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by Elaine K Howley

December 22, 2019

Over 11 days in December 2019, eight Silicon Valley swimmers set new distance and time standards with the 'Guinness Book of World Records'

From Dec. 10 through Dec. 21, 2019, eight members of Google Masters Swimming made history for the longest ever relay swim. Craig Robinson, Joe Gardner, Erik Haugen, Sven Mawson, Collin Johnston, Tom Dowd, Rob Gray, and Joe Young swam continuously for 11 days and covered more than 960 kilometers (596.5 miles) to claim a slot in the Guinness Book of World Records. The event took place on Google’s campus in Mountain View, Calif., and was supported by more than 270 volunteers and donors. The effort sought to raise some $30,000 for two charities—the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation and the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

The previous record was set in 1979 by Matthew Howard, Todd Primmer, John Kocher, Sue Meckley, Dave Schilling and Matt Murphy. The team of American teenagers covered 469.5 miles (755.5 milometers) over 240 hours (10 days) in a pool in Newark, Ohio. The Google team aimed to surpass that record on both distance and time. 
Though the record claim still must be ratified by GWR, there seems little doubt that the team will take its place beside other sporting luminaries and those who push quirky boundaries when the authorities review the team’s comprehensive documentation. The entire event was livestreamed via the web, befitting professionals at one of the world’s largest tech firms.

Three Years Coming 

Relay captain Craig Robinson says the idea first came to him a few years ago when Google Masters hosted its annual Halloween mini-meet, replete with tombstone kickboard races and relays with gourds. Something about the communal nature of that event made him wonder if they could stage a long relay event, and so he did what any of us would when beginning research—he Googled it. 

The 1979 Guinness World Record relay popped up and the seed was planted. It would take another two or three years for the team to coalesce and the logistics to work out, but Robinson says this past summer, everything just fell into place.

Speaking on Thursday afternoon, eight days into the event, Robinson was very pleased—if surprised—with the team’s progress. “We surpassed the distance part of the record this morning at about 3 a.m. Then there’s the straight time part, which is just the number of days swum. We’ll pass that on Friday morning at 9:15 and then we’re going to set the record one more day out,” and finish on Saturday, December 21 at 9:15 a.m. Pacific time. 

Robinson noted that he was “surprised we’re so far ahead,” of the target pace. The previous record had been set by high school age swimmers, and the older Masters set thought they might have to sprint to keep up. But within the first few days, they found they could back off the pace just a bit and stay ahead of schedule.
It seems their diligent training in advance of the record attempt has paid off. All eight regularly attend workouts with the Google Masters team, but in the months leading up to the event, they began adding time, distance, and dryland training to their routine. Over the summer, they undertook a few prep test sets to check their fitness over 5K and 10K distances several days in a row to make sure they were on track.

How it Worked

Each swimmer was paired up with another swimmer, so there were four pairs in constant rotation to keep the relay moving without interruption. One swimmer would be in the pool while his partner was on standby. Each pair covered a 7-hour shift in turn, which meant that over the course of the 11 days, different pairs would pull the graveyard shifts. This worked out to having roughly “21 hours between the time you finish and the time you have to go back,” to the pool, Robinson explains, allowing the swimmers time to refuel and rest in between stints swimming. Some of the guys even logged some work hours over the course of the 11 days. 

Although Robinson concedes that “everything is tired and hurting,” after eight days of their punishing swimming schedule “no one’s injured.” A bigger challenge than sore shoulders has been the effects of long-term immersion on their skin. They all developed blisters on their feet and toes that have become painful and awkward. “It’s in a weird spot,” Robinson says, and the teammates have bandaged these tender points as best they can. “But the pool is now littered with all these little bandages,” he laughs. 
At night, the air did get a little chilly, but the water was maintained at a steady 79 degrees, so as long as the swimmers kept moving, it was comfortable. Nipping out to the pool for each transition in cool air and rain made some of those transitions less than fun, but overall, the conditions were excellent for achieving their goal. 

Logistical Precision 

Not just a physical undertaking, the relay represented a massive logistical operation, Robinson says. They’ve been assisted by a small army of volunteers, many of whom are fellow Google employees and Google Masters swimmers, who meticulously recorded each and every lap. Organizing those volunteers and making sure there was always an adequate number on site was a massive undertaking all its own.

In certifying the world record, precision matters. Robinson explains that they had to have the pool measured to verify exactly how far they swam. “We just realized, we’re going to do 22,000 laps. If you have a 1 millimeter error in measuring the length of the pool, that’s 220 meters,” of inaccuracy. 
GWR also has very specific requirements around who can serve as an official witness, with close friends and family members being considered too biased to provide reliable independence, so the team had to cast a wide net in recruiting people they didn’t know so well to donate hours of their time to support the effort. 
Initially, they paid some volunteers to help out (the first few middle-of-the-night slots were tough to fill), but as word of the attempt spread and people became aware of the charitable nature of the effort, more and more people began turning up to volunteer. By the time the relay concluded, more than 270 people had donated time, money, or both to the cause, Robinson says.

Swimming for Others

The group has a fundraising goal of $30,000, which will be split 50-50 between two charities—the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a San Diego-based organization that provides opportunities and support to people with physical challenges, and the USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, the charitable arm of U.S. Masters Swimming that provides funding for adult learn-to-swim programs across the country. 

Though the undertaking is not a Google or Alphabet (Google’s parent company) event, the company has been very supportive and the team was given 24-7 access to the company pool and a gym space where volunteers, witnesses, and the swimmers congregated and got ready to swim. Google also donated $10 per hour for each hour a Google employee served as a volunteer.

Holly Neumann, who manages USMS’s adult learn-to-swim and foundation programs, says that after expenses are deducted and donations are matched by Google, about $15,000 is anticipated to be donated to SSLF. “It’s poised to be the largest contribution to SSLF since the initial donors.” 

The impact of this funding is difficult to overstate, Neumann explains. “It costs roughly $60 to teach someone to swim in one of our grant programs, so this has the potential to save hundreds of lives. Plus, an event like this sets an example for our members. We’re all swimmers who can inspire and raise awareness doing what we do best: swimming. We hope other groups get ideas from this and think to include SSLF in their efforts.”

Neumann adds that “working with the Google guys has been a joy this holiday season. Not only are they incredible athletes with huge hearts, but they navigated Guinness’ logistical requirements like pros.” 

Awe-Inspiring Achievement

Gloomy weather didn’t prevent a couple dozen supporters and volunteers from cheering the swimmers to the finish at 9:15 a.m. Pacific time on Sat., Dec. 21. Even Santa Claus was in attendance as Robinson punched out a smooth and beautiful butterfly over the last 25 yards, bringing to total to an astonishing 960 kilometers.

Using their platform to raise funds for charity during the holiday season is a great reminder that when we work together, sometimes the impossible becomes possible. “We applaud the entire effort, thank their volunteers, and have endless gratitude to their families for sharing them with us,” Neumann says. “It’s an honor to have been a part of this historic event, and we are in awe of their achievement.”

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