Antonio Argüelles – Triple Crowner in a League of his Own

(For a Spanish version of this interview, click here. Versión en español aquí)

Antonio Argüelles - San Diego

Only 67 swimmers have successfully completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, consisting of the English Channel (33.7 km), the Catalina Channel (33.7 km), and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (45.8 km). One swimmer has completed the Triple Crown twice. This swimmer is Antonio Arguelles, from Mexico. Antonio is also the 3rd swimmer to have completed the Triple Crown in one year. He did this between June and September of 2009, the year he turned 50. 

In addition to thanking Antonio for the time dedicated to patiently respond to our questions, we would also like to thank him for his generosity in donating to our team a large number of swim caps with Swim 4 Good branding. We will be proud of wearing them when we cross Gibraltar next July. Thanks Toño!

What drives you to complete these amazing athletic challenges?

I’ve always liked to exercise. When I was a young kid, I used to swim in my grandfather’s pool in Cuernavaca. He did not believe in heating his pool, so I learned to enjoy cold water.

My interest in competing came as a result of the Mexico ’68 Olympic games. At that time, Mexico had a pretty solid swim team: Guillermo Echeverría, Felipe Muñoz and María Teresa Ramírez. As a kid, I liked reading Excélsior (a newspaper in Mexico) and I imagined one day competing with the national team. When Felipe won the gold medal in 200 breastroke, I decided that one day I would compete in the Olympics. That was my dream until my first year at Stanford, when I realized that I did not have the genes needed to reach this objective. I stopped with competitive swimming but looked for new events to stay motivated and in shape. First, it was marathons, then triathlons and Ironmans. And then came open water swimming.

Antonio Arguelles - English Channel

What went through your head in 2009 when you decided to do these 3 swims yet again, and in a period of 4 months?

The concept of Triple Crown did not exist in 1999, so what I did was not a challenge in itself for me. Years later, I realized that I would have been the first to complete the Triple Crown, but instead of swimming Manhattan, I decided to swim around Key West.

In 2009 if was different. In 2009 I was turning 50 years old and I definitely did not want to celebrate it with a party in which people would show a video of my life (as if my life was coming to an end) or where friends would be talking about how we were getting old. I wanted to celebrate it by giving myself a gift that would make me feel good. I decided to do the three big open water swims in one season. Nobody had done these three swims in one year, but I thought that by doing so, I could set a new challenge and standard for the future.

I started planning for this project in 2007 and asked Nora Toledano (6 time solo English Channel swimmer, one double-crossing) to help me prepare for 3 big swims in 3 months in 2009. Nora, without blinking, told me I was crazy. She said she’d think it over, and by May 2007, we had a plan. When I completed my second Triple Crown in one season in 2009, two other swimmers had beaten me to it: Andrew ‘Alan’ Voisard (USA) in 2007 and Rendy Lynn Opdycke (USA) in 2008.

Catalina is complicated mostly because of the sharks and the fact that you normally swim at night. Before the Triple Crown existed, only 173 swimmers had crossed the Catalina Channel in 80 years–a much smaller number than the English Channel.

I would think that Manhattan, Catalina, and the English Channel each have their own particularities and difficulties. Can you describe how they differ? What did you enjoy most of each of them, and what is in your opinion, the biggest difficulty of each.

Indeed, the 3 swims are very different from each other.

Manhattan is the perfect entry point to the Triple Crown. It is a less difficult swim because it has relatively stable meteorological conditions. As opposed to the other two swims, in Manhattan you are swimming in rivers, where you will not face the same waves and currents that you will find in the ocean. When you are swimming up towards Harlem, you are going against the current, but it is not too strong. When you reach the Hudson, there are moments when you are actually moving faster than cars. With the growing demand, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get accepted to participate, though.  Yet, the Manhattan event organizers hold the key to the entry point to the Triple Crown.

The English Channel is the Everest of open water swimming. It’s a body of water with many meteorological complications and conditions that can change very suddenly.

For each of these swims, you need to prepare as if you are facing the most difficult swim.

Describe what was the hardest challenge you have faced in Open Water swimming.

My first English Channel in 1999 and my second Catalina Channel in 2008.

In my first English Channel swim, things got complicated. Just two weeks before my swim, a friend of mine died while she was making her attempt to swim across the Channel. Understandably, this was a big blow for my entire team. The day of my swim, many things went wrong. I was throwing up very early into my swim, the strong currents took me towards the North Sea, and my finish was also complicated. It took me 18 hours 19 minutes to cross it.

