Swimming crusader Christopher Swain comes to Vail | VailDaily.com

Swimming crusader Christopher Swain comes to Vail

Vicky Lee
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily

VAIL, Colorado ” Christopher Swain has been called crazy (and worse) for swimming in some of the most polluted waterways in the country. But after hearing him speak, its clear that he is another kind of crazy ” a genuine crusader. A crusader is defined as someone who undertakes “vigorous concerted movement for a cause or against an abuse.” Swain is one man swimming to save a planet that is running out of time.

“The time for half measures is past,” Swain said. “It doesn’t do any good to talk about intentions anymore. It’s time for people to put it on the line; to decisively leave their comfort zone behind and do something.”

As part of Vail Symposium and Vail Public Library’s 2009 Unlimited Adventures Series, Swain will present video clips and photos of past swims tonight at Donovan Pavilion in Vail. Swain is the first person in history to swim the entire lengths of dirty waterways, including the Hudson, Columbia and Charles Rivers and Lake Champlain. In 2003, Swain received an International Earth Day Award at the United Nations, and in 2004, he was elected to the Men’s Journal Adventure Hall of Fame and chosen as Person of the Week on ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. In 2007, Swain received a medal from the Water Environmental Federation and was featured in the International Swimming Hall of Fame book.

Swimming for a cause was not Swain’s first foray into crusading. In 1995, he was so taken by discovering the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that he wanted to spread the word.

“This document was signed in 1948 and here we’re still fighting over the same issues like health care, the cost of education, equality,” he said. “I ran across Massachusetts giving away copies of the Declaration, having figured out how to fit it all on two sides of letter-sized paper.”

Carrying an oil-burning Olympic torch t in the summer of one of the 10 hottest years in history, he “overheated.” Also, as Swain discovered, “there’s not a lot of people in central Massachusetts; a lot of horses, but not a lot of people.”

In April, Swain will embark on “Swim for a Healthy World,” an adventure that will begin in the Atlantic Ocean in Marblehead, Mass. He will swim more than 1,000 miles in 180 days. With stops in classrooms and for community events, the swim will end in the fall of 2010 in Washington, D.C. A day’s swim lasts 6 to 8 hours, depending on water temperature and other factors, like eels.

“Sea lampreys are the hardest psychological element,” Swain said. “I have been attacked by them repeatedly and have nightmares about them. They are 3 to 4 feet long and look like snakes. They bite onto you and they are very aggressive. They keep coming back.”

His strategy is to “pull them off, throw them as far as I can, and keep going.”

Swain has made clean water presentations to more than 45,000 North American schoolchildren. While in Vail, he will present a preview of the campaign to the Vail Mountain School. Over the course of Swim for a Healthy World, he will visit more than 2,000 classrooms.

“Typically adults tell kids what projects to work on,” Swain said. “What I do is tell kids what I’m seeing in the water and we discuss and problem solve together. Then the kids come up with their own projects to address the problems. When we give kids the tools to make a difference, adults will listen.”

But seriously, why?

When asked why he willingly exposes himself to PCBs, mercury and human and nuclear waste, Swain said it comes down to love.

“The people whose opinions I really value are my daughters,” he said. “I want them to know that I tried, that I was willing to put myself on the line to protect these waters and resources. There’s nothing you won’t do when you love things so much, like your kids and your world. I was the first person in history to swim the Columbia. Better athletes had never done it. The decision was not athletic or intellectual. I had the heart for it. I wanted to know that river and to help others to know and love it.”

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