Getting Uncomfortable To Be Happy: Training For 24 hours To Swim Across The English Channel
One of the most remarkable ocean training swims in terms of difficulty, creativity, teamwork and strategy was completed by 62-year-old Antonio Argüelles of Mexico City who flew to La Jolla, California for a 24-hour ocean workout.
Anna Portella of La Lista, a Spanish-language publication in Mexico City, flew with Argüelles to cover the swim along with photographer and videographer María Paula. This is their story, translated from the original Spanish (Incomodarse para ser feliz: 24 horas entrenando para cruzar el Canal de la Mancha):
Getting Uncomfortable To Be Happy: Training For 24 hours To Swim Across The English Channel
If, at age 62, he manages to swim from England to France and back next July, the athlete Antonio Argüelles will break a Guinness World Record.
If he manages to swim back and forth from England to France next July, he will remember the 15 kilometers he swam last year in a 25-meter-long pool, about 600 laps. “How boring that is. Anything that happens to me today is going to be much easier,” declared the first Mexican and seventh person in the world to complete the Oceans Seven, Antonio Argüelles.
It is May 12th, past ten in the morning. Toño, as his friends call him, is sitting in an armchair in his hotel room, about to start his warm-up. In less than an hour he will go into the sea to start a training session that will end at seven in the morning the next day.
It will be the last big training session before, in two months’ time, the Mexico City resident travels to Dover, in the UK, to swim across the English Channel and back. If he succeeds at 62, he will break a Guinness World Record—already his second.
That 15-kilometer swim in the pool was one of his last efforts to avoid what in 2020 was inevitable for the world: postponement. He wanted to see whether, despite not being able to travel to the coast to train, he could still get ready to face the challenge in September. In the end, he rescheduled for July 2021. At that time, Argüelles—and the world—could not have known that today he would already be able to fly to Europe after being vaccinated.
Swim 1: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The English Channel separates England from France. This open water swim of approximately 33 kilometers is one of the crossings that comprise the Oceans Seven. If this challenge is considered the aquatic version of the Seven Summits, then the English Channel is the equivalent of Mount Everest. Argüelles completed this swim in 2017. Back then, he was 58 years old, 20 years above the average age of those who have achieved this feat.
His coaches assure that he was another person at the time. Now, he lies on the carpet of the hotel room and, as he does a plank, the shadows of his biceps and triceps appear on his arms. “I don’t have a six-pack, but I have muscles exactly where I need them,” he says in his deep voice, as if it came from the depths of the ocean.
He is 5’8’’, weighs 207 pounds, and has a wide back after spending hours and hours in the sea. His hair is curly and black, with a few grey hairs above his forehead and in his half-centimeter beard. His smile is wide and with slanted eyes, although in the days before the big final training session, he reserved it for worthy moments. The lines on his forehead and around his eyes give him a thoughtful expression. He is visualizing everything that is about to happen in the next few hours. Those who do not know him might think he is angry or worried.
About 200 meters separate the room from the sand. The day is bright despite the fact that a blanket of grayish clouds has settled over that corner of the sea in La Jolla, a district of the city of San Diego, California. The Cove is the name of the beach.
Argüelles trains on that side of the Pacific twice a month. On this occasion, he and his team settled in the elite La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club hotel. They went there to simulate the English Channel crossing for 24 hours, alternating swimming and resting every four hours. Those intervals, explain his coaches—the architects of this unprecedented plan—are enough to generate the adaptation capacity that is necessary to swim from England to France and back.
Swim 2: 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Toño set himself this challenge in the year off he took after completing the Oceans Seven. Throughout these years, the preparation has been physical, mental, and strategic.
The route of the crossing is S-shaped, so that Toño can swim following the currents of the Atlantic. “The sea comes and goes approximately every six hours. If you reach a certain point before [that time], the tide may not yet have turned, and you may have to hold. And that wears out a lot,” explains Rafael Álvarez, one of his coaches. He knows the behavior of the sea well. This slender, gray-bearded technician was born in front of it 55 years ago, in Montevideo, and was a lifeguard for a decade.
At seven in the evening, the second four-hour swim begins. At that time, bottles of wine become more and more frequent on the tables of La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, where guests sit and enjoy views of the horizon. There is still light, and the occasional kayaker or surfer can be spotted in the sea, wearing a wetsuit. Toño gets into the water armed only with his goggles and the yellow inflatable safety buoy tied to his pink swimsuit.
