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2016 WOWSA Man of the Year – Nejib Belhedi
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Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Lori King Talks With Sean O'Connell About Bermuda
Dr. Sean O’Connell, the first person to swim around Bermuda in 1977 in 43 hours 27 minutes [shown on left], talks with Lori King who more than halved his time for the 36.5-mile circumnavigation in 21 hours 19 minutes on June 15th-16th.
King's detailed account of her swim is posted in Swimming World Magazine here.
The former age-group swimmer and collegiate breaststroker at La Salle University was aided by crew member Nick Strong, observers Mike Cash and Ilya Cherapau, captains Jim Butterfield and Brian Estes, kayakers Russell Demoura and Alex Hammond, timer Roseli Johnson, and feeder/pace swimmer/coach Devon Clifford during her 21 hour 19 minute solo swim.
Back in early July 1976, Dr. O’Connell, a mathematics lecturer at Bermuda College, attempted the first recorded attempt at swimming around the island of Bermuda. He did not complete his first attempt, but seven weeks later, he successfully completed his a second attempt on August 21st.
Dr. O’Connell: Well, I’ve looked over all of your material and you have done several long swims before. Is this the longest continuous long distance swim you’ve ever done?
Lori King: Yes.
Dr. O’Connell: I thought so. Did you do a swim around Manhattan Island? It seemed that the time listed was unbelievable.
Lori King: It was very current-driven.
Dr. O’Connell: So you were assisted – it was 28.5 miles and you did it in 7 hours and 40 minutes. That’s supersonic – for a swim. So you must have had either good luck or good advice about the tides.
Lori King: I had a great kayaker who can read the water very well, which is key, especially for doing a swim like Manhattan.
Dr. O’Connell: I don’t know if you’ve seen this book The History of Open Water Marathon Swimming by Captain Tim Johnson. I’m in it but you’re not. He talks about the Manhattan swim at lot.
Lori King: Manhattan is tricky. You have to make certain points exactly right because if not, you’re blocked and it becomes impossible.
Dr. O’Connell: So that’s the only other island you’ve swum around, is that correct?
Lori King: Yes.
Dr. O’Connell: I saw that touching little piece you did about your young neighbor who was inspired by your achievements. Here’s a letter from Margaret Carter of the Handicapped Association who found my swim inspiring.
Lori King: Is she still around?
Dr. O’Connell: No, she’s dead. This was 40 years ago. Apart from all the money I was able to raise, over $11,000 which was a lot in those days, it encouraged them to dream and not have their dreams snuffed out and ignored by people. They wanted respect for their imagination.
Lori King: People want to understand and appreciate.
Dr. O’Connell: I sent you some links on the internet.
Lori King: Yes, some of them I had found before. For me, it’s important not just to “do a swim” but the swim must have “meaning”. It’s not about being first in a race and win it.
Dr. O’Connell: When you swam around the Sound here, you came in 4th, so it was a 'race' in a way.
Lori King: Unfortunately, a lot of these swims I’ve done are 'races', but I’m not very comfortable with that situation. The reason I do it is, I think, different from why other marathon swimmers do it. I like the idea of doing a swim that I can plan myself without that added pressure of 'It’s a race', the 'officialness' of it. It’s just getting in and try to swim and be happy and be in my own little world.
Dr. O’Connell: But you could do that in your own little world without the organization and the time where they all start together as a group. You could do that privately, but you often chose to do it in a group. Why? You seem to value your 'private space'.
Lori King: You mean with the organization?
Dr. O’Connell: Yes, like the Harrington Sound swim – you could have done that yourself.
Lori King: I had done open water swimming a few years before I actually did an organized swim. My friends had been trying to get me to do these charity swims on the east end of Long Island. So why would I do that when I could just swim by myself? But it was for a charity and that’s what got me involved. Round the Sound they raise money for one cause or another. So these swimmers who had been doing the Round the Sound race had been coming for years and were trying to get me to come along with them. So the 10K Round the Sound was my longest swim up to that point. So I thought, wow, that felt good, but it hurt. I read about a woman who had swum around Key West and I decided to do that (20 km, 12 miles). Later I did the Catalina Channel Swim (nearly 9 hours, 20.2 miles) so I know how that feels. This is located straight across from Long Beach in California. It was cold so I put on weight, an extra 20 lbs., and I trained in cold water, so OK, now I know what that feels like. The temperature was 60 degrees F and it takes a totally different kind of mindset. I was worried about the temperature here.
Dr. O’Connell: What was it in Bermuda?
