Mother Nature Is a Huge Opponent

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When I first saw Japanese sumo wrestler Enho compete against significantly larger sumo wrestlers at the highest level of sumo, we immediately thought of open water swimmers,” said Steven Munatones. “At 168 cm (5′-6″) and peaking at 99 kg (but usually at 92 kg), Enho, a former water polo goalie, is always shorter, smaller and lighter than his opponents. But Enho uses guile, quick moves and a strategic approach to battle the biggest. He loses more than he wins against the highest ranking sumotori, but he never gives up and you can sense the passion that he has for his chosen sport.

As he fights against other wrestlers, his efforts remind me of how open water swimmers face Mother Nature. Wind, weather, currents, marine life will always have the upper hand against swimmers, but with training, persistence, good navigation, a solid escort team, and a bit of luck, swimmers often succeed against sometimes seemingly insurmountable odds – like Enho in the match below:

When sumo and open water swimming are combined, there is no more unlikely marathon swimmer than American sumo wrestler Kelly Gneiting.

Not only did he struggle – but succeed – with his 35.4 km solo swim across Navajo Lake from New Mexico to Colorado in 22 hours 46 minutes in 2015, but he also overcame unexpected obstacles at the start his adventure.

The 200 kg (440 lbs.) sumo wrestler diligently trained in order to prepare his oversized body to tackle the challenge. He needed every bit of preparation as his swim was excruciating, especially the last 320 meters that took him over 3 agonizing hours.

Scott Nydam and Andrew Bradley, who served as his observers, recalled, “It took Kelly over 5 hours to swim the first 9 miles [see GPS data here], but then it ultimately took him nearly 23 hours to swim the entire 22 miles.”

Gneiting focused on this crossing for nearly a year. “I have been swim training on or near the Navajo Nation. My wife and five children lived, at the time, in Idaho. Being away from my family, engaged in only working for a hospital 40 hours per week, I had a lot of extra time, and wanted my time to be spent productively.

I spent over 200 hours in the water swimming over 200 miles, preparing my 440-pound body to swim the 22 miles of Navajo Lake. I have also driven about an hour each way to and from lakes and aquatic centers where I’ve trained. Preparing for this swim has been a hardship that I have accepted and even embraced, fueled by the vision of a Navajo Lake success story in July. I love the thought of frontier accomplishments — feats no one has ever accomplished. Being so heavy, yet swimming so far would add another accomplishment notch on my belt.”

But in the days leading up to his swim, Gneiting was not healthy; he was coughing and hacking his lungs out and had bronchitis. “Even simple breathing was strained, and accompanied by wheezing from congestion. I had five people who were going to show up that day to support my swim, two of which were going to kayak alongside me for the entire duration of the swim to feed me and be available in case of an emergency. In addition, a camera guy from a local NBC station would show up.”

Gneiting, a man with a deep faith, turned inside still coughing constantly and said a deeply devotional prayer. “God…if it’s thy will that thou does not want me to swim…”, he started. “Since it is thy will that thou does not want me to swim…I pray thy will be done…but I ask…can’t thou change thy mind, just this once?

Several minutes went by with only the occasional cough interrupting his thoughts. He took this as a sign that the swim could happen.

A few hours later, Gneiting stood on the shore of Navajo Lake with 12 supporters and witnesses. He jumped into the lake and immediately hit an obstacle. “A guy with a video camera requested that I jump off a rock into the shallow water, to what looked like sand below. I jumped and hit a large hard rock. Sharp pain surged through my right ankle, as it was forced to curl under my knee moments into impact. For a few long seconds I saw stars, and the pain was unbearable. I had just severely sprained my ankle, or worse — fractured it.

This was the absolute lowest point of my 10-month long experience. I stood there in pain and bewilderment, with a dozen people looking on. What was I going to do now?

But Gneiting stood up and started his swim.

My ankle went through periods of throbbing in extreme pain to barely feeling anything at all. During these times, when my ankle was numb, I’d wonder if I was at risk of permanent damage, since after severely spraining it, I would use it to swim with for the next 23 hours.”

The swim was interrupted several times with hacking attacks. When the coughing became too much, he would stop, tread water, and then cough up phlegm. But he keep on swimming, steadily at first and slowly thereafter. He endured and prayed, stroke after stroke, mile after mile, hour after hour.

For the most part the winds grew stronger, and the hours longer, the pain greater, and the splashing of the sea more aggressive as it rained quite a bit, with only occasional periods of relief. The last three hours from 7:30 to 10:30 am netted Gneiting a total of 320 meters. But that last painful push drove Gneiting beyond the northern edge of the state of New Mexico and into the state of Colorado. “At that point our horrible 22-mile journey was finished, since we accomplished our goal.”

With his ankle doubled up in size, his crew literally towed Gneiting a short distance through the upstream waters to the marina docks – satisfied with a mission accomplished.

For his unprecedented swim across Navajo Lake, Gneiting was nominated for the 2015 World Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year that was won by Andrea Fazio for his record-setting crossing of the Strait of Messina.

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