Former IU Swimmer Bryan Boggs Conquers English Channel
Aug. 10, 2006
On Aug. 4, former Indiana swimmer Bryan Boggs swam the English Channel in 9 minutes, 29 seconds, the second-fastest time this year. The 1984 graduate, who swam for the Hoosiers under legendary coach James 'Doc' Counsilman from 1981-83, followed in the footsteps of his mentor, who also swam the Channel. The story below was written by Matt Morris of the IU Foundation, and was reprinted with permission.
It all started approximately 25 years ago when he was a student at IU.
Boggs, a regulatory scientist at Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis and former swimmer for Doc Counsilman, was an undergraduate in the early '80s when he jotted down a list of feats he wanted to achieve in his life.
He's held on to that now tattered piece of paper.
And he's about to attempt to meet another goal on the list, which has included shaking the hand of a U.S. president and skydiving.
A self-described "third string breaststroker" for Counsilman, Boggs, 44, left for the coast of England last weekend. In a few days, he'll follow in his legendary coach's swim strokes in an attempt to cross the English Channel, 21 miles at the shortest distance between the coasts of Great Britain and France.
The quest began here in Bloomington when Boggs was a middle-distance swimmer and studying toward a degree in biological sciences.
"I created a list of things I wanted to accomplish," explained Boggs. "I still have that hand-written list - no PC's back then - and look at it every now and then."
He said that only more recently has the opportunity to try the Channel presented itself. As a student, and in the following years, taking a crack at the feat was not realistic. "Swimming the Channel was so far out of my realm back then, financially, physically and mentally," he said.
His family, friends, and employer have been supportive. In fact, his wife, Sharon (Grimm), whom he met during a Christmas break training trip to Puerto Rico when both were IU swimmers, will accompany Boggs. "She understands these crazy things," he joked.
Along with his spouse, who will ride shotgun and make sure the boat keeps headed for France, his crew will be former IU swimmers Jim and Susie (Folkert) Shuck, brother-in-law Charlie Naber, and friend Mike Sherman, who will be "the one who will tell me what I don't want to hear," Boggs explained.
His fan club waiting on the Dover beaches will consist of his two sons, both of whom are competitive age-group swimmers.
His training partner, Jim Barber, who has several US long distance records and has won the 28-mile race around Manhattan, also will attempt to cross in early August.
Boggs' scheduled tide runs from July 30 through August 7. He is swimmer number 3 (out of 5) to go with his particular pilot and boat. If the weather is favorable, he'll be crossing the Channel on August 1.
After arriving in England, Boggs will train in Dover harbor for seven to 10 days to acclimatize to the cold water.
Training for the swim was only part of the preparation. He had to register and be scheduled by the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, one of two sanctioning organizations. Boggs also had to hire a registered pilot and boat, be cleared by a physician, and complete a qualifier swim of six hours in 60-degree water.
Swimming the Channel follows a feat he checked off his list in 2003: climbing Western Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc.
Although he said he had a fear of heights, he scaled the 15,770-foot mountain in the French Alps. "I am afraid of heights, or thought I was," he said, "so being one of the four out of 10 in our group (who made the summit) was a very meaningful personal accomplishment."
Boggs said he did not appreciate Counsilman's Channel feat until after leaving the coach's tutelage.
"I was focused on other things while I was in school," he explained. "Certainly his swim now figures highly in my quest. I have much greater appreciation for the mental aspect of a Channel swim, something that neither I, nor most other college students of that age, had."
Boggs said he has felt Counsilman's influence in preparing for the Channel try.
"I am constantly reminded of Doc, both in my thoughts and from my coaches," he stated. Along with alumnus Shuck, coach of the IUPUI's men's and women's teams, Boggs has been trained by Mel Goldstein, coach of the Indy SwimFit masters, and who swam for Doc early in his tenure in Bloomington.
And Boggs said he has heard Counsilman's voice many times when his mind and body have rebelled at getting into 58-degree water at Hamilton County's Morse Reservoir at 5:30 a.m. or swimming for four to six hours straight.
"Doc had a very practical, forthright attitude in his coaching," recalled Boggs. "I think of what he'd say while I stand on the cold dock or want to pull myself into my support boat on a long swim. He would never raise his voice, but he would call me a few unprintable names. He would tell me simply that if I want to cross the Channel, I would have to properly prepare.
"Doc expected excellence through hard work and dedication, although did not demand it," Boggs continued. "He instilled in me an attitude of `enough with the excuses and get on with it.'"
While he had a solid foundation from years of triathlon training (four Ironman finishes and a third-place World age-group finish in 1993) and masters swimming, Boggs only began preparing seriously for the Channel attempt a year and a half ago.
He stopped running - he has a 33:40 10K (during a triathlon) and 2:53 marathon to his credit - and cycling so that he could add the 20-plus pounds he needed to qualify for the swim.
His regimen included swimming 3 to 12 kilometers, five to six days a week. He built that up to 50 to 60 kilometers a week up until recently.
Boggs said the most challenging aspect of training was not the distance, but the water temperature.
"The first time I hit 58-degree water was quite a shock," he recalled. "I was burning and numb at the same time. Even after 5 minutes of swimming, I could barely control my breathing."
And as if the cold water weren't enough of a challenge, most mornings he was training solo.
"I was there by myself with two battery-operated lighted fishing bobbers attached to my goggles," he said. "Swimming alone in the dark out on a 64-degree lake is something I would not recommend to anyone. But I heard Doc say, `Get your #&* in the water!' so I did. I may be swimming at night in the Channel, so quite simply, I had no choice."
Boggs was initially discouraged last fall when he attempted his first six-hour swim in 60-degree water, a test required by the Federation.
He quit after three hours.
"I gave up on my Channel quest that day," he said.
Two days later, however, he and his training partner, who had bagged the attempt along with Boggs, gave it another try.
"In 46-degree drizzle, (and) 58- to 60-degree water, we swam the length of Morse Reservoir and back," he said.
They made it with no support, other than placing Gatorade and Reese's Peanut Butter cups on docks along their route. They also beat their estimated finish time by several minutes.
"This five-plus hour, cold water swim - I was cold within the first hour! - proved to me that I could do the Channel, and most importantly, how important my mental attitude will play out," he stated.
But getting in cold water for long period of time was only part of the plan.
"I then had to read a lot and talk to several other people who have swum the channel," explained Boggs. "Learning from others is the single most important aspect to setting up my training program."
What he learned was that while swimmers can be ready physically and mentally, many other factors, including weather and current, can make or break the attempt.
Months, even years, of training can be derailed by weather, as happened when several swimmers attempted to cross in 2004.
Boggs said he is prepared to take whatever happens in stride - or stroke.
"With my background, I will be prepared to handle rougher than normal seas, but weather can sideline the best of us," he said. "Currents are tracked by an experienced pilot. These are known and will be taken into account by my starting time, starting location and my speed. However, some swimmers have come within a half mile of France, only to be pulled out due to fatigue and currents thwarting any progress forward."
Even though he's focused on the Channel, Boggs is looking toward the next feat on that tattered piece of paper from the early 1980s.
"I want to experience some of these with my kids," he said, "though I won't force them to run with the bulls in Pamplona. I may have to do that one alone."
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