Martin Strel

New York, NY, USA

Martin Strel

Slovenian long-distance swimmer Martin Strel

New York, NY, USA

Every so often I have the feeling I've missed a memo or two.

"Can you come out and take pictures of Martin Strel?" my friend G. said.

"Who is Martin Strel?" I asked sleepily.

"He's doing the Liberty to Freedom Swim," G. said. I resisted the impulse to remind him that Liberty to Freedom had been four days ago and no matter how fast this Martin person was, he wasn't going to finish with the rest of the swimmers.

The name Martin Strel meant nothing to me, but Wikipedia was able to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. I learned that he was a Slovenian who, by the sound of it, had never met a river he didn't like or at least want to swim in. I began to understand a little better why G. might be excited to have him complete Urban Swim's Liberty to Freedom swim.

In person, Mr Strel turned out to be a compact man in his early sixties, with close-cut white hair and an air of solidity that suggested that he might be a minor force of nature. He appeared at the end of the dock in bright yellow shorts, looking rather like a tourist who'd lost his way. He shook hands affably with the organizers and photographers and then disappeared below to change into his wetsuit.

During the ride out, I tried to make small talk.

"So you haven't swum the Nile?" I said (I had learned from Wikipedia that he had not yet swum the length of the Nile, considering it not challenging enough).

"I have swum in the Nile many times," he said, and gave me a list.

"So what will you do next?" I tried.

"I am swimming around the world," he said, in rather the way someone else might say 'I am going to Walmart on Saturday'. I had the feeling that I had missed another memo.

I shot a great many pictures of him with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop; the photographer on the other boat shot a great many pictures of him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Statue of Liberty. Then it was time to get serious. Martin pulled a vicious-looking knife from his gear bag and strapped it to his calf.

"Do you really need that?" D. asked, sounding as if she feared that he might be about to launch a career of piracy in New York Harbor.

"Always," he said. "Many times in the water, if you don't have a knife –" He drew his thumb across his throat.

Suitably equipped, he slid into the water, bobbed up and down a few times and then struck out for the distant island of Manhattan.

A little less than fifty minutes later, we were outside North Cove Marina.

"Tell Martin to stop," said the voice on the radio. "The press conference isn't until ten. Nobody's there yet."

We passed the word, and he stopped swimming and trod water. After a while, he got bored and started doing somersaults, playing in the water like a dolphin.

Eventually, we got the signal to proceed. He swam to the dock in North Cove, climbed out of the water, shook hands with a stout bald man in a good suit, and posed for more pictures.

At ten, the press conference began and he announced his intention of swimming 'around the world' to raise awareness of water pollution. The poster behind him said "24,901 miles. 107 countries." The man in the suit made a speech. A woman in a blue jacket made a speech. Martin Strel nodded and smiled. He still had his knife strapped to his leg.