He started at 2:00 a.m. and finished just before midnight. He figures he consumed about 10,000 calories worth of Gatorade, gels and Power Bars. He had kayak support the whole way, and every four hours or so he would stop on shore at a prearranged meeting spot where his girlfriend Shannah was waiting with more food and a car with the heater on full blast. He posted a full report on his website.

Dianna McCandless, 41 and a member of Pacific Northwest Masters, is a friend and founder of the Facebook page "Western Washington Open Water Swimmers." McCandless swam with Wischik for his last leg. Wischik says her navigation skills helped him find his landing spot, but more than that she is a “wonderful friendly person, and a great swimmer, and is a great enabler of other people to do open water swimming as well.”

The same could be said of Wischik; he guides others who are interested in doing longer swims in Lake Washington or Puget Sound. And he has an innovative way to combine philanthropy and thanking his volunteers. For those who volunteer to help him, he donates—and his employer, Microsoft, matches—a sum of money to the charity of each volunteer’s choice.

Wischik mostly swims over the summer, gradually building up his distance. He swims entirely outside. “I haven’t been in a pool in six years,” he says. He is careful about safety and watches for boats, staying near the shore. “I assume boats won’t see me,” he says even though he towed an inflatable buoy behind him with added bright flashing kayak lights on for visibility.

Some savvy readers may notice that most of the crossings we write about are done without wetsuits. Of course, those same savvy readers are undoubtedly aware of the wetsuit debate that occasionally rages. Wischik, who wore a wetsuit to combat the cold that can get intense during night swimming, says he tries to stay out of the debate. “I understand and admire [non-wetsuited swimmers] and I understand the need for a level playing field. But I’m in it for the pleasure rather than making statements. Sometimes people who are too interested in the rules forget to enjoy it.”

He does have this in common with most open water swimmers we interview: he emphasizes the mental aspect of the sport. “I swim until I have nothing left and then I swim back. I fool my brain. Your body can do so much more than you think it can.” Also like many other Masters swimmers, he feels a reverence about the water and the experience of swimming.

His reverence was increased when he met Charles Sprawson, the author of "Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero.” “Charles is a wonderful chap. I met him on a Swimtrek swimming holiday in the British Virgin Islands in 2010. He has philosophy-of-swimming coming out of his ears!”

If you want to swim in Wischik’s wake virtually, or cross any number of bodies of water while swimming laps, check out the Virtual Swim Series, where you can find a link to a high tech spreadsheet that will allow you to track your progress.

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