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Suit, goggles, 2,860 miles to go

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2004



BEIJING

The theme of man vs. nature is a classic that gets better when man attempts something never done before.

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Take, for example, the coming challenge by Martin Strel, a hale and hearty 50-year-old guitarist from Slovenia. Mr. Strel is here in China to take on the third-longest river in the world - the 3,900-mile Yangtze.

Friday, Strel will jump into the turgid and isolated headwaters of the Yangtze in Sichuan Province, starting a 2,860-mile swim set to end on July 31 in the relatively calm waters near Shanghai. No one has ever attempted this feat on the Yangtze, China's mightiest river.

To pull it off, Strel will enter the water every day at dawn for nearly two months, and, accompanied by three kayakers, swim and float until the sun goes down about 15 hours later. He breaks only for a half hour lunch of soup, and as the trip progresses, he will begin to sleep five hours a day while in the water. If successful Strel will set a world record for marathon swimming. Actually, he will break the old distance record set by himself two years ago when he swam 2,360 miles from the source of the Mississippi to its mouth in 68 days.

At a press conference Monday at the Beijing airport, amid huge black equipment bags labeled only "Martin Strel vs. Yangtze River," the marathon swimmer presented himself as an ambassador for the environment, and for the ordinary person trying to do the extraordinary. He swims for what he calls "peace, friendship, and clean waters." In the past five years, he has endured whirlpools and fast boats in the Mississippi, dangerous pollutants in the Danube, and snakes and crocodiles in the Parana. Through it all he has come to the conclusion that "the impossible is possible when you know why you are doing something." He professes no interest in politics, but says he is determined to surmount mental and physical boundaries.

At the same time, Strel and his team of 10 support crew offered a mixture of optimism and realism about the current Yangtze project. There are concerns that should rains fall too heavily in early summer, the river could begin to move too fast, and also that Chinese authorities could declare a emergency and not make exceptions for the world record bid. The Slovenian ambassador to China, Vladimir Gasparic, tried to get Army protection for the project. Instead, he has needed to secure separate approval from the seven different provinces that Strel will swim through.

The first 300 miles is considered the trickiest stretch. Coming out of Tibet, much of the river is whitewater rushing through narrow canyons; no big support craft can accompany them. From his start point, Strel does not plan to exit or circumnavigate any big waters: "No walking, only swimming," he quips.

Team Strel includes a support crew of 10. Two kayakers, David Hale from Florida and Jamie Zeleznay from Tennessee, are Strel's principal guides.

After the first weeks, he says he can't sleep the entire evening but remains keyed up, and so he regularly catches winks in the water. He will attach a cord to the kayaks and enter a partial sleep. The kayakers will also paddle ahead, looking for trouble spots. Swirls and eddies in what appear to be calm waters have been known to suck tired swimmers under. In the Parana in Argentina, Strel occasionally swam with a steel mesh around him, to protect from piranha fish.

"We are keeping Martin safe," says David Hale. "We are looking for good water. We are Martin's eyes and his ears. He depends on us to direct him, and we are going to keep him out of the whirlpools."

There are mental obstacles too. In previous world record swims, Strel has hit a crisis point about halfway down; he talks about quitting and gets upset. But his support team encourages him to persevere.

In the Yangtze bid, he will swim past an estimated 180 million Chinese who live on the river shores. The Yangtze will push Strel much faster than the Mississippi. The American river has 43 dams, and lots of lakes and slow water. By contrast, there is only one dam and one power station on the Yangtze.

"This is a special river, a dangerous river," Strel says of the Yangtze. "If there is too much rain, we are concerned."

Team Strel also includes a manager (his son Borut), a technician with a satellite phone, a cook, and a photographer. As the trip continues, the team will be housed on a large boat that will precede the swimmer. Daily updates on Strel's progress, including video clips, will be posted on the website, martinstrel.com.

Strel himself is a famous figure in Slovenia, the small Balkan state located below Austria. He is from a town named Mokronog, which means "wet feet," and his lifelong nickname is "froggy." Slovenia is renowned for skiing and kayaking.

In China, the Yangtze does not match the Yellow River in terms of poetic and traditional identity. But in modern China, the Yangtze is a symbol of power, literally and figuratively. It is the river Mao swam across famously in order to show his leadership. It also contains the controversial Three Gorges dam project; like a ship, Strel must enter a lock in order to make it past the dam. Starting in Tibet and ending in the Yellow Sea, the river is a natural geographic divider of China into north and south, much as the Mississippi divides the US into east and west.

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