Swimmer Goes the Distance, All Without a Wet Suit
So in August 2000, Olmos-Lau and his wife traveled to England for the biggest challenge of his swimming career. As of 2002, 7,000 people had attempted to cross the English Channel, but only 630 have crossed it 900 times over the past 125 years, according to statistics about the swim.
Olmos-Lau hired a pilot (or captain) and boat, a mate and a judge for his 21-mile swim from Dover, England, to Cap Gris-Nez, France. Despite careful planning, poor weather forced him to wait nearly four weeks. The sun came out during a spring tide, and Olmos-Lau, not understanding the complexities of the tides, decided to make his first try.
It was the wrong decision. Like a dam break, the spring tide brought 18 feet of water rushing into the Channel, pushing him 15 miles off course. Olmos-Lau had already been in the water for nine hours, and, only two-thirds of the way across, he knew he'd have to swim through the night. "I told my wife, 'I'm finished,' and right there sitting in the boat, she signed me up for the next year."
He was back in the English Channel the next summer. But after one hour in the water, Olmos-Lau was overcome by severe vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. He quit before it turned dangerous. Still, he would not be deterred. He stayed in England and continued to train. Two weeks later, in July 2001, he received a phone call from his pilot about a no-show swimmer. The boat was available the next day if Olmos-Lau wanted to try again.
"What they told me is to go from one feeding to the next, every half hour," Olmos-Lau said. During each feeding, he was given a cup of tea, sugar and complex carbohydrate powder from a long pole. If Olmos-Lau touched anything other than the pole and cup, he would be disqualified by the judge who was on the boat.
In between the feedings, he concentrated on his stroke and the water around him. "There were tremendous boats, so big and massive. They came so close that they had to put the boat in between me and the [ships'] wakes, which can actually snap your back." In addition, he had to make sure not to ingest the salty water polluted with oil and other contaminants.
Halfway across the channel, a videotape shows Olmos-Lau's spinning arms and sputtering legs suddenly freeze. "I saw a sea of jellyfish the size of umbrellas. They were at the bottom of the ocean, about 15 feet down. I just kept saying to myself, 'Stay down, stay down.' " With hundreds of tentacles swaying under him, he knew he would be killed if they rose to the surface.
For Olmos-Lau, the 21-mile swim turned into a 30.5-mile journey because of the tides; "not bad," he says, considering the average channel swimmer puts in 30 to 40 miles before hitting the beach in France.
"The last hour and a half was really nerve-wracking," he said. "The tide was pulling me out instead of in." In a show of solidarity, his daughter, Lisa, jumped in the water and swam the rest of the way with him.
When Olmos-Lau climbed onto the beach in Cap Gris-Nez, he had completed the swim in 13 hours 41 minutes. He plans to make the crossing again in 12 years, when he's 70.
© 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)