"What can you catch in the East River?" goes the old comedy line. "A fish that comes out and says, 'You call that a hook?' "
The point is well taken—about all the rivers around Manhattan, in fact. They bathe a brash and varied city, where movers, movie stars and maniacs bid you hello in the deli. So it was fitting that when the Second Annual Manhattan Island Swimming Marathon began last Sunday, among the 28 starters was the first person to swim around Hong Kong Island, a 37-year-old Aussie named Linda McGill, who was swimming topless; Ashby Harper, who last year became the oldest person, at 65, to swim the English Channel; and a 34-year-old lawyer-turned-literary agent (Real Men Don't Eat Quiche) named Richard Marks, who was "sedentary" from 1967 to '80, then started swimming and crossed the 26-mile-wide Catalina Island Channel 18 months later.
And those weren't even the favorites. That group included Dave Horning, who won last year's race in 7:25:45, and who three weeks later got off his bike in the middle of Hawaii's Ironman Triathlon and ate a prearranged, 90-second-long catered lunch, complete with banana, water, silver, candelabra, linen tablecloth and a waiter in tails. Horning seems to operate on the theory that if he so much as brushes his teeth in the morning and there are no reporters or photographers to record the event, then he can't be said to have truly brushed his teeth. Since Hawaii, he had run the New York Marathon, in 2:54, completed six other triathlons, damaged his knee skiing and acquired acute tendinitis in his left shoulder. He wasn't in the best of shape, but then he never is. Horning would be tough to beat.
One man who would try was Harald Johnson of Santa Monica, Calif., the 35-year-old co-founder and art director of Swim Swim and Triathlon Magazine. He may have had the most dramatic story of all. Johnson hadn't been in New York City since 1953. He was five then and dressed in lederhosen. His family, immigrants from Germany, had steamed into New York Harbor on board the S.S. Neptunia. On July 8, Johnson's birthday, his mother sent him some pictures from that occasion. There was one of the Statue of Liberty. "Do you remember this?" she wrote.
"I'd never forgotten," he said before the swim. "That's why I'm here."
One week before the Manhattan race, Johnson outswam Horning and Luca Del Borgo—more on him presently—by 1� minutes, to win a 1�-mile ocean swim off Long Island. Now, at race time, he had shaved down his body, a technique used by pool racers to trim a few milliseconds from their times. Johnson was serious. He would be tough, too.
Two days before the swim, Horning and Johnson sat eating pasta and discussing the local favorite, Del Borgo, a 20-year-old Manhattan lifeguard and freelance photographer's assistant. Johnson said, "I guarantee the winner won't be less than 30." Horning, 35 on July 27, replied, "He'll be 35 a few days after the race."
"Luca hasn't had the life experience," said Horning.
"He hasn't been through a divorce," said Johnson, who has. "You have to have one of those to win this race."
Del Borgo's best time for the 1,650, one measure of distance potential, was better than Horning's or Johnson's, but he lacked their wise-guy bluster and confidence. "I'm nervous," Del Borgo said. "People tell me I'm fast. But I've never seen some of these swimmers, so I can't compare myself."