Lori King: It was 79 – 80 F which was great. They tell you how to play tricks on your mind – not to use the word 'cold'. So I told the crew don’t ask me if I’m cold, only if I’m 'warm enough'. If you are cold, you don’t say 'I’m really cold'. Instead you say, 'I’m not as warm as I would like to be'. I was pleasantly surprised about the night time here. I thought I would get cold, but the temperature was fine so I thought that OK, I can do this. So we had that stretch on the North Shore which was brutal – we had 4-foot swells.
Dr. O’Connell: From Ft. St. Catherine to Commissioner’s Point.
Lori King: Yes, the wind was strong against me.
Dr. O’Connell: So how were you able to make progress? That’s what killed me my first attempt. I was a few miles off Commissioner’s Point and just could not make headway.
Lori King: Maybe if the winds were stronger that night, I would not have made forward progress.
Dr. O’Connell: How did you know that you were progressing?
Lori King: I kept asking my kayakers and they told me that I was. When we rounded Ft. St. Catherine, that was very 'sloppy'. The water was doing all sorts of things – swells, chop, and very 'messy'. I knew I was making progress as I saw buildings changing.
Dr. O’Connell: Yes, but that was when you were close to land. Later, you are far away.
Lori King: Well, I just kept asking them. Are we making any forward progress? Did we pass the spot where Sean couldn’t get past? At first of course I hadn’t, but then I did, so I decided to keep swimming until they said I was just not making forward progress. I just put my head down and kept swimming.
Dr. O’Connell: So you never felt like giving up?
Lori King: Oh, I felt like giving up so many times.
Dr. O’Connell: You did. So what kept you going?
Lori King: I don’t know. I knew my arms were not going to stop moving. What I did was go from feed to feed. If I could just make it to the next feed. When I reached that stage, I would get a burst of energy and so I would think I would try to make it to the next feed.
Dr. O’Connell: OK, the diet – what did you actually have? Were you able to eat? After a certain point, my lips and tongue were too swollen.
Lori King: I didn’t eat at all, not even at the beginning. I used this product called Carbo-Pro, basically it is carb loading with amino acids.
Dr. O’Connell: I had Energol with liquid protein.
Lori King: What impresses me, and I guess people will try to compare our swims and our times, but for me, I don’t believe in records for open water swimming. I don’t believe in comparing a time because the conditions are uncontrolled, and every person is different. So unless you can say with absolute certainty that we had exactly the same conditions...
Dr. O’Connell: I do of course wonder what you would have done with the conditions I faced back 40 years ago if you were my age. But it’s so difficult because at this point you are almost a semi-professional in terms of all the swims you’ve done. I had to build up from nothing.
Lori King: What makes your swim so impressive is that when a person is a pioneer, when they do it for the first time, that information can be used and passed on to the next person. So you went into it blind and built up to it as best you could. I knew what to expect. I knew how to work with certain conditions. There’s always going to be pain. I’ve had the experience of doing long swims before that. You tried to figure it out. I saw the log of your build-up. I drew on my earlier swims to understand just what I needed to do to prepare for this.
Dr. O’Connell: Did you do any special preparations for this particular swim?
Lori King: I did a long swim in Aruba when we went there for vacation because the salt content there. I got to feel the effects on my lips and tongue. I did a couple of long swims last year when we were here in preparation for my 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim series which was itself a preparation for this. I signed up for that 8 Bridges series since although each was a lot shorter than this, at the end I would know whether or not I could even attempt this. I would understand how my body felt.
Dr. O’Connell: It was like me doing the whole swim over a week in April in segments. By doing bits and pieces, 10 hours one day, 11 another, I came to know exactly what was involved so I just had to put all those pieces together.
Lori King: By putting those miles on your body, I think, it builds up and your body understands what to do.
Dr. O’Connell: I became a swimming machine.
Lori King: Yes and the information we have now about the island is so much more extensive than when you did it. How many did you have helping – a guy in a rowboat?
Dr. O’Connell: No, we had dozens and dozens of people assisting – we had the Handicapped organizing it.
Lori King: Nick (Strong) and Mike (Cash) did all that work for me.
Dr. O’Connell: Nobody stayed the entire time with me like Nick and Mike. They rotated in shifts.
Lori King: This team of people I had that you’ll meet tonight really kept me going. For what they put into it, the resources and the time, I thought OK even if I wanted to stop, I wouldn’t since all these people are out here for me, and up with me and while I’m moving my arms swimming, they’re taking care of any 'bombs' that are dropping around me. I had two kayakers at night – they took turns. They were close to me.
Dr. O’Connell: I have to ask you why they did this – it wasn’t a charity thing.
Lori King: I think they just wanted to be part of what I was trying to attempt.
Dr. O’Connell: Was it the idea that electrified them?