In Catalina in 2008, Nora and I overestimated my physical condition. I was coming into this swim after competing in marathons and triathlons, weighing 86 kg, which is light for me. The day of my swim coincided with one of the worst windstorms in Los Angeles. From the ocean we could see the forest fires going wild. The waves were enormous and the water temperature was around 15ºC. At various points, I was close to getting out of the water.

Antonio Arguelles - Waiting for the StartThese swims require an important mental and physical preparation. How much of the success do you attribute to being mentally strong, and how do you prepare for it? On the physical side, what did your training consist of to get ready for your first and for your second triple crown?

The mental preparation needs to go at par with the physical preparation. Usually, it is complicated to control your mind the day of the swim.

During my preparation for my first English Channel swim in 1999, I had the good fortune of having a mental trainer as part of my team. Jaime Delgado taught me to use the power of my mind in a positive way. We spent many hours learning so that my mind could help me ease the pain in my muscles, stand cold water, not lose my patience, and most importantly, relax. What I learned from Jaime has helped me in many facets of life, and just like physical exercise, mental training requires continuous exercise in order to see the results.

Physical training for the two Triple Crown challenges consisted of an average of 4.5km daily swims with longer distances starting with 3 hours, then 4 hours, 6 hours, and finally 8 hours. Additionally, we had periodic one hour trials in the pool to control my pace, and then ascending series until reaching 100% effort.

It’s important to mention that my preparation included two additional elements: biochemical evaluations of my blood every 15 days and a special nutrition program tailored for my needs.

One of my challenges, particularly in the 2009 Triple Crown, was not to over-train. In the 70’s, the long distance swimmer culture was to swim lots of kilometers per day. I come from a culture of 20 kilometers a day as a way to measure progress, and I’ m always tempted to increase the intensity in my trainings. In order to make sure that I was doing Nora Toledano’s training at the right intensity, we included in the routines biochemical evaluations and we decided that the results of these would determine the level of intensity that I would need to put into the workout. During all my long distance swims, I would get periodic blood samples taken to insure that all the parameters were aligned, in particular glucose. With time, we were able to get the perfect nutrition for me, and thus, this topic was never a concern during the swims.

You live in Mexico City, with no immediate access to Open Water or cold water swimming. Did you find this to be an impediment? How did you overcome it? How did you acclimatize to be able to swim long hours in cold water?

Living in Mexico City never was an impediment for me. The opposite was the case. I saw it as a positive element that complemented the challenge because it forced me to be creative and to travel. In the 90’s I bought an endless pool and I convinced the ice distributor in my neighborhood to give me blocks of ice that I used to decrease the pool’s water temperature. I complement my training by swimming in La Paz, Baja California. I believe that I am the only person to swim the Bay of La Paz, from Marina Palmira to Isla Espíritu Santo El Candelero. I did this to celebrate my 40th birthday. In 2009, specially after how hard it was for me to complete Catalina in 2008, I decided to do various swims at The Cove national park in San Diego, CA. Additionally, I regularly swam in Las Estacas in Morelos, Zirahuén in Michoacán, and Alchichica in Puebla. In addition to looking to swim in cold water, I only took cold showers. My biggest ally however, was my body weight. From October 2008 to September 2009 I gained 8 kilos. The complicated thing is that I still have not lost them.

You have also completed many Ironmans and Marathons as well as marathon swims. From 0 to 100 (100 being the highest difficulty event) can you rank the level of difficulty of each.

To train for a marathon, specially when you’re completing it under three hours, requires great intensity in training. When you run a marathon, the challenge is to go as fast as possible without passing out. This effort requires a very high level of intensity and ability to withstand pain. The difficulty resides in not getting injured and getting the best possible time relative to the rest of the runners. The good thing about marathons is that anyone who trains relatively well can complete a marathon in 4 or more hours. When I ran under 3 hours, it seemed to me an extremely demanding physical effort. Physical = 100. Mental = 50. Overall = 75.

In an Ironman, I never was able to complete it under 11 hours, so my time is aceptable but not extraordinary in relation to other participants. My experience is that training for it is tedious. Many hours on a bike and running, but in my case it did not require much intensity. The challenge is to run relaxed, do the bike without going to the limit, and trot the marathon. Maybe the most complicated aspect is nutrition. When I finish the Ironman with a marathon, I have never felt the the pain as when I ran it under 3 hours. I finish the Ironman tired, but able to fhe challenge is achievable with a good combination of many hours of training, patience and a good nutrition in the run. Physical = 70. Mental = 60. Overall = 65.

