If all goes well, on the evening of July 26, Stanley Paris will step onto a French beach, having swum the 20-plus miles across the English Channel. He's done it before, too. But this time, he'll be just shy of 71 years old, which would make him the oldest person to achieve the feat. Paris, a physical therapist and founder of the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in St. Augustine, Fla., is busy training and gearing up for his trip to Dover, England, where he'll start his crossing. (He's chronicling his progress on his blog.) I caught up with him to talk about his historic swim, previous attempts and a success at age 49, and how his training has changed in the years since.
I have to ask—why on earth would you do this again?
A lot of people my age are couch potatoes and don't believe they can get back to a youthful physical state. But the body doesn't