Friday, August 22, 2008

The strait answer

“There are no gold medals, no loving cups and no elaborately inscribed certificates to laud David Yudovin's all-time world record” achievements.
Margot Smith, The Cambrian, July 19, 1990,

In Beijing, the world’s winningest Olympic athlete Michael Phelps has kept millions of people awestruck. His swimming accomplishments are flat-out astonishing. Just imagine winning almost enough Olympic gold medals for a game of checkers!

But in the Azores, on the North Coast and worldwide, people also are intrigued by the latest adventure for David Yudovin, Cambria’s world-class swimmer.

He and wife Beth left home Aug. 13 for Horta on Faial Island, where he’ll tackle more first-ever swims, this time across open ocean channels in the Portuguese archipelago.

The accomplishments of Cambria’s super swimmer are featured in books, magazines, Web sites and documentaries, and are enshrined in the Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. Now, Azorean media is all over the story, and there’s even talk of a half-hour TV show about Yudovin and his swims.

His lifelong quest to be first across a strait doesn’t produce trophies, only pride for achieving his personal goals. “I don’t get medals, I get American Express bills,” he quipped, “and I don’t even have a Gold Card.”

Like Phelps, Yudovin not only sets and accomplishes his goals, he shatters them.

For instance, in about 6 hours and 20 minutes in April, the 56-year-old leukemia and heart-attack survivor swam 10 nautical miles between Papeete, Tahiti, and Mo'orea, French Polynesia. He powered through big swells of 80-degree-plus tropical water, under intense sun and in dicey weather.

Nobody of any age had ever swum across that channel.

He already had aced channel swimming’s “triple crown”: The English Channel, Catalina to the California coast and Cook Strait in New Zealand. He was the oldest athlete to complete the latter swim, at the age of 52 in 2004.

In each of eight other channels worldwide, Yudovin was the first to swim across.

This time, he aims to conquer the major channels between various Azorean islands, one after another. Nobody’s ever done that before, either, or even swum across one of them.

One really good reason why is the Portuguese man o’war.

Warm waters around the Azores are laced with the picturesque but dangerous jellyfish-like creature, more plentiful recently perhaps because of global climate changes.

Yudovin knows about jellyfish stings, having been attacked by thousands of them during his swim across the Sunda Strait in Indonesia. However, men o’war are world-class stingers and are in a pain-and-danger class all by themselves.

Fortunately, Azorean waters are cooler now than they were in February when Yudovin trained there for a month (and got stung twice). Men o’war don’t like cooler water, he said, so there should be fewer there now. He hopes.

Enthusiastic Azorean officials aren’t taking any chances. They’re requiring a doctor on board the accompanying boat for all swims, plus a wide variety of medical supplies to combat any emergency.

Yudovin’s swimming schedule depends on the whims of Atlantic tides about 950 miles from Lisbon. He has already powered across the first 5-nautical-mile channel (on Aug. 20) in 2 hours 20 minutes "under perfect conditions," he said in an e-mail. Next, he'll tackle a 10-mile swim about Sept. 6 and another 10-miler about Sept. 26.

His other Azorean target channels are even longer.

If he doesn’t accomplish it all this year, Yudovin said matter-of-factly, he’ll simply go back next year.

A year ago, Yudovin told Cambria Rotarians he’d reached “the pinnacle of my swimming career,” and was going to retire from his sport and his work. He and Beth would devote much of their time to helping fellow Cambrians, he said.

Some of us were skeptical. Not of his dedication to various causes, but of his ability to step back from the call of the sea. We were right. Recently, he acknowledged, “We have learned that the pinnacle keeps moving with us.”

Now, when he and Beth are home, they balance his rigorous training schedule with delivering Meals on Wheels to shut-ins, providing free transportation to seniors and others on the Cambria Bus, and being part of the North Coast Ocean Rescue Team.

So, as long as Yudovin’s body allows it, he’ll keep on swimming, looking like a human metronome as he churns through the sea that challenges him. In the process, he’ll continue captivating the imagination of those who recognize what an exceptional, world-class athlete he is in the Olympics of life.

For more on Cambria’s world-class swimmer, go to

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