Water temperature is a key element in open water swimming. Argüelles likes to joke around when people are shocked to learn that he swims in 64-degree waters at the most. “It’s hot!”, he says, with a smile that reveals his desire to see how they react.
That is why every month he travels to California to train, to acclimatize. To do this, you need to feel this water that cuts your breath the moment it touches your body and leaves the skin red after getting out, but you also need to do mental exercises.
The mind helps you warm up, ease the pain, and not get bored. At times when ordinary athletes would have to clench their teeth to endure the effort, Toño is able to imagine a pearl of colors in his abdomen. He moves the pearl towards the areas of his body that have become sore after so many hours of swimming.
Swim 3: 3 a.m. to 7 a.m.
This is his hallmark. His determination is so great that it makes you want to jump into the water and know what it feels like to float without feeling your feet or arms due to the cold. Some say that this is where the human being is most similar to an animal, without being able to stand, or see from afar, or hear clear sounds, or speak to anyone.
For Toño, the sea “is his life,” says Álvarez, the first person Argüelles sees when he gets up at five in the morning. “It is his way of communicating with himself.” For this reason, the quarantine during 2020 was a hard blow for him. The hardest, assures the technician.
“I almost stopped swimming,” confesses the athlete, remembering the stress of those uncertain days in April and May 2020. The pandemic hit him in all aspects of his life, and, moreover, he could not travel to California to train. His coach made him rest for a month, slow down. “I relaxed, made some personal decisions, and started over.”
The third swim started at three in the morning. Argüelles assures that he is good at sleeping, even for three hours. Rafa, as he calls his coach, is the only one accompanying him until the water covers their feet. In a low voice, less than an arm’s length away, he goes over the plan with his athlete one last time: “Ten minutes of R3 and then you repeat, R4, R2,” he says, referring to swimming speeds, as the waves break on the shore and obscure his words in the dark.
Argüelles faced the swim calmly, because he says that “if you are nervous, it is because you doubt.” The only doubt he had, the one concern, was the physical pain and fatigue at that time of the night. “You may swallow salt water, be sleepy, and those things make you wonder if you can keep swimming,” he had explained the day before.
Discomfort is part of the challenge. And challenges are what Antonio has sought all his life to make it fun. It is his way of living it. The first challenge was his quest to become an Olympic swimmer after witnessing with great excitement Felipe “el Tibio” Muñoz’s gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke in 1968.
Another one was becoming Undersecretary of the Trade Ministry at age 30, in the midst of NAFTA negotiations with the United States. Managing his pharmaceutical import company and his educational policy consultancy firm is yet another, current challenge. This trajectory has given him the means to finance his swims. “I’m a great implementer,” he says.
But if Argüelles is well-known today, it is, above all, for his achievements in the open waters. He is one of the most respected athletes in the discipline. On one occasion, training in San Francisco, he had to stop in the middle of the sea to take a photo with a swimmer who passed and recognized him. “Winning awards has given me a voice,” he admits. “Power is fabulous; it gives you the ability to make impactful changes.”
But he is not in a hurry, because, as he says, “challenges are ageless.” If they weren’t, his diet would be more professional, sportingly speaking. “Learn it by heart: two Coronas with two tequilas, a bottle of wine, and two whiskeys,” he says, smiling, in relation to what he drinks in a day. “And I smoke cigars!”, he adds. His coaches gave up from day one, because there are certain pleasures that Toño is not willing to give up.
But swimming, more than pleasure, gives him satisfaction. “The happiest moment is when you get out of the water and you’re done,” he confesses several hours after completing the training session. He can lift his arms without pain, which, according to his coaches, proves that he will face the English Channel with excellent physical fitness.
Now he is already thinking about what’s coming. He has decided that his next challenge will be the Oceans Seven, this time completing each swim back and forth. He sees himself swimming until he turns 80. “He needs the waves to live,” says Rafael Álvarez. “If there are no waves, don’t worry; he will create them.”
In retrospective, the coach believes that the training sessions in the pool back in May 2020 were critical. He was the one who told him that if they couldn’t resist that effort in fresh water, they would not be able to complete the challenge in salt water. “I promised him that when we are 15 kilometers away from the English shore, I will tell him: ‘remember the pool,’” he says. “And it will happen.”
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