Swimming the Strait of Gibraltar
Not the cold, nor the waves, nor the exhaustion could keep Steve Wargo of the Lake Erie LMSC from reaching the finish line: Africa. Steve became the 175th person and the 24th American to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar on September 17, 2007.
At 49 years old, Steve set his sights on the swim that is known for its cold temperatures of 65 degrees Fahrenheit and 4-foot waves. Steve had completed other open water events such as the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, the Swim Around the Island of Key West, the Alcatraz Island swim and the Swim Around Manhattan, but his motivation to swim from Europe to Africa was two fold: (1) purely because of the challenge and (2) because he knew he could create good publicity for Catholic Relief Services, an organization in which he is involved, by dedicating his swim to the organization.
Steve's great swim journey required a lot of preparation. From acclimating himself to cold water, to understanding how and when to fuel his body, to mentally preparing and visualizing the end prize, Steve spent months training various elements of his mind, body and soul.
Training in Lake Erie helped Steve to familiarize himself with the cold-water temperature that he was expecting in the Strait. "I sought out other methods to get used to the cold water," wrote Steve in a story in which he recalls the swim and the months leading up to it. "I did not use hot water for the 90 days prior to the swim. I took baths in cold tap water with ice cubes," he continued. Steve would force himself to sit in the cold bath water for no less than 30 minutes each day. Steve and his wife Donata, who serves as Steve's biggest supporter, also ventured to Lake Huron so that Steve could train in water even colder than that in Lake Erie. Once confident about his experience in cold water, Steve took time to mentally prepare himself for the dangerous swim.
Every day Steve envisioned successful swims. He recalled, "I said loudly and clearly to myself each day, ‘I believe, I believe, I believe.'" Steve and Donata also devised a plan to help keep Steve positive throughout the swim on the big day. Donata and Steve prepared a white board with various positive thoughts. The plan was that after each feeding, he would look to the white board and take a new positive thought with him for the next leg of the swim. Steve shared his positive thoughts for each leg:
First Leg- My four daughters, Lauren, Marybeth, Amy and Joanna
Second Leg- The song "Go all the Way" by the Raspberries
Third Leg- Mom
Fourth Leg- The Cuando Cuando Girls (a saucy Spanish dance duet from the 1960's, trying to keep the atmosphere light)
Fifth Leg- The Catholic Relief Services and all the people that took interest in my swim
Sixth Leg- My dad (who passed away in 1999)
Seventh Leg- The song "Because We Believe"
Eighth Leg- The finish line
Shortly before leaving for the swim, Steve wrote an email to his friends and family. It read, "I am prepared. I am confident. I am determined." So, prepared, he began his 4 hour and 16 minute swim at Tarifa, Spain, at the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Steve remembers the water as "a beautiful deep blue. I could see 15 to 20 feet into the abyss. The water appeared clean." Throughout Steve's swim, as planned, Donata kept stroke count, prepared Steve's food and continued to use the white board to motivate her husband. "My plan was to swim at 60 strokes per minute the entire way across. That would equate to a pace in the pool of 1:30 minutes per 100 yards. My stroke rate reflected a balance between a pace that I could maintain and an effort level that would create enough body heat to keep me from becoming hypothermic," said Steve.
During the swim from Europe to Africa, Steve consumed three 12-oz. servings of a carbohydrate drink, a half a banana, a piece of wheat bread soaked in honey and two Power Gels. Each stop, during which Steve would tread water beside the boat, was under 30 seconds in length. Donata delivered Steve's mini-meals in a plastic container tied to the boat with a rope.
Well into his swim, after multiple legs of his eight-leg swim and as large freighters passed and the number of whitecap waves increased, Steve began to tire. "I could see the beach ahead, but it was hard to tell how far away it really was. I kept swimming, hoping for some communication from the boat," said Steve. Finally, Steve stopped and yelled, "How much farther?" but heard no response, so kept swimming. Again, not sure where he was and how much farther he had to go before he reached his goal, Steve stopped again and yelled, "How much farther?" This time, the guide boat moved its position and revealed Steve's destination: Punta Cires, Morocco, Africa, which was only roughly 500 yards away from Steve's position.
Knowing that his dream was only yards away, Steve began to feel nervous that the conditions might be too dangerous to actually swim to the land covered in rocks. Steve had read other accounts of the swim being cut short by the boat captain with 50 yards to go because of the dangers associated with the waves and rocks. Steve continued to swim, determined to touch Africa. "The water was fairly clear as I approached [land]," said Steve. "A 4-foot wave crashed and then receded from the rocks. There it was, a natural ramp worn in the rocks," remembered Steve. He swam up the ramp and stood on the tip of Africa with his hands held in the air before being thrown back into the sea by a crashing wave. Again, Steve climbed the ramp and held his hands high, and, again, Steve was thrown by the violent waves. Steve climbed up onto the rocks a third and final time before he swam back to the boat and climbed aboard to warm himself.
Steve's efforts and the achievement of his goal to swim the Strait of the Gibraltar are spectacular. When retelling the story of his great swim he offered this advice: "I encourage all swimmers to dream and to be open to inspiration. Follow it."
- Open Water