Swimmer takes on epic open-water challenge to fight cancer

Scott Zornig and his support crew aboard the Arca before his 40-mile attempt
Scott Zornig is not just your everyday swimmer. Sure, last year he logged 750 miles in the water, swam from Catalina Island to San Pedro and attempted to swim the entire coast of Orange County, but the 41-year-old native Californian says his motivation is from his heart.

During the past year, the former Chico State University swimmer's efforts have raised over $20,000 for the City of Hope by doing what he says he loves swimming. He credits the hospital for saving the life of his wife of 20 years, Wendy. Zornig's most recent fund-raising swims included the unthinkable: a 40-mile swim of the Orange County coast last fall.

In the summer of 1998, Wendy Zornig resided at the Los Angeles county hospital while receiving treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. After spending a month by his wife's side, Zornig says he was touched by the number of lives saved at the hospital and was alarmed to see the number of children affected by cancer.

Having recently lost both his father and close friend and master's swimmer Preston Drake to cancer, Zornig says he knew then he had to do something to give back to help others.

"I had originally planned to do the 40-mile swim to celebrate my 40th birthday last September, but something selfish turned into something to give back," he recalls, adding that his wife and two children's first response to the idea was "nuts, but then supportive, encouraging me to get my laps in."

Zornig says he was shocked by the overwhelming response from friends and local merchants who were eager to help, pledging donations from $5 - $1,000. Contributors included his employer, Sensor-matic, where he is a regional sales manager, and Tully's, a sun-wear retailer.

Estimating that swimming the course would take 24 hours and require 100,000 yards a month of swimming, he scheduled the event for late September in order to maximize the longer daylight hours and warmer summer months for training.

A typical day included a morning and noon master's practice in the pool, followed by a three- to five-mile evening swim in the ocean. Accompanied by many of his Irvine Novaquatic teammates, Zornig and his school or swimmers could often be sighted off the Laguna Beach coast or stroking their way through Corona del Mar. Training races for Zornig included top-three finishes in the Santa Barbara six-miler, the Seal Beach 10-miler and the six-mile La Jolla "Tour of the Bouys."

Zornig says the day of the swim he felt he was " in the best shape of my life." His wife and children, along with the local press and curious spectators, waved farewell from the Seal Beach pier as he swam out. The Arca, a 32-foot sailboat, motored alongside of him as he began stroking south toward his destination San Clemente.

The crew consisted of devoted swimmers who alternated pacing him for 30-minute periods. Each of them, Zornig notes, "had all been affected by cancer in some way," including Mike Suttle of Laguna Niguel and Valerie Hagopian of Irvine, who both lost their mothers to cancer, and Craig Taylor of Laguna Niguel, who lost his mother-in-law to cancer.

The swim continued well into the dark hours until a gusty wind moved in and the waves picked up.

"The seas got rough and everyone got seasick," Taylor recalls, "and then it got scary."

With the focus on Zornig, nobody noticed when a kayak paddled by Taylor's wife Jerri was flipped over by the waves. Minutes later, she was located a short ways away from the main boat. She was OK.

At 7 a.m, 13 miles into the swim and off the Newport Beach pier, Zornig says he was unable to keep down the nourishment supplements of yogurt and Gatorade and with no wetsuit, was experiencing severe hypothermia.

He recalls that he felt like it would take a "superhuman effort" to complete the swim in those conditions. At that point, the swim was called off.

In retrospect, Zornig says he was prepared for the distance, but not for the weather conditions. Six months later, he says he's still a "little bummed out" that he was unable to complete the swim but he is satisfied knowing that 100 percent of the money he raised went to cancer research.

As for the future, he is currently training for the 28-mile Manhattan Island Swim this summer to celebrate his wife's third anniversary of being cancer-free. He says his future goals include a swimming fund-raiser for children with cancer.

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