Marathon Swimming The Sport of the Soul: Inspiring Stories of Passion, Faith, and Grit

Marathon Swimming The Sport of the Soul: Inspiring Stories of Passion, Faith, and Grit

by Paul Andrew Asmuth


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When the plans and dreams of a young swimmer are shattered by the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, God opens the door of new opportunities. For Paul Asmuth, then 22, it is the end of an unfulfilled dream, and the beginning of another journey, this one remarkable and life-changing. Plunging into the astounding, grueling, hypnotic, and often oddly beautiful world of international marathon swimming competitions, Asmuth experiences both triumph and tragedy, and, in a process as long and punishing as the marathon swims themselves, slowly discovers the best of himself. If you care for resumes, Asmuth is one of the most successful marathon swimmers in history. In the sapphire seas off Italy, in the frigid lakes of Quebec, Canada, in the marshy back bays of New Jersey, in the questionable waters ringing Manhattan, swimming distances from twenty to forty miles, Asmuth emerged victorious, often to thunderous acclaim. After multiple victories at the twenty-six-mile swim across Quebec’s Lac Memphremagog, up to 20,000 spectators would cheer and call him “le roi” (the king) of their lake. But true victory is not a matter of accolades or medals, and the stories that make a real difference unfold behind the headlines. Overcoming self-doubt, nausea, hypothermia, cruel tides and dark, watery shadows both real and imagined, Asmuth calls upon passion, iron-clad resolve, and steadfast faith to emerge a changed man, attaining success in its truest and most honest form. This success does not end when Asmuth retires from competing. Coming full circle, when he hangs up his swim suit, Paul takes the knowledge, lessons and examples he learned from his own experiences and some of the world’s greatest coaches, and turns to helping others with their swimming dreams. His prayers to give back are answered by coaching opportunities at multiple World Championships and two Olympic Games, where marathon swimming is now a contested event. But this is not just the tale of a swimmer. Like any great story, Paul’s transcends sport. By listening to the voice of faith and not of fear, new dreams are born, and God’s plans are revealed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595557742
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 01/08/2019
Pages: 246
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.61(d)

About the Author

Paul Andrew Asmuth is a marathon swimmer who won seven World Championship titles during the 1980s. He was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 1982 and the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2010. He set many world records around the world and later advised and coached the USA Open Water National Team at numerous World Championships and two Olympic Games. Paul resides in St. Helena with his wife Marilyn, along with their dog and six chickens.

Read an Excerpt


La Traversee Internationale du Lac St. Jean


"You Saved my Life"

The late July day was cold and grey, with rain falling most of the swim. Winds created white caps on the coffee-colored lake waters like a field of sheep, a condition the Quebecois refer to as "mouton." Frigid and rough waters make for a very long slog in a marathon swim. Breathing to my right I looked at my brother and guide in the small 12-foot boat, providing me direction, coaching, and nourishment over the 21 miles (32 kilometers), and knew he was cold, too, as we sloshed across Lac St. Jean.

We woke up at 3 a.m., leaving Roberval at 4:30 a.m., and the bus pulled into the small village of Peribonka at around 6 a.m., to a rowdy greeting from crowds of fans who were huddled around bonfires to stay warm. Most had partied all night and were eager to cheer the swimmers as we exited the bus. "Bonne chance (good luck)," they yelled, knowing many on this day would not succeed. Unlike those of us who did not live here, they knew that the ice had cleared the river and lake only two months previous, and the crowd was excited to see who would be able to meet the challenge that this day brought, and who would not.

The race started at 7 a.m. in the Peribonka Marina, near where the Peribonka River spills into the lake. The annual 32-kilometer La Traversée Internationale du Lac St. Jean (the International Crossing of Lake St. John) from Peribonka to Roberval is the most prestigious marathon swimming race in the world, and the most challenging. Cold water, river currents, choppy lake, and water so dark you can barely see your hands as they pull beneath your body, demand mental focus and determination to succeed. Many swimmers have challenged the lake and some years few have finished. She exposes the strengths and weaknesses in the athletes who attempt to cross her. Many swimmers have given one or two valiant but failed attempts, or avoided confronting her at all.

