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John Kinsella, the 27-year-old former Sullivan Award winner who was a medalist in both the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, is the world's best long-distance swimmer, but until last week he had never swum the English Channel. He'd never tried to.
"Wherever I went, I was always asked, 'What about the Channel?' " Kinsella said. "As a professional, it didn't make economic sense to make the swim. To me the Channel has always been a swim for amateurs and publicity nuts." But the thing was getting to him.
In the end, it was Kinsella's pride that got to him. Under Coach Don Watson, he had not been beaten since turning pro in 1974, and has earned an average of $35,000 a year in prize money. He had won the 32-mile Lake Ontario swim, the Chicago 10-mile race, the 21-mile Lake St. John (six years in a row), the 21-mile Capri- Naples and many more. Then Watson retired as his coach, and Kinsella felt he had lost some of his form and motivation. This year he was even beaten in the Capri- Naples by Claudio Plit, a 24-year-old Argentinian. So when an invitation came to take part in an international Channel race against 15 other competitors, including Plit, Kinsella accepted, eyeing not the $2,000 first prize ("peanuts," he snorted) but the chance to get right with himself, with his critics, with Plit—and with the Channel itself.
At 3 a.m. last Tuesday Kinsella and the others were limbering up on floodlit Shakespeare Beach at Dover, facing conditions everyone knew were far from ideal for setting a record. The tides were wrong, there was a considerable swell and the sea would become choppy later. But they had been waiting for more than a week, and the organizers felt the time was now or never.
The first two hours of the swim went just as Jack and Ruth Kinsella, John's parents, who were acting as his trainers, had planned it. After 300 yards, John was in the lead, averaging 72 strokes a minute—an excellent rate. Every 40 minutes, he was passed a cup of honey and tea, or Coke or dextrose. Aboard the boat accompanying him, the atmosphere was confident.
The boat itself was a bit of luck. Kinsella had drawn FE 137, with Reg Brickell as pilot, and he is among the best and most experienced of the Channel pilots, with nearly 100 attempts behind him.
But just before 5:30 the 55� water began to take its toll and Kinsella's stroke slackened. "It was so cold I could hardly keep going," Kinsella said later. "And I'd swallowed so much seawater I was feeling very sick. I contemplated giving up. But I thought of the disgrace if I let the Channel beat me. And I thought of my parents on the boat. And I thought of my fianc�e back at home...and, hell, I knew I had to keep going."
Gradually Kinsella's stroke became stronger. He was still cold but the sickness was now only intermittent. He had lost power and rhythm, but there was no question of his stopping.
By now Plit was in front and pulling away. His course was to the east of Kinsella's and it seemed he would land between Calais and Cap Gris-Nez. With seven miles to go he appeared to have an unassailable lead of nearly a mile.
On FE 137, the Kinsellas watched gloomily. Jack dared not tell his son how far ahead Plit was. "It'll only depress him," he said. "We can't win now but we must complete the swim." For her part, Ruth was alarmed by how far to the west they had gone. They seemed to have drifted miles from Plit. She mentioned this to Brickell. "Tell John we're not out of the race yet," he said. Brickell had sensed the beginning of a westerly and altered course to pick it up. If he was right and his swimmer was strong enough, they could reach the favored point at Cap Gris-Nez before the tide changed. But there was a lot of water to make up.