Former Rocket swimmer channels efforts to reach lifetime goal

September 25, 2009 | Features
By Scott Miles

He lost 35 pounds. He endured freezing temperatures. He sacrificed countless hours away from his family. He battled through sea waves and waves of jellyfish attacks. He waited patiently for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

John Muenzer swam the English Channel.

John Muenzer swimming the English Channel.

And, in the end, John Muenzer proudly could say that he was one of the few to successfully swim across the English Channel.

“What Mount Everest is to climbers, the English Channel is to swimmers,” said the 1983 Toledo graduate who was inducted into the UT Hall of Fame in 1992 for his accomplishments in the pool.

“A lot of good swimmers can’t complete this type of swim,” he continued. “You can train for the distance, but you can’t train for the elements. The conditions are the ultimate test.”

For Muenzer, it had always been his goal to cross the English Channel. Many have tried, but few have succeeded. And though he was no stranger to long-distance swims — in 1983, he navigated across Lake Erie, starting in Point Pelee, Ontario, and reaching Cedar Point — crossing the English Channel proved an entirely new challenge.

“For one thing, there’s a big difference between being 47 years old and being 21,” he said and laughed.

John Muenzer raised his arms triumphantly on a beach in Wissant, France, after swimming the English Channel.

John Muenzer raised his arms triumphantly on a beach in Wissant, France, after swimming the English Channel.

Muenzer, a native of Maumee who now resides in Elgin, Ill., first had to train his body to handle the swim. And that required dropping 35 pounds, as he went from 260 to 225 pounds in three months. That was the beginning of nearly a yearlong training regimen to prepare for the rigors of his swim.

The first step was a qualifying swim in Lake Michigan last October, in which he had to spend a minimum of six hours in water that was 59 degrees or colder. He was in the water for seven hours before calling it quits.

“I never had any cold-water training before,” said Muenzer, who began swimming as a sophomore in high school and eventually set seven school records at UT. “It was very painful, and I thought about quitting then.”

But he stuck with it, training for up to four hours per day — longer on weekends. In April, Muenzer swam 24 miles across Tampa Bay in conditions that called for a “gut check,” as he put it.

“It was a brutally hard swim,” he said. “It wasn’t just the mileage; it was the salt water, the waves, everything. But I felt confident after I completed it.”

Muenzer still had one last step to conclude his training — more cold-water swimming in Lake Michigan throughout May. He did two six-hour swims and an eight-hour swim in water temperatures that were in the mid-50s. By that point, “the cold didn’t really bother me at all,” he said.



The entire time he trained, Muenzer had great encouragement from his family and friends. “Without their support, I couldn’t have made the swim,” he said. “The physical part was easy. The tough part was missing family dinners and trying to balance my schedule, like taking the kids to practice. Most of my training started at 4 a.m. so that I could still be around my family as much as possible.”

Muenzer departed for Dover, England, July 9. When he arrived, he was surprised to see hundreds of swimmers there from around the world. Like Muenzer, they were all waiting for what would perhaps be their one shot at glory.

Unfortunately, many never even got that chance. Weather conditions were gruesome, with winds whipping and waves ranging from 6 to 10 feet, and most hopefuls had to return home without leaving the shore. Muenzer, too, feared his window of opportunity would close.

“I waited for nine days,” he said. “I only had a day and a half left before I had to go. Mentally, it was very, very tough, because I never knew if I would have a chance.”

Finally, the call came July 20; the weather had cleared enough for Muenzer to attempt a crossing. The opportunity he had waited more than 25 years for, that he had trained endlessly for a year for, was now upon him. There was, though, one little snag.

He had to swim at night.

“It was very intimidating to think about,” Muenzer said. “With no sun, not only is it pitch dark, but the water is freezing. Plus, the waves were still very high by the harbor — about 4 or 5 feet. I didn’t know if I could do it.”

But once he got to the beach, everything came together for Muenzer, and he dove into the water, escorted by a boat. Fighting against the waves, it took him an hour and a half to get through the coastline. Almost as soon as he cleared that obstacle, another one loomed.

“About the three-hour mark, I was stung on the forearm by a jellyfish,” he said. “Then I was stung again in the face.”

Muenzer estimated he was stung 10 times in two minutes before he stopped his swim completely. Muenzer yelled for the boat captain to shine his spotlight straight down at the water.

“I was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of jellyfish,” he said. “They covered the water. I thought my swim was over.”

Showing his resourcefulness, Muenzer used a broom pole from the boat to clear a path through the jellyfish, which took half an hour. That half-hour, though, ended up costing him three hours on his swim because of the changing currents, which pushed him away from his original destination and toward a beach in Wissant, France.

Finally, just before 11 a.m. July 21, Muenzer walked on shore at Wissant and raised his arms in triumph. It had taken 13 hours and 12 minutes, not to mention the numerous hardships along the way, but he had done it.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” he said. “There are mountain ridges overlooking the beach, and two German bunkers from World War II. It really put in perspective what others faced coming in to the beach.”

There wasn’t much time for Muenzer to celebrate. After his boat ride back to England, he had to head to the airport at 3:15 a.m. for his flight back home.

Though he said he has several more swims that he’d like to complete someday — such as the Straits of Magellan and Loch Ness — there’s not much left for an encore.

“My bucket list is empty,” he said. “The English Channel is the pinnacle, and nothing else can compare. Now I’m back to doing chores around the house.”

Click to access the login or register cheese