On this race morning there were twenty-one swimmers starting the race, representing seven countries. Some had many years of experience and others, including me, had completed very few marathon swimming races, as I had started the sport the previous summer. We huddled in a small room at the boat marina to stay warm while race officials, coaches, boat guides, celebrities, politicians, and the media rushed around outside, preparing for our introductions and the race start. Organized chaos.

As each of us was called out for our introductions, we were hit with the icy wind and light rain that quickly reminded us that the lake was going to be a tough challenge today. The crowds of people, now in the thousands, lined the boat docks and riverbanks, cheering enthusiastically as each of us were introduced. As they called my name, "'Paul Asmuth' (pronounced As-moot by the Quebecois) des Etats-Unis (from the United States)," and I waved to the crowds, I felt a deep dread about what was ahead of me.

This was my brother John's first marathon swimming race as a coach in the boat. He had tremendous experience coaching on the pool deck, and was an assistant coach of the Auburn University swim team. If he was nervous I couldn't tell, I had enough nerves for both of us. He began preparing my skin for the day ahead by rubbing anhydrous lanolin on areas of my body that could chafe during the swim — under my arms, around my neck, and groin areas. Lanolin is derived from sheep's wool and serves to protect their wool and skin from the environment. For swimmers it is a great lubricant, but does nothing to protect a swimmer from the cold. On this morning, some swimmers completely covered their bodies with the white, sticky substance, hoping this would keep them warmer and help them finish the crossing. Lanolin would not be their savior.

John and I prayed before he left to get into our boat, asking God to watch over us and to help me to swim to the best of my abilities, not knowing how important these prayers would become later this day. Having won the Lac St. Jean race the prior year, we were confident in my chances for success, and also aware that the chilly air and water conditions were very different from the year before. Water this cold was far from ideal for a boy who grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida and spent the last five years training in the warm sun of either Mission Viejo, California, or Arizona State University. Neither place is known for great cold-water training conditions in June and July.

It was time for all of the swimmers to leave the ready room and walk out on the docks in just our suits, caps, and goggles. The wind and rain continued to remind us of what the day would be like. The crowds cheered even louder as we walked out and, when we reached the dock end, jumped into the water. Burning cold immediately hit my face like millions of little needles pricking my skin, taking my breath away. I tried to relax and breathe, hoping that the race would quickly start so that I could begin generating the heat that my shivering body needed.

The swimmers lined up holding a small rope and then heard the countdown: "Dix, neuf, huit, sept, six, cinq, quatre, trois, deux, un, BANG" The starters gun sounded. With impressive arm-and-leg splashing to get our momentum started, we began swimming 400 meters upriver against the current and away from the lake. With our swimming speed slowed by the 1 mph opposing current, the crowds were able to watch us for a good length of time at the race start. The water was so cold that I had an immediate sinus-area headache of solid pain, which through experience meant the water was near 60 degrees or slightly below. I had never completed a marathon distance in water this cold.

To avoid the starting fray, I moved to the front of the pack by swimming along the outside of the thrashing arms and legs. This part of the course was a simple, straight out-and-back line marked by 20-foot-long brown logs with smooth trunks, 2 feet in diameter, which were linked together with industrial strength steel chains. There were two sets of logs, one on the course perimeter to keep boats out of this area and the swimmers safe, and the other line of logs to mark the interior swimming course.

As we swam alongside the logs, the waves created by our swimming moved them back and forth, and I could hear the chains clanging together underwater, along with the sound of dozens of motorboat propellers as they maneuvered for position. With each breath I could see the thousands of people cheering for us along the shoreline, but not hear their voices. However, their enthusiasm for the race traditions and admiration of the swimmers are always palpable to me, and I could feel their love as they watched us attempt to cross a formidable lake. Just like the logs, we were all linked together in trying to accomplish an unbelievable feat — the swimmers, the coaches, the fans, the media, and the race organizers.

After swimming upriver for about 10 minutes, we turned and headed back toward the start line. Now we were swimming with the current and the shoreline was passing very "quickly" for a swimmer. Passing the start line area, the log-lined course stopped and we entered the open river. Ahead of us all we could see is a river filled with boats. There are security, guide, and pleasure boats, along with a few kayaks. At this point of the race, the most important thing I needed to do was find my brother and guide boat. Open water swimming has no swimming lane ropes in the lakes and rivers to help with direction, and each swimmer is completely reliant on their coach to guide them and keep them safe from other boats and floating vagrant timber logs. These large pieces of wood are left over from the lumbermen using the rivers to move their wood to the mills (the rivers in Quebec are no longer used for this purpose and timber is trucked to the mills). The sooner I could get next to my boat the straighter my course would be. My view was blocked by boats, making navigation fairly impossible.

