Swimmer Goes the Distance, All Without a Wet Suit
Doctor, 58, Has Tackled The English Channel
By Cari Shane Parven
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 10, 2004; Page GZ05
Nick Olmos-Lau loves to show off his potbelly. It's quite a surprising attribute for the 58-year-old doctor, considering his addiction.
Olmos-Lau is a swimmer. Actually, he's more than a swimmer. He's a man who finds peace in cutting through the waves of the ocean and in the windmill motion of his arms propelling him through the water.
Over the past four years, Olmos-Lau has crossed the English Channel, swimming more than 30 miles, and the 21-mile Catalina Channel off the coast of California. He also swam the 28-mile Manhattan Island Sound three times. Each time, he wasn't wearing a wet suit.
In August, he'll be one of 15 international swimmers to compete in an invitation-only 21-mile swim across the Long Island Sound. At the last minute, he decided to forego this weekend's 4.4-mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim to focus on longer-distance swimming.
"Why does anyone do any kind of ultra-endurance athletics?" Olmos-Lau said. "Because of the challenge. Long-distance swimmers are a different breed of athlete."
Though Olmos-Lau racks up 40 miles per week swimming at the Montgomery Aquatic Center in Bethesda, Hains Point in the District and the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, he doesn't have the six-pack abs expected from a swimmer (think Olympic hopeful Michael Phelps). But Olmos-Lau, of Washington, is okay with his round belly. He says the extra weight keeps him warm when he hits the cold, open water. He has hit a lot of it.
Olmos-Lau, who came to the United States from Mexico in 1969 as a medical intern, decided to give up the safety of a chlorinated lap pool for the aquatic jungle of oceans, rivers and lakes purely by accident. In 1997, he was helping a friend train for a 12-mile swim in the Florida Keys when the friend got sick; Olmos-Lau swam it for him.
"It was a great sensation of achievement. I swam with world-class swimmers, and I was right there up with them," he said. "I felt like I could do this."
Though busy with a neurology practice in the District, during the winter of 1998 Olmos-Lau started preparing his body for cold, no-wet-suit swims. "I soaked in ice-filled bathtubs for 20 minutes every day and took ice-cold showers to get my body acclimated," he said.
With ice baths and 40 pounds added for insulation, he was ready the next summer for the Potomac River Swim and a 12.5-mile swim from Quebec to Vermont in icy Lake Menphremagog.
His wife, Nancy Thomas, "made him promise he wouldn't do the English Channel." But he found other swims to challenge his body and his mind. "In open water your mind is in a super-alert state," Olmos-Lau said. "It is strange for your body to be out there. You are always trying to concentrate. Is there a boat near you, is there a creature behind you?"
In the summer of 1999, the "creature behind him" was the decaying docks of Manhattan Island. "There are no dead people, no mattresses, no nothing; but you need to swim in between a boat and a kayak to protect you from pieces of wood and nails," Olmos-Lau said. He came in second in his age group at 7 hours 38 minutes and would go on to swim around Manhattan Island two more times (in 2000 and 2001).
That same summer, Olmos-Lau also swam a 15-mile course around Wye Island near St. Michaels on Maryland's Eastern Shore as well as a nocturnal swim in Catalina Channel. Though the stormy, moonless night was scary for Olmos-Lau, he finished the 21-mile swim in 12 1/2 hours.
"After Catalina," his wife recalled, "I told him, 'If you could do this, you might as well go for the glory [of the English Channel].' We figured, how much worse could it be?"
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Washington doctor Nick Olmos-Lau, 58, practices distance swimming in the Chesapeake Bay. He crossed the English Channel in July 2001, eventually swimming more than 30 miles because of tides.
(Photos Craig Herndon For The Washington Post)