Aqua Pulse magazine, March 2011
Horse burgers and two bottles of red wine a day are unlikely to feature on the training diets set by most sports nutritionists. But they work for Martin Strel.
The 56 year old Slovenian has completed a range of epic river swims including the Mississippi and the Yangtze, but is most famous for swimming the length of the Amazon in 2007. He covered 3274 miles in 66 days, wearing a wetsuit and flippers – but the distance was only one of the difficulties he faced.
As well as having to avoid close encounters with animals and debris floating in the water, and negotiate the turbulence caused by the Amazon’s many tributaries, he ran the constant risk of catching an infectious disease.
Then there was the tropical weather. One of the most serious challenges came just a few days into the swim, when Martin’s face got badly sunburnt. ‘I could not imagine keeping this pain over the entire course,’ he says.
He overcame this difficulty by using a homemade protective mask, created by cutting holes into a piece of cotton. It gave Martin an appearance which to observers must have seemed both comic and terrifying. But his approach to swimming and training has never been orthodox.
In the documentary Big River Man, which recounts the Amazon swim, we see Martin sitting in a huge Slovenian cave. His son and logistics manager Borut explains ‘Martin believes that if thinks like an animal when he is swimming the Amazon, he will not be eaten.’
It is just as important for Martin to focus on the mental as the physical demands of the challenges he undertakes – and the pressure that the swim puts him and the team under is intense.
Martin swims quietly away from a reception held in his honour when he reaches Brazil, and has to be found by a night search. Later, he swims away from the city of Manaus at 5am with no explanation. ‘He was obviously going insane,’ says Borut.
Martin himself describes his psychology during the swim by saying:
‘I am like a movie, a story is rolling non stop, things are happening constantly. I am never alone in my mind. Swimming is such a routine that you need to create your own world, dreams, dramas, illusions, all in your head while in the water. Nobody bothers you there and this is best way to forget about pain and the distance you are aiming for.’
Doctors advised him to stop, saying he risked a stroke. But he kept going. After battling Atlantic tidal bores through the night, he finally arrived in Belem, on the Atlantic Ocean, on April 7, 2007.
Martin has struck a chord with people because his astonishing, superhuman feats have been achieved in a way which is so clearly human. ‘Martin was beaten very badly as a child. He says that is why he is able to endure such extreme pain. He promised himself that he would never treat the same. Instead, he battles his demons on the rivers,’ says Borut.
Having drawn attention to the damage being done to the Amazon rainforest, his next project is to swim the dangerous rapids of the iconic Colorado river, to highlight the threat to the water storage lakes.
In 2011 Martin and Borut launched Strel Swimming Adventures, which provides open water swimming holidays in Europe. Martin’s aim for the future is ‘to raise more awareness about the need for clean waters and to inspire people to follow dreams.’