Had there been some concern for the human gastric condition, last week's $50,000 Pepsi Challenge marathon swim would have been held almost anywhere other than Lake Ontario, whose churning waters consigned countless breakfasts to the deep. A 50-meter pool, for instance, would have been a great improvement even if the 31.55-mile distance would have meant swimming more than 1,000 laps. For in the longest professional marathon swim this season, distance was less daunting than dyspepsia.
Before the race ended, the nine determined entrants, who swam on a northwest heading from just outside Niagara Falls to Toronto also had to endure guide boats being blown off course in the dead of night, cruisers that cruised too fast and a midmorning squall. But worst of all was the chop. From a glassy surface in the predawn darkness of the start, Lake Ontario became whitecapped after daybreak. So at the finish, after a lightning-laced thunderstorm had raised seven-foot swells and peppered the swimmers with hail, it was entirely fitting that the $25,000 first prize was won by John Kinsella, 25, of the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, Ill. who certainly has no stomach for giving up.
A gold medalist in the 800-meter freestyle relay in the 1972 Olympics, Kinsella won in 13 hours, 49 minutes, thereby slashing an hour and 21 minutes off the old Lake Ontario crossing record set by Canada's Cindy Nicholas in a solo swim in 1974. Claudio Plit of Argentina was second, 72 minutes and almost two miles back.
Kinsella's victory, in what he called "the toughest thing I've ever attempted," was his sixth in six marathon swims this year and his 21st in the two dozen distance races he has entered since he took up the sport in 1974. It also increased his swimming earnings for 1978 to $43,000, which may make the 6'4", 215-pound Indiana alum the top money swimmer since Esther Williams.
August 27, 1978
"If the price was right," said a fellow competitor, "John would swim the New York City sewer system."
"When I think about what he's trying," Bob Silver, a newsman who was Kinsella's teammate at Indiana, said before the race, "it boggles my mind. A marathon run is no comparison. There's no change of scenery in swimming and, if you stop, there's nothing beneath you but 1,000 feet of water."
Stopping has never been Kinsella's specialty. At Indiana, where he became the first swimmer to break 16 minutes in the 1,500, he was nicknamed the Machine for his remarkable endurance. Kinsella credits his ability to withstand fatigue to Don Watson, his high school coach under whom he still trains, and Indiana Coach Doc Counsilman. "John doesn't like to rest," says his fiancèe, Kathy Kalber. "Unless he asks a question, he doesn't interrupt his pace, and once he gets started, he doesn't like to take breaks."
"They gave me a real background in physical conditioning," Kinsella says, "so I'm able to take the brutality of the swim and push it on and on. I think the real key to being successful in marathon swimming is mental discipline, the ability to be convinced you're going to finish when you go in. Getting in the boat is not an option."
Depending on whom you listened to—the marine radio messages were often confusing—Kinsella led the race almost from the moment it started off Niagaraon-the-Lake, a tiny resort town west of Niagara Falls. The swimmers left at 2 a.m. Wednesday, shortly after Kinsella and Bill Heiss, another former Hoosier, had wolfed down some peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and just before the six men and three women contestants had finished coating themselves with Vaseline, lanolin and axle grease.
Watson and Kathy Kalber were in the small Zodiac inflatable dinghy attending him. Their lead boat, taking its heading from a Canadian naval vessel, was a cruiser named My Fair Lady, whose slowest speed was twice as fast as the Zodiacs were going.
"When they got a certain distance ahead," Watson said later, "we would signal them to do a full turn, and come back and pick us up again. That was the procedure we used all night."
During the cruiser's circling, Watson guided on a star, but at one point, when My Fair Lady went into an unannounced turn, Watson tried to follow, leaving Kinsella in the blackness. "I looked up and there was no boat," he said later, "and I started screaming frantically, 'Don, Don, where are you? What are you doing to me?' "
But until the storm broke, 90 minutes from the finish, Kinsella's worst moment came at midmorning when he was 12 miles into the race. That's when some spaghetti sauce from his dinner the night before made him violently ill. "I think I must have had food poisoning," he said, "because I was swimming well for quite a period of time, and then I got sick and vomited."
Kinsella's queasiness abated, but it prevented him from taking his midlake feedings of Nutrament with a raw egg, washed down with Gatorade and glucose. At 1:05 p.m. Race Control announced that Kinsella was three miles from the finish and at 1:30 p.m. that he was two miles or less "and sprinting." Neither report was entirely accurate, but no one expected it would take Kinsella more than two hours to finish.
When he was within sight of the waterfront breakwater, he encountered an adverse current and couldn't make any headway. "I think we spent an hour without moving once we came to that point," Watson said.
"I must have asked him 100 times, 'How much farther? How much farther?' " said Kinsella. "I was getting mighty sick of the water and the washing-machine effect."
Then the storm broke and whipped the lake to new fury. The wind blew Kinsella 400 yards off course, and a downpour obliterated his vision. At one point it got so bad that Watson, not realizing it would have meant disqualification, threw Kinsella a rope, yelling, "Hang on to this!" Kinsella knew better, however, and continued to swim unaided.
Finally the storm passed. Kinsella swam the dogleg turn through the breakwater and headed toward the finishing dock as the sun broke out. Nine minutes later, it was all over. Kinsella touched the dock, rolled over, smiled, stood up, waved to the crowd and hung his tongue out like an exhausted St. Bernard.
Under the rules of marathon swimming, the rest of the field had three hours to finish once Kinsella touched the dock. Along with the 23-year-old Plit, three others completed the entire distance. In order, they were Plit's brother-in-law, Raul Villagomez of Mexico (15:09), Magdy Mandour of Egypt (15:19) and Heiss (15:57), who finished as the storm's aftermath sent eight-foot waves crashing over the breakwater.
Why would anyone want to subject himself to the sustained agony of a marathon swim? "I get a lot of satisfaction out of being in good physical condition," Kinsella said, "but the most gratifying thing is that last 100 meters, when you know you're going to make it. You know you've surmounted the challenge and you're going to finish. You've got that dock ahead of you, and you touch it and feel your whole body relax. You can stand on solid ground."
A lot of folks in Toronto knew exactly what Kinsella meant.