This part of every marathon swimming race is the most dangerous for the swimmers, while their individual guide boats are maneuvering to come alongside their swimmer, and the swimmers are having a hard time seeing where to go. The small guide boats each have an outboard motor with a propeller safety cover. When all of the competitors are tightly bunched in a pack at the race beginning, the guide boats tend to bump into each other like bumper cars at the fair, and tempers can be short with everyone on heightened edge, jockeying for their swimmer's best position.

After a short while, I was able to find John and settle into a relaxed rhythm of about 80 strokes per minute. With the rough, frigid water, I kept my pace a little slower than a predictable race start, knowing that I would need more energy than normal to cross the lake.

The pace was pretty slow and I felt comfortable as we swam the 3 miles downriver to the lake. After 30 minutes I moved closer to the boat and reached up for two quick cups of fuel to "feed." The warm drinks swishing through my mouth felt good against the cold water. The drinks included glucose as the energy source, mixed with either an orange-flavored electrolyte fluid or a high-caffeine black tea, called Morning Thunder, which was about the same color as the lake.

As we approached the river mouth, James Kegley, a NCAA All-American swimmer from Indiana University and an intimidating competitor, began to increase his swimming pace and moved into the lead. James was taller with bigger muscles than me, with a wonderful laugh and smile that would light up the girls' hearts. James and I both started in marathon swimming the year before and had already raced each other several times. He was the swimmer who I was most concerned with and his move to the front of the pack could not be ignored. Letting go of my race strategy, I increased my pace to catch up to James and kept a higher stroke rate of about 84 strokes per minute. Still comfortable, but definitely using more energy. The benefit of working harder was my body was generating more heat from a higher heart rate and muscle exertion; my headache was gone and I was a little more comfortable in the cold. The negative of swimming faster was using more energy earlier in the crossing. Still 18 miles to go.

With more speed I caught up and passed James, and then kept up this pace, only slowing to feed every 20 minutes. John kept me informed on the dry erase board about my stroke rate, location of other swimmers, time until we fed again, trivia, jokes, and words of encouragement to keep my spirits up. I let him know before the race not to ask how I was feeling or tell me how far to the finish. In swimming races this long I was usually very cold, tired, hurting, or nauseous and didn't want someone asking how I was feeling. Telling me how far to the finish could be encouraging or discouraging and I only wanted to focus on the next 20 minutes, nothing more.

Marathon swimming races are typically more than 7 hours and 20-plus miles. Thinking that I have 1 mile down and only 20 miles to go can be very discouraging. I found that by focusing only on the next 20 minutes, time passed very quickly and I would lose track of how many hours I had been moving. Years after retiring from swimming, a close friend, Terry, experienced a serious stroke. He chose to receive a week of very demanding physical therapy and wasn't confident he could exercise for 8 hours a day all week. I encouraged him by sharing that he didn't need to exercise for 8 hours a day, only 20 minutes at a time. And then after the first 20 minutes, have some water, take a breather, and then exercise for another 20 minutes. It was a physically and mentally challenging week for him and he pushed through very well, just 20 minutes at a time.

Now we are more than two hours into the swim and well out into the big lake with many miles ahead of us. John tells me I have a lead of 200 meters over Kegley. Lac St. Jean is large with over 400 square miles of surface, and is fairly shallow, located about 150 miles north of Quebec City. The lake is fed by dozens of small and large rivers, including the Peribonka, Mistassini, and Ashuapmushuan Rivers, before draining into the Saguenay River, and ultimately the Saint Lawrence River. The lake completely freezes in winter and the ice is so thick the community of Roberval sets up a small village of houses for ice fishing, along with a hockey rink and ice-skating track; the final ice usually clears the lake in late spring.

With so many rivers feeding into the lake, there is little time for water to warm as it is constantly on the move and quickly travels to the exit point on the Saguenay. The relatively shallow depths often turn a calm lake into a frothy mess very quickly when any wind is present. In addition, during the crossing there are many pleasure and safety boats that want to be as close as possible to the action of the swimmers, creating even more and uneven water turbulence. Depending on wind direction, motor fumes wafting across the water surface can create breathing difficulties for the swimmers.

