Marathon swimmers conquer 60-mile channel for City of Hope

On Saturday, July 20, at 5:01 p.m., six marathon swimmers emerged from the chilly waters of the Pacific to a warm beach reception in San Clemente, Calif., nearly 33 hours after the first strokes were taken 60 miles away at San Clemente Island.

The "Swim for Hope" marks the first successful attempt to swim from the Channel Island to the California coast, and raising over $65,000 for pediatric cancer research at The City of Hope hospital.

About 200 people, including a barrage of reporters and cameramen, gathered by the San Clemente pier to cheer the relay team as they swam together for the final quarter-mile.

Scott Zornig, 43; Brendan Halffman, 32; Mike Suttle, 49; Jim Fitzpatrick, 47; Craig Taylor, 49; and Dave Yudovin, 50; celebrated their accomplishment with high-fives and a promise to continue to swim for the hope of a cure for cancer.

The team, accompanied by a 19-member crew, left the Dana Point harbor on July 19 at 2 a.m. for the remote island, which is used by the Navy as a training base.

At 7:52 a.m., world-class ocean swimmer Dave Yudovin of Cambria, Calif., took the first strokes from a small, sandy beach at the north end of the island. For the next day and night, the swimmers alternated turns doing one-hour swim legs.

"Daylight hours were the fun part," recalls Halffman, of Seattle, Wash. "I felt like I was swimming at Sea World, with all the bright-colored fish and the school of dolphins swimming alongside."

But darkness brought fear to the team as they approached the halfway mark at Catalina Island, 26 miles off Southern California. Concern about finishing began to surface when the boats captain, Gus Gialamas, noticed that the pace had slowed from 2 to 1 or 1.5 miles per hour, which he attributes to the "Catalina Eddy," a weather phenomenon which manipulates the currents. It took more than 12 hours to pass the island.

"It was the most discouraging time for us," recalls Zornig, of Coto de Caza, Calif. "It seemed like we hit a wall and were swimming in place," he said, adding that the anxiety of the unknown lurking and total darkness made the night hours the most difficult.

"Its a very lonely feeling when you cant see anything but the glow stick on the edge of the kayak and the sparkle of fish below," adds Jim Fitzpatrick of Laguna Niguel, who says he kept focused by concentrating on the kayaker and the sparks of light each hand entry produced.

But around noon the next day, any doubts about finishing were washed away when the outline of land was spotted. With the Catalina currents behind, the pace was increased to 2 to 2.5 miles per hour to the finish.

It was a sweet victory for Zornig, the event organizer, who has been on a mission to raise money and awareness for the City of Hope through marathon swimming.

He credits the Duarte California hospital for saving his wife Wendys life. In 1998, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and given a 20% chance of survival. After spending a month by her side, he says he was alarmed to see the number of children affected by cancer. It was then he knew then he had to do something to spread the word about cancer and the message that we can work together to beat the odds.

His first fund-raiser was a 40-mile swim of the California Coast last year followed by a record-breaking swim of the Santa Barbara Channel. He says he was attracted to San Clemente Island because of the challenging distance, which he felt would be perfect for a relay-style swim.

His teammates from University of California masters swimming were anxious to take part.

"Everybody has been affected by cancer in some way, and this is a way we can help," says Mike Suttle, who lost his mother to breast cancer.

To prepare for their 10-mile leg, each swimmer logged close to 125,000 yards a month between the pool and weekend swims in Corona Del Mar and La Jolla Cove.

Training swims included the Seal Beach 10-miler, Newport Pier to Pier and for Zornig, a 28-mile swim last month around Manhattan Island.

In retrospect, Zornig says the biggest obstacle to completing the swim was securing a boat. By spring, he was almost out of options when he received a call from Gialamas, who wanted to help.

"I wanted to support the cause and honor my close friend, Larry Berbrige, who is currently being treated at The City of Hope for multiple myeloma," says Gialamas, an orthopedic surgeon. In addition to donating the use of his 46-foot Bertrum Sportfisher boat, he hired a first mate to assist him in captaining the boat during the two-day swim.

Gialamas also brought the support of San Clemente Community Hospital, who supplied the fuel, first aid supplies and orchestrated a mass media campaign, which resulted in coverage of the event throughout the Southern California region.

Zornigs marathon swimming efforts have resulted in raising close to $100,000 for pediatric cancer research. Future fund-raising plans include another marathon swim in the Southern California area next year.

After posing for the cameras and giving interviews, Zornig felt a hand tapping his leg.

"A young boy of about 5 was handing me a $1 dollar bill. He said he wanted to donate his allowance. I almost lost it."

Discuss This Article