The pressure in Manhattan is to be admitted. This event is in high demand in the last few years, and the process can be stressful. The swim is relatively easy. It involves being able to swim for 8 hours at a comfortable pace and without too many mental complications, with the exception of of knowing that you are swimming in Manhattan waters.  Vaccines against all sorts of illnesses before the swim take away that worry. Physical = 50. Mental = 50. Overall = 50.

The Catalina Channel swim is the only swim that I have had once an unseccessful attempt. In my first attempt I had a vomit attack and had to be taken out of the water. In a bad day, this can be a complicated swim, specially with wind and cold water. The sharks and swimming at night add to the challenge. Physical = 70. Mental = 70. Overall = 70.

Swimming the English Channel is complicated both physically and mentally. Physical = 80. Mental = 100. Overall = 90.

What would be a 100? To train every day, to prepare for the worst, to control your mind in any situation. This does not happen during your swimming challenges themselves. It happens every morning when you get out of bed and head to the pool, river, lagoon or ocean.

You went to college at Stanford, a swimming powerhouse and breeding ground for some of the world’s best swimmers. Did you swim with the Stanford team while in college?

When I was going to High School in Los Altos, California, my dream was to go to a college with a great swim team. In those years, USC, UCLA and Arizona had better swimming programs than Stanford. My German teacher suggested that I also apply to Stanford and Ivy League schools. I paid attention to her and I was lucky to have the option to go to Stanford and Columbia. I decided to go to Stanford because Bill Lee (my mentor in the US and then President of Speedo) was a Stanford alum and knew the coach well. Unfortunately I did not have the genes required to compete at the NCAA level and Olympic games. I started my freshman year as part of the team, but three months into the year I realized during a 10 x 800m workout that I would never reach my Olympic swimming dreams, so I dropped out of the team.

Antonio Arguelles - The Cove 1Interesting that you took a 20 year break from swimming, before heading back to the pool to prepare your marathon swims. What made you come back to swimming?

I went back to swimming mostly due to injuries from running, but also because of a comment from a friend of mine who came with me to my first Hawaii Ironman. I know this friend from early childhood, and he has always been very truthful with me. We were celebrating after the Ironman, and he suddenly said: “This triathlon thing is not for you. When you were running, I was able to identify you from 1 km away”. I asked him how he could identify me from so far away, and he said: “It’s easy. These guys are all skinny, and you look like a fridge. Go back to the water, that’s where you’re good”.

I saw that you had a few sponsors for your triple crown swims. What can you say to all those who are motivated to try new challenges but who might not be able to do so because of financial limitations?

Money is always an obstacle in the minds of people. I regularly see young and talented people who are scared to even think about studying in an elite university because of financial considerations. My personal experience at Stanford was that money was not an obstacle. There are plenty of avenues to make our dreams come true. I don’t remember a single friend at Stanford who did not have some sort of financial aid. Of course, we all had to work in parallel.

Regarding my athletic challenges, I have been lucky to to have the support of friends wanting to be part of my dreams. Most of the financing (75%) for my second Triple Crown came from three great friends: Alejandro Martí (at that time, CEO of Grupo Martí, the largest chain of stores and gyms in Mexico), Daniel Servitje (CEO of Bimbo) and my brother Diego. My commitment to them was that in return of their sponsorship, I would give motivational talks in their companies and schools in addition to writing a book. I was successful in finding people that believed in what my project stood for: essentially, we all have a “channel to cross”. For some, it means to start exercising, for others it means to not drop out from school. For me, it was completing the Triple Crown in one year. This is similar to what motivates people to donate to your cause, Worldreader. This support will have an impact on people, who, without this help, would never experience the joys of reading a book.

Any new swimming challenges ahead for you? Will you be the first person to complete a triple Triple Crown?

I do not have any swim in mind. I am now preparing for a 2015 attempt to climb Mount Everest. Maybe when I turn 60, I might try for the Triple Crown again, but not sure that I would want to do it in one year. Too complicated.

Antonio’s triple crown swims:

– Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. 45.8km.
      1997 (7:56:16)
     June 6th 2009 (8:21:11)

– English Channel. 33.7km.
     August 1999 (18:19:00)
     September 6th 2009 (12:54:00)

– Catalina Channel. 33.7km. (250 swimmers have successfully crossed)
     July 12, 1999 (12:25:43)
     October 13, 2008 (13:10:25)
     July 13, 2009 (10:25:12)

Antonio Arguelles - Sunrise English Channel



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