Tales from the Deep: Open-water Swimmers Share Oddities

That ain't no dolphin! Swimmer Shannon Sullivan saw this tiger shark during a Maui Channel Swim

As anyone remotely in touch with current events must know, Sharon Stones husband recently had his big toe gnashed by a hungry Komodo dragon at the Los Angeles County Zoo, poor guy. [Editor's Note: This story was originally published in 2001.]

(Yawn).

The insatiable tabloid press (and some insatiable not-so-tabloid press) covered this event as if it was The Second Coming, and I realized how our collective yearning for all stories beastly and ghastly is simply never-ending. This is why the press likes to spike our interest with such bizarre tales in the first place ... better ratings!

Hardly in need of better ratings myself, but having an unwavering need for acceptance, applause and continued readership from you faithful readers, I was inspired to collect a series of "Open Water Urban Legends."

Unlike most legends and folk tales, these occurrences actually happened to some of you and are not made up (I got firsthand accounts that were supported by other swimmers and bystanders alike).

Some accounts will make you cringe, some will make you laugh, but in the end I hope they encourage you to seek out adventure in the open water, as some day you too can become part of swimming lore.

Shannon Sullivan has a shark story to end all shark stories, and a pretty frightening photo to prove it. Last year at the popular Maui Channel Swim, a relay event that spans approximately 10 miles between two Hawaiian islands, Shannon was swimming her leg of the race when suddenly things got hectic on her guide boat. Fellow swimmers and the boat captain began gesturing wildly for her to get out of the water. Somewhat confused and thinking that her teammates were urging her to swim faster and cheering her on rather than warning her, Shannon kept swimming.

"Since I was wearing earplugs, I didn't hear the shark word until I was looking at the terrified group," she said. "That's when I swam like hell, head up, and screamed 'Grab my legs!' as I was getting on to the boat ladder."

It turns out that a 10-foot long tiger shark had been circling Shannon and her boat for quite some time, indicating curiosity and perhaps a determined hunger. But it didn't stop Shannon from completing her race.

"After idling for 20 minutes and waiting for the latest shark news, I was asked if I wanted to get back in. That was a tough decision. I got back in, but swam the rest of my race with my head up, looking all around. It was weird and very scary. A day I will always remember."

Jenny Cook, our first Fitness Makeover subject, offers a less frightening but equally fascinating story about an experience on a Navy submarine off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Attending a Submariner Society party with her open-water training partner Kathy Mann, Jenny rose to the challenge posed by a few good men who dared her to do a swim they thought she couldn't handle:

"Our submarine is anchored 1 1/2?miles of the shore, but you can come onboard if you can swim that far," the chief petty officer of the Sonar S.S. Greeneville allegedly joked to the two elegant-looking women at the formal party.

Yes, that S.S. Greeneville, the one that tragically hit the Japanese fishing boat in 2000. The vessel was anchored offshore as part of the Submariner Society festivities.

Knowing that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that the sub was otherwise off-limits to civilians, Jenny and Kathy took the challenge seriously. They planned to swim out to the sub the next day.

"We plotted our course on the afternoon following a three-mile race we did that morning [on the beach]," Jenny explains. "Our most immediate concern was not the distance but the fact that there was a sailing regatta about to begin. This was a Sunday on the very busy Fourth of July weekend.

"We managed to swim out to the nuclear attack submarine, dodging sailboats and other water traffic. The crew on board was lined up, watching two swimmers approach--more specifically two women swimmers. I was pulled on board first, and as Kathy was about to be brought up, the Harbor Patrol came barreling up.

"[That the Harbor Patrol was] furious would be an understatement. They wanted us to get in their boat and go back to shore, but the submariners insisted on taking responsibility for our safe return. Our reward for our efforts were towels, a private tour, hot chocolate and a couple of dates!"

Kathy Mann, Jenny's partner in open-water crimes, adds her story of a race she did in Bangladesh.

"It was the Independence Day from Pakistan 1K River Competition," she recalls. "Being the only female entrant in the race and a female in a Muslim country led to an unusual situation. A separate boat needed to be sent to pick me up, and since I couldn't show my arms and legs, I had to enter the water fully clothed before disrobing down to my Speedo!

"A large pan was banged and the swim race began. After winning the race, beating the Bangladeshi army and riflery entrants, my clothes were thrown to me in the water and I was able to exit the river. That afternoon I was presented the village's perpetual trophy. Everyone, including women and young girls, were able to celebrate the victory together."

William Gasperoni of New York City was doing a fund-raising Swim Across America leg in the Hudson river, when his kayaking escort nearly bashed him in the head with an oar. Angry and thinking that the paddler was horsing around and attempting to give him a good whack, William started yelling at him when he suddenly pulled up, having nearly swam into a floating fragment of telephone pole or some such log, complete with 6-inch stainless steel spikes jutting from every angle!

He has since decided to donate the proceeds from his fund-raising swims toward cleaning up the Hudson...

John Flanagan doesn't have any shark stories, but when asked about the strangest thing he ever encountered in an ocean race, he responded that "Alex Kostich's feet were probably the strangest thing I've ever seen."

I wasn't sure what to make of this, and it took me a while to figure it out. Was he saying he was so used to being ahead of me that trailing my feet was a noteworthy event, or was he flattering me by saying that I'm usually so far ahead of him that perhaps he was surprised to be so close (I'd hope it were the latter)? To avoid any misunderstanding, we agreed that we'd set the record straight at our next race. Stay tuned.

As for me, how can I compete with sharks, submarines and lethal flotsam?! I suppose the strangest thing I've ever encountered was in an East Coast swim a few years back where I noticed a pair of pristine, white figure skates at the bottom of a lake. Think about it. How did ice skates get there in the first place (I was not that close to shore)? I suppose the skater was probably not a very good swimmer?

But that wasn't the spookiest part; the weird thing was that the toes on each skate were missing.

Must have been that Komodo dragon.

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Alex Kostich was an All-American swimmer at Stanford and is an open-water masters swimming champion.

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