Saving Steve Sutton: How Open Water can Change a Life

Saving Steve Sutton: How Open Water can Change a Life

Steve Sutton recalls his youth and middle-aged life, “I grew up in Southern California beach community and joined the neighborhood kids on a community swim team. Growing up in the water with motivating coaches and teammates swimming, surfing, and playing water polo has shaped my life.  After almost a decade living in Washington D.C., I returned to California and picked up my aquatic activities a bit older, heavier, and winded than I had left. Increasing responsibilities with career, planes, hotels, and family pulled against the vision of the toned and bronzed waterman I held out for myself.

Fast forward a few years of masters swimming, a renewed life, and teenage sons, I began swimming regularly in the ocean for peace and exercise.  I then began swimming in open water events for the prize of completion – a t-shirt. One evening, comfortably situated on my warm dry couch, I was engaging in my January ritual of signing up for events for the next year – I am most capable of anything on that couch.

During this process, I came across the WOWSA Open Water Summit in Redondo Beach, California October 5th and 6th in 2019.  I was thrilled to discover that there was a global organization with swims and swimmers, training, events, and so many people that love swimming to and from places that others photograph and more t-shirts.  I signed up and brought my oldest son who had recently become an avid open water swimmer.    

I attended as many talks as possible and tried to talk to as many experts as possible during the breaks and meals.  That wasn’t too hard as most of the attendees were more experienced than I could imagine. I was very humbled.

Perhaps it was all building up – but one speaker seemed to light my internal fire.  His presentation on goal setting, listening to stories of channel crossings, Cork Distance Week, Anacapa, Catalina, S.C.A.R., Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, etc. Very inspirational! I wanted to jump up and shout LET’S DO THIS.

Back to point, my takeaways were: everyone has dreams but very few achieve them. You commit by signing up, paying the deposit/fee, telling people, and training.  Die with memories, not just unfulfilled dreams. So that night…back to the couch of bravado, confidence and dreams…I joined the English Channel, Santa Barbara Channel and Catalina Channel organizations and signed up for Anacapa, S.C.A.R. and the English Channel. It’s now or never! 

I came back the next day to the Summit and when Ned Denison asked: ‘So, has anybody made a commitment?’

I raised my hand, tried to hold my composure and blurted out that whole list. The room was silent.  Ned looked at me and said, ‘OK get a physical immediately so not to get a surprise later, and contact Dan Simonelli for local help, crewing and coaching.

Well, a month after the talk in Redondo Beach, I had the physical and got an early surprise.  The doctors discovered a 98% blockage in my widow maker heart artery – an indication of a soon oncoming heart attack.   So, it was into the hospital where I ended up getting 2 stents within a week.  How could this be? I climbed Mount Whitney in the snow in May, swam Alcatraz the week after, swam from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge. Then I wheezed on an inhaler throughout a 100-mile bicycle race on Pacific Coast Highway and struggled through my other land and water races.  I had just thought I was getting older and overweight.

So – perhaps I can say that attending the Summit saved my life.  In hindsight I didn’t see the positive side – instead I saw an old and fat man and sank into depression for months. Eventually my mindset changed:  disaster averted and renewed energy for another phase of my life.

I joined a local open water group with Gary King, the social media groups, became a groupie on the sport, and picked a few swimmers a year or two ahead of me and watched their goals achieved.  I watched lots of videos – especially Driven about the Santa Barbara swims and tried to visualize how they all kept going.  I have tried to give back – trained as an observer and my sons have joined me and are now escort paddlers marathon swimmers and one is an observer.  We are all in.

2020 was a disaster for many (COVID and more), but I’ve hit 2021 hard.  I trained for and completed SCAR. Dan Simonelli coached me 18.6 km around Coronado Island (San Diego) in May, Anacapa (Santa Barbara) 19.6 km in July in 5 hours 51 minutes.  The bioluminescence, pods of dolphins, and the support crew saw me to the finish feeling very alive with serious tired shoulders. My story continues with English Channel and Catalina Channel relays in the next few months to feel out the courses and much more to come. 

So – thanks Ned Denison for the motivation and helping me save my life (stents) – I am turning the dreams into goals and training with the soul of a young/slim man!

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Steven Munatones