Article image

by John Ebel

April 2, 2013

After 45 years, a swimmer finds his way back to the water

When I was 12 years old, I was a promising swimmer. My dad and I regularly swam the width of Lake George, New York. The lake was 3.3 miles at its widest point. We worked our way up to doing it five times—a bit more than 16 miles—freestyle all the way, no rest, and we emerged from the water not winded at all. We wanted to be the first to swim its length, approximately 32 miles, wider than the English Channel. We felt we were ready and resolved to do it the following summer in June.

June arrived, and with spotter boats to accompany us, we embarked on the swim. About 17 miles into it, a bay constable pulled up, blue lights flashing, and informed us that we couldn’t do a mid-lake swim in navigable waters without a Town permit. We protested politely, but he was firm and polite. He then said, “Besides, you guys might want to check last week’s papers, a local gal did it last week.”

The double disappointment of not being permitted to finish and not being the first, was not enough to keep us out of the lake, but we resigned ourselves to the width swims. We both went on to win many local competitions, but the lingering disappointment stayed with me. I stopped swimming after that season, one of the greatest regrets of my life. But regrets are like a bag of bricks; all you have to do to lighten your load is put them down and walk away.

My Dad passed away last June, at the ripe old age of 92, after a robust life. For his 90th birthday, he swam a mile in Lake George. His freestyle was always gorgeous, and it was a sight to behold. His legs were gone by then—he could barely walk on land—but in the water he became a fish. It was truly amazing.

When we scattered his ashes on Lake George, my then 13-year-old daughter and I honored him by swimming the width of the great lake. Although I finished, it took me more than two hours. My daughter, already a varsity swimmer in her freshman year of high school, blazed by me like she had an outboard motor in her swimsuit.

I’m 59 years young now, still in great shape from years of weight training and bodybuilding, and a proud cancer survivor, but it had been more than 45 years since I’d swum at all.

These experiences, and watching Michael Phelps work his magic at the London Olympics, inspired me to jump in again. I joined Metro Masters at my local YMCA. It took me 1 hour and 5 minutes to complete a pool mile, but I still could swim it. After only four months—thanks to my two great coaches, Tim Treadwell and Tom Cohill—I’m coming in at a more respectable 35-minute mile. I’m relearning the flip turn. My goal is a 25–30-minute mile.

When I get into that pool I go Zen, concentrating only on my form and that magical black line on the bottom of the pool. I’ve adjusted my weight training to lighter weight, higher reps, and exercises that complement the various strokes. Swimming has made me more focused at work, calmer at home, and a better friend and partner. Swimming has become my second job. Like my Dad, I want to go the distance.

When I jump into the water, I feel like I’ve come home. I’ve learned that it’s never too late. Swim to live, and live to swim, brothers and sisters!


  • Open Water
  • Human Interest


  • Goal Setting
  • Motivation