Had there been some concern for the human gastric condition, last week's $50,000 Pepsi Challenge marathon swim would have been held almost anywhere other than Lake Ontario, whose churning waters consigned countless breakfasts to the deep. A 50-meter pool, for instance, would have been a great improvement even if the 31.55-mile distance would have meant swimming more than 1,000 laps. For in the longest professional marathon swim this season, distance was less daunting than dyspepsia.
Before the race ended, the nine determined entrants, who swam on a northwest heading from just outside Niagara Falls to Toronto also had to endure guide boats being blown off course in the dead of night, cruisers that cruised too fast and a midmorning squall. But worst of all was the chop. From a glassy surface in the predawn darkness of the start, Lake Ontario became whitecapped after daybreak. So at the finish, after a lightning-laced thunderstorm had raised seven-foot swells and peppered the swimmers with hail, it was entirely fitting that the $25,000 first prize was won by John Kinsella, 25, of the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, Ill. who certainly has no stomach for giving up.
A gold medalist in the 800-meter freestyle relay in the 1972 Olympics, Kinsella won in 13 hours, 49 minutes, thereby slashing an hour and 21 minutes off the old Lake Ontario crossing record set by Canada's Cindy Nicholas in a solo swim in 1974. Claudio Plit of Argentina was second, 72 minutes and almost two miles back.
Kinsella's victory, in what he called "the toughest thing I've ever attempted," was his sixth in six marathon swims this year and his 21st in the two dozen distance races he has entered since he took up the sport in 1974. It also increased his swimming earnings for 1978 to $43,000, which may make the 6'4", 215-pound Indiana alum the top money swimmer since Esther Williams.
"If the price was right," said a fellow competitor, "John would swim the New York City sewer system."
"When I think about what he's trying," Bob Silver, a newsman who was Kinsella's teammate at Indiana, said before the race, "it boggles my mind. A marathon run is no comparison. There's no change of scenery in swimming and, if you stop, there's nothing beneath you but 1,000 feet of water."
Stopping has never been Kinsella's specialty. At Indiana, where he became the first swimmer to break 16 minutes in the 1,500, he was nicknamed the Machine for his remarkable endurance. Kinsella credits his ability to withstand fatigue to Don Watson, his high school coach under whom he still trains, and Indiana Coach Doc Counsilman. "John doesn't like to rest," says his fianc�e, Kathy Kalber. "Unless he asks a question, he doesn't interrupt his pace, and once he gets started, he doesn't like to take breaks."
"They gave me a real background in physical conditioning," Kinsella says, "so I'm able to take the brutality of the swim and push it on and on. I think the real key to being successful in marathon swimming is mental discipline, the ability to be convinced you're going to finish when you go in. Getting in the boat is not an option."
Depending on whom you listened to—the marine radio messages were often confusing—Kinsella led the race almost from the moment it started off Niagaraon-the-Lake, a tiny resort town west of Niagara Falls. The swimmers left at 2 a.m. Wednesday, shortly after Kinsella and Bill Heiss, another former Hoosier, had wolfed down some peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and just before the six men and three women contestants had finished coating themselves with Vaseline, lanolin and axle grease.
Watson and Kathy Kalber were in the small Zodiac inflatable dinghy attending him. Their lead boat, taking its heading from a Canadian naval vessel, was a cruiser named My Fair Lady, whose slowest speed was twice as fast as the Zodiacs were going.