Apr 8, 2007
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) - After 3,272 miles of exhaustion, sunburn, delirium and piranhas, a 52- year-old Slovenian successfully completed a swim down the Amazon River Saturday that could set a world record for distance—something he's already done three times before.
After nine weeks, Martin Strel arrived near the city of Belem, the capital of the jungle state of Para, ending a swim almost as long as the drive from Miami to Seattle. Strel averaged about 50 miles a day since beginning his odyssey at the source of the world's second- longest river in Peru on Feb. 1.
By Thursday evening, he was struggling with dizziness, vertigo, high blood pressure, diarrhea, nausea and delirium, his Web site said. But despite having difficulty standing and being ordered by the doctor not to swim, Strel was obsessed with finishing the course and insisted on night swimming.
"He's hit point zero," Borut Strel, Martin's son and the project coordinator, said by telephone from the Amazon. "There will be a ceremony Sunday in Belem, but he finished today."
Speaking in fluent accented English by satellite phone during a break aboard his support vessel, the elder Strel said that the going got tougher the closer he got to Belem.
"The finish has been the toughest moment so far," he said Thursday. "I've been swimming fewer kilometers as I get closer to the end. The ocean tides have a lot of influence on the river's currents and sometimes they are so strong that I am pushed backward."
He said he was lucky to have escaped encounters with piranhas, the dreaded toothpick fish, which swims into body orifices to suck blood, and even bull sharks that swim in shallow waters and can live for a while in fresh water.
"I think the animals have just accepted me," he said. "I've been swimming with them for such a long time that they must think I'm one of them now. I still have dolphins swimming with me."
Cramps, high blood pressure, diarrhea, chronic insomnia, larvae infections, dehydration and abrasions caused by the constant rubbing of his wet suit against his skin frequently tormented him.
Strel, who lost some 26 pounds, said there were times he felt such pain in his arms, chest and legs, "that I could not get out of the water on my own."
To cope with the delirium and other problems, Strel said he turned to his doctor.
"My doctor, who is a psychotherapist, talks to me, asks about my pains and redirects my thinking to other things," Strel said. "It definitely helps to have someone to talk to when I'm not in the water, even though sometimes I fall asleep while she is talking."
Sunburn was Strel's biggest problem in the first half of his adventure.
Just days after he began his swim, Strel developed second-degree burns on his face and forehead, and his team feared the burns would worsen and become infected.
His team fashioned a mask out of a pillow case for protection, but Strel did not use it all the time because it was too hot and made breathing very difficult, he said.
His lips became blistered, and scabs formed on his nose and upper cheeks.
In addition, his eyes became sore and swollen, probably from sunblock getting inside his goggles.
The sunburn became so bad that while still swimming in Peru he thought of quitting, he said.
"I couldn't sleep at night and I thought we would have to stop for a week or so. But with time things improved," he said. "People from all over the world sent us some creams that helped solve the problem and we improved the mask."
If confirmed by Guinness World Records, the Amazon swim will be the fourth time Strel has broken the world record for long-distance swimming.
In 2000, he completed an 1,866-mile swim along the Danube. He broke that record two years later after swimming 2,360 miles down the Mississippi. In 2004 he broke it again by swimming 2,487 miles along the Yangtze river in China.
Strel's Web site said he broke his 2004 record on March 17 when he arrived in the small town of Urucurituba in the state of Amazonas, 2,490 miles from the river's source.
Kate White, a Guinness spokeswoman, said the organization would only confirm if Strel had established a new record after analyzing data from him and his support team, a process that usually takes six to eight weeks.
Strel's staff said they planned to send Guinness all the documents required by the first week in August, at the latest.
Comparing his Amazon adventure with his other record-breaking swim in Europe, the United States and China, Strel said "it was the toughest expedition by far."
"The Amazon river has no barriers like locks, so the current is constantly flowing," he said. "I didn't expect so many whirlpools and so many currents."
Asked about new adventures, he said: "I am not thinking about that right now ... But I'll find some other crazy swim, maybe in a lake or in an ocean."
"I am not going to do the Nile. It's long but not challenging enough, it is just a small creek, he said. "The Amazon is much more mighty."