Lori King: Yes. Each of them is skillful in what they do. Jim Butterfield is an outdoorsman and a sailor. Brian is a waterman. My two kayakers have done endurance events. Nick is also a waterman. I think they have all done things that were awesome for their sport and they wanted to help someone else achieve something.
Dr. O’Connell: I’m surprised that in all those 40 years, only one person, Fernanda Varga, attempted it and failed. She trained too much in a swimming pool – after 17 hours, she only got about 11 miles. She got sucked under the 'boilers', the reefs where you have all that turbulence. I had to rescue her and save her life from drowning. She just wasn’t used to the conditions, particularly at night. But my point is that you have all these really good swimmers in Bermuda and instead of saying – “Oh, O’Connell did it in 43 hours, I could do it in half the time”, but they didn’t. They didn’t even try.
Lori King: Being swimmers, they probably understand more than most just what you did and they understand the work that would have to go into it. A 10 km is considered a marathon, so encircling the island is like back-to-back ultra marathons.
Dr. O’Connell: But I was a total amateur with a defective style and very slow while they are so much better and could have done it so much quicker. But maybe now you will inspire them by what you completed. By the way, you don’t make the 24-Hour Club – you only took 21+ hours. You should have gone slower.
Lori King: Mike and I were joking around when we were planning all of this. He said you know we don’t consider this swimming around Bermuda if we don’t include North Rock. For an instant, I bit on the bait and asked how many miles would that add and he said “about 8”. So I thought about it and said no – I then saw that he was teasing me.
Dr. O’Connell: I have to ask you about sharks because that scared the crap out of me when I saw those pictures I showed you in my scrap book. Did you even consider that?
Lori King: For the Catalina swim I knew there might be great whites and other such creatures but I tried to put it out of my head. I took my earrings off – no shiny things. I didn’t wear a bright suit specifically for that reason. I tried to think of how beautiful it was at night and that they probably had gone to sleep.
Dr. O’Connell: Actually, that’s not true. They come close to shore to feed at night. I faced that risk like flying a plane. Disasters can happen and can be terrible, but you take chances all the time. To me, this achievement was worth exposing myself to the danger which I didn’t think was as serious as some thought. The last attack in Bermuda was 1960 and the guy was probably bleeding. To me, spearfishing seems far more dangerous. So I thought that a steady non-bleeding swimmer would not be a prime shark target.
Lori King: We talked about that if I cut myself on a reef, I wouldn’t want to be pulled out. I’d tie something around it and hope for the best.
Dr. O’Connell: I was amazed that the East End around the Cut didn’t present you with problems. Both times that stretch caused serious difficulties with the currents.
Lori King: I did a boat ride around the island with Nick in April and looked at those 'messy' points, so I knew they were coming. It was good to do the North Shore stretch at night since it was pretty boring. The wind-chop and the swells were a challenge.
Dr. O’Connell: Why didn’t you go the other way? When I failed, I went in the direction you took while when I succeeded, I was going the other way and made that North Shore stretch without much trouble.
Lori King: Nick and Mike made the call based on the wind direction. Once I rounded Commissioners Point I would have the wind in my favor.
Dr. O’Connell: But that North Shore bit of 12 miles. You said it was relentless, coming at you constantly.
Lori King: Well, I’d have had that trouble earlier in that case.
Dr. O’Connell: You know how I did it with dye markers at Daniel’s Head and Commissioner’s Point my second try. Those dye markers showed dead calm so I could go either way. This meant I would go clockwise to clear Daniel’s Head and Commissioner’s Point right away and head off across North Shore under calm conditions.
Lori King: My question to them was – Sean failed that way first. Why am I going that way? Well, they had their reasons. You have to trust those helping you.
Dr. O’Connell: Yes, I had good advice the second try since it was based on a meeting of over a dozen experts at the Bio Station who reached a consensus that worked out very well. The currents are essentially unpredictable so you have to be flexible.
Lori King: I called a friend of mine who is very good at reading conditions for swim attempts and he knew that winds of 15 knots were nothing to worry about on the Hudson River, Bermuda is an island in the middle of nowhere totally unprotected and that I would feel their impact much stronger here. However, the winds had died down a bit from 15 knots so they felt they could give the OK here.
Dr. O’Connell: But why did you change from John Smith’s Bay to Elbow Beach?
Lori King: Nick wanted to move it based on the expected winds and he wanted us to get to the East End a little later.
Dr. O’Connell: Yes, you made a very quick time to get from Elbow to Ft. St. Catherine in about 6 hours. Then I called Nick and he said that you had slowed down a bit, but you plowed through it.
Lori King: Nick had said that you had called a few times and I told him to tell you that I felt the pain that you had been feeling.
Dr. O’Connell: What pain? Where did you feel the pain?
Lori King: Arms, shoulders, you feel you’re getting beat up a bit. Rounding Commissioner’s Point, I felt I had strained my rotator cuff.
Dr. O’Connell: What about sugar? I was throwing up in the water. I had taken too much sugar for extra energy and my stomach got all upset. You said you puked on the way home.
Lori King: Yes, I puked on the way home. I don’t drink as much as I probably should but my Carbo-Pro has the balance of the sugar and the carbohydrates, etc. so I didn’t need to switch it up because I have a formula that pretty well works for me. It was trial and error when I first started to use it. In the beginning, my foot was cramping really bad, both actually. I thought, oh my gosh, I never cramp. Here I am not even 20 minutes into the swim and I’m already getting cramps, so I told Devon who was one of my helpers on the boat. Normally, you would have to take in more salt, but she said not to since I would be taking in salt from the sea and soon the cramps would go away. And they did after about a half hour.
Dr. O’Connell: I’ve only had cramps in my calf or thigh.
Lori King: With me, it’s been my feet. They curl up and…
Dr. O’Connell: When I was doing my stage swims in April, at one point I swam from Spanish Point to Dockyard unescorted since my cover never arrived. I was very concerned that in the middle of that stretch, I was about a mile from land and there a cramp could have been fatal. Did that cripple you for a while?
Lori King: I do usually kick, but couldn’t when the cramps hit me. I just tried to stretch it out as I moved along and it didn’t affect my speed all that much. It could have been a lot worse.
Dr. O’Connell: In terms of the whole idea, who told you what I had done?
Lori King: When I did Catalina, I was looking for another challenge so I asked about how long people had swum – not so much how far they covered. I had done 12 hours when I did the Tampa Bay swim and I thought that I then wanted to do a 24-hour swim.
Dr. O’Connell: You were never in a cage were you for shark protection?
Lori King: No, for me keep it pure – suit, cap and goggles. It respects the rules of marathon swimming and those who didn’t have all that extra stuff.
Dr. O’Connell: I had a swimming diving mask for better visibility since for me goggles would fog up.
Lori King: At night my goggles were getting knocked off and fogging up also. I couldn’t see my kayakers, water splashing into my face. They were knocked over. One was thrown from his kayak, but got back in and was able to flip over. The second time it happened, he was secured in there and it took him three tries before he was able to right himself. I was pretty worried for him. They had to do a kayak rescue for him.
Dr. O’Connell: But back to the distance again, you wanted something a bit longer.
Lori King: Yes, one of the women who was one of my kind-of Catalina mentor. If you sign up for it, she makes sure you really are up for it and can handle the challenge. We became good friends and she knows I respect my swims. She’s in the 24-hour Club – Tina Neill. She told me about one of her long swims and that she was recognized as a member of that group. So I looked her up and that’s when I saw your name as having done Bermuda. By that time I had done a few Round the Sound swims and I found it amazing that you had done the whole island, taking over 43 hours. I knew what the waters here felt like and I thought that might be my next big challenge. I thought about it quite a while. Some of my friends came here to do training swims with me. I was preparing for the 8 Bridges and another friend was looking to do Lake Geneva, so she did some long swims to train for that. She swam the entire length of Lake Geneva in 42 hours – Jaimie Monahan, she’s incredible. When I told my friends about what I was thinking of doing, they were very encouraging and said if anyone can do it, you have the best shot. You know what goes into it, you know how to train, so you should go for it. So I told this idea to Mike Cash, a local swimmer, who then put me on to Nick Strong, head of the Bermuda Masters Swimming Association. I said that he probably thought I was crazy. Nick said I was keen, even if a bit crazy and that 2016 would be the 40th anniversary of your 1976 successful round-the-island swim. He said it would be a good and timely way to honor your swim. My parents honeymooned in Bermuda...
Dr. O’Connell: So did mine.
Lori King: My mother had been trying to get me to come to Bermuda but it was actually my friends that persuaded me in the end. We are bonded. Nobody else understands what you go through unless you have as well. I was in a bad way the last 3 miles. I said “take me on the boat”. Not seriously though. For a small oval island, you have a lot of 'points'. Nick would keep saying – 'see that point' it’s not far.
Dr. O’Connell: They did the same with me – always saying the end was very near, 'just around the bend'. Did you see any marine life?
Lori King: I got stung a few times by some jellyfish on my side and my legs. Just small fish. No sharks, no barracuda, but there was a Portuguese man-o-war. Nick steered me away from it. My tongue and throat were in bad shape at the end.
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