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Local swimming: Testing the waters

Local swimmers look to make history in relay to Catalina

Posted: July 16, 2010 9:36 p.m.
Updated: July 17, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Local swimmers Mike Vovk, David Hartmire and Chris Dahowski will attempt to become part of the first relay team to successfully swim to Santa Catalina Island and back.

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What started as a casual but far-fetched idea between friends in the Santa Clarita Triathlon Club has now become something more.

It could be a first in open-water swimming history.

Never has there been a set of four consecutive channel crossings anywhere in the world, but the trio of Chris Dahowski of Valencia, Mike Vovk of Castaic and David Hartmire of Newhall will team with 25-year-old Cal State Fullerton graduate student Jen Schumacher to take on the test of team endurance.

The group will try to complete four consecutive trips to and from the mainland of California to Santa Catalina Island this October.

The trio bandied the idea for months within the club before Dahowski made it a reality.

“We were kicking around the idea for about a year,” Vovk says. “We thought of maybe an individual crossing, but Chris brought up something that’s never been done before and it’s snowballed from there.”

Dahowski, whom the team openly acknowledges as its captain, was inspired by being excluded from another Catalina relay group, albeit on a much smaller scale.

“About two years ago, at the gym, there was a group of triathletes there that I know, talking about doing a relay to Catalina, doing three miles each,” Dahowski says. “I asked to be involved and they said no. From that moment on, it’s been in my mind to swim the whole thing by myself.”

Dahowski will swim the channel on his own, but as the anchor of the four-person team. Hartmire will begin the first leg from Long Beach to Catalina, and then Vovk will return to the mainland on the second leg. Schumacher will then head back to Catalina before Dahowski brings the relay home.

According to swimcatalina.org, the website of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, there have been 207 successful individual trips and 65 successful one-way relay trips over the channel through 2009.

“I talked to other open-water swimmers and people have talked about it, and the realities of it are that 15 percent of people who attempt to swim the channel fail,” Dahowski says. “We’re compounding that by four. The logistics really throw people off and that’s why people haven’t tried it.”

The logistics are just one of the potential hazards of the relay. Each trip could take anywhere from nine to 13 hours and could end at many different points along the coast of both Catalina and the mainland.

The group expects the entire relay to last somewhere around 48 hours, but with so many variables, including weather, ocean currents and other conditions, planning has become difficult.

“I don’t know where I’m going to finish,” Hartmire says. “There are no lanes in the open ocean. Wherever I hit land, that’s where I’m going to go. I’m not waiting for a nice marina.”

The swimmers won’t be alone on the journey, however. They will be aided by a support group in a boat and several kayaks to help keep them hydrated and nourished.

The voyage is also part of a fundraising effort to benefit Jay Nolan Community Services, an organization that helps individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities.

“(JNCS) doesn’t just say ‘Hey, you have autism, this is your life,’” Vovk says. “They make them productive members of society. They don’t put them in a box and that’s what attracts me to them.”

Training for ocean swimming will also be an obstacle for the group, which, besides Schumacher, has little to no experience at the distance planned. The three men are all experienced in endurance athletics, however, including multiple Iron Man races.

“Endurance athletics are completely mental,” says Vovk. “No matter how fit you are, your body will get to the point where it tells you to stop. That’s the great thing, overcoming that. You learn a hell of a lot about yourself.”

The group is training six times a week, mostly in pools. But that doesn’t compare to ocean swimming.

“We need to swim in the ocean,” Dahowski says. “We can put hours and hours in the pool, but it’s about being in the ocean and understanding it.”

The team began ocean training in June, where it learned of another obstacle it had to overcome: the fear of the unknown.
Because a large amount of the time in the water will be taking place at night, the crew had its first evening prep swim on June 22.

Needless to say, it did not go off without a hitch.

Adorned with an array of glow sticks attached to various portions of their bodies — which would serve as their only identifiers to the other members of the group — the trio of Dahowski, Vovk and Hartmire turned to the black expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

The group was nervous at first, so much so that Vovk had a portion of his vocabulary barred from any conversation.

“I’m not allowed to say the S-word, because I’ve brought it up way too much,” Vovk says of the sharks that are among the marine life in the area. “But with the glow sticks on, I couldn’t help but think we looked like lures.”

Despite so much in the back of their minds, the group moved forward past the first wave break.

That’s when things got a little out of control.

“Slippery things hit you out there and the three of us were out there in the middle of the night, petrified,” Vovk says. “It’s the classic comedy act where we’re all saying, ‘What was that, what was that?’”

After the wave break, Dahowski simply said, “I’m out” and sped back to the shore.

“It’s strange and in a way kind of silly,” Dahowski says. “We broke through the first wave and I hit a slimy object. Then we didn’t see it again. It jittered me a bit at first, then Mike felt it later. Then I felt it again, across my arm this time. I had enough at that moment.”

The two followed Dahowski out of the surf to stand on the beach.

Three middle-aged men, with speedos and glow sticks as their only attire, were trying to talk themselves back into the water.

The conversation lasted about five minutes and all three agreed to give it another shot.

“We thought, if we can’t get over this, we’re going to disappoint a lot of people (in October),” Vovk says.

So the team forged on and returned to the water, eventually having a successful swim that went more than seven miles.

Although the first night swim was a big hurdle for the team, the experience is indicative of the main theme of the event: overcoming obstacles.

Whether they are the developmentally disabled people that JNCS helps, or the swimmers taking on the challenge, life is full of obstacles that you’ll either overcome or you won’t.

“Our reasons for doing this is the charity,” Dahowski says. “I have a very good friend with Down syndrome and the struggles they deal with every day are things we can’t even understand. As a team, we’ve taken on this monumental challenge for them. There will be personal goals there, but when I’m confronting those challenges, I’ll look to them for my inspiration.”

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