June 2004  
Let Us Now Praise Crazy Mofos
by Cameron Walker

Martin Strel: Swim & Swill

THE NAME OF MARTIN STREL'S hometown in Slovenia—Mokronog—translates as "Wet Feet," an appropriate birthplace for a man who, over the past four years, has swum a total of 5,427 miles down three of the planet's major rivers.

Strel, 49, doesn't look like Aquaman: At five foot 11 and 230 pounds, he's a potbellied fireplug. But for 58 days on central Europe's Danube, in 2000, 68 days on the Mississippi, in 2002, and 24 days on Argentina's Paraná, in 2003, Strel—wearing a wetsuit and goggles, swimming freestyle, and escorted by a support team in kayaks and a motorboat—stroked an average of 12 hours and 40 miles a day. Along the way, he racked up world records for the longest nonstop swim (313 miles over 84 hours, set on the Danube) and the longest continous swim (the 2,360 miles he stroked down the Mississippi).

On all three rivers, Strel allowed himself just one daily creature comfort: a bottle of Slovenian wine called Cvicek, half of which he drank during onshore lunches to wash down his energy bars, the other half with dinner at a hotel. "I like it," he says, "because it doesn't get me drunk right away."

Even with a buzz, marathon swimming is rough. One dark morning on the Danube, Strel collided with a barge and was trapped underwater for more than a minute. On day 41 of the Mississippi swim, lightning struck a buoy three feet from Strel, blasting him halfway out of the water. (He kept going.) Two weeks later, a stomach infection forced him to switch to the backstroke so he could roll to one side and barf.

Strel says he first began dreaming of epic swims as a young boy. At 23, he quit teaching guitar and began racing in open-water swimming events, but didn't feel "psychologically mature" enough to take on extreme distances until 1997, when, at 42, he raised $50,000 to make a 48-mile crawl from Cape Bon, Tunisia, to the Italian island of Pantelleria.

Thousands of miles and millions of dollars in sponsorships later, Strel says the swimming will continue until his body falls apart. "It's taken me over like a drug," he admits. He'll get his next fix this summer in China, where he plans to swim 2,610 miles of the Yangtze—and down ten gallons of Cvicek along the way.

Copyright 2004, Cameron Walker.