Between the waves and tannin-colored water, I can see nothing around me when I breathe, except my brother in the small guide boat. He is my lifeline to all that I know in this moment. I breathe, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, breathe, trying to remain calm and in a somewhat meditative state. With my senses of seeing, hearing, touching, and tasting shut down, I am aware of my surroundings while feeling nothing at the same time. There is just my soul now, everything within me is quiet, and I am in a battle for my life, yet unaware of the danger to come.

The Peribonka River water is usually 2 to 4 degrees colder than the lake water, and I was looking forward to the water temperature rising some. On this day, with no sun and the wind churning the deeper, colder water together with the warmer upper layers, the water remains cold, and despite my energy output, I begin to shiver after only 3 hours. A sign that my body is in the early stage of hypothermia. Muscle shivering is a natural defense of the body trying to warm up as the core temperature drops. With 5 hours to go this is not a good sign. John tells me I am about 300 to 400 meters in the lead, which is positive news.

The wind and rain continue, and John has a harder time writing messages on the dry erase board and eventually has to give up. There is no more "dry" available today. John then has to start communicating with me using hand signals and quick verbal messages during our 20-minute feed breaks. Holding out both hands, fingers spread wide to indicate "10 minutes to feeding," then one hand with fingers splayed "5 minutes to feeding," I see his lips moving but hear no sound.

As we proceed farther from the north shore of Lac St. Jean and enter the center of the lake, we can see no shore, only angry brown water foaming with white caps and cloudy grey skies dumping rain. John relies on our expert boat guide to know the course and direction using his compass and transistor radio. The radio is used to follow the strongest AM frequency signal coming from Roberval and is a reliable navigational tool.

For many years, most of the boat guides have been First Nation descendants who have grown up on the lake in a reserve referred to as Pointe-Bleue (the reserve is now known as Mashteuiatsh, meaning "where there is a point"). Their experience and knowledge of the river currents, race course, and weather are invaluable to the swimmers and coaches.

My body continues to shiver and the goose bumps on my shaved legs are like sandpaper on my skin as my legs rub together, creating a grapefruit-sized road rash on the back of my left calf. I look forward to each feeding of warm liquid and keep pressing forward against the most extreme swimming conditions I have ever encountered.

A regret often propels new determination. My poor result in the previous summer when I competed in Les Quatorze Milles de Paspebiac (the 14 miles of Paspebiac), a marathon swimming race on the eastern coast of Quebec from Grand Anse, New Brunswick, to Paspebiac, Quebec, across the Baie-des-Chaleurs (Bay of Warmth) fueled a new attitude for me today. The bay's name must be an oxymoron, as there is nothing warm about this open water race location. The water on race day was rough and cold with fog blowing across the water so thick you could only see about 200 meters (600 feet). The guide boats were big fishing trawlers to handle the tough sea conditions of open ocean.

As the story of naming the bay is told, when Ponce de Leon was exploring this coastal area, he spent time around the mouth of the St. Lawrence River where the summer water temperatures are 45 degrees. When they headed south around the Gaspésie Peninsula and entered the Baie-des-Chaleurs, the waters were a balmy 55 degrees, so they called this the Bay of Warmth. Ha! I doubt they were swimming in the water more than 5 minutes.


Excerpted from "Marathon Swimming The Sport of the Soul"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Paul Andrew Asmuth.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword xi

Preface xiii

La Traversee Internationale du Lac St. Jean - 1981 1

Coach Virginia Duenkel 15

Around the Island Swim - 1980 23

Coach Gregg Troy 45

Egypt - 1980 53

Coach Mark Schubert 65

La Traversee du Lac Memphremagog - 1982 75

Coach Ron "the Rock" Johnson 89

Capri-Napoli - 1982 99

Coach Charles "Red" Silvia 115

The English Channel - 1985 121

The Double Crossing - 1985 and 1989 139

A Tough Summer - 1990 159

The Fiftieth Anniversary Race - 2004 175

Enduring Friendships - 2006-2012 191

Alex's Magnum Opus - 2016 205

God's Guiding Hand - Forever 213

Acknowledgements 219

Appendix 225

About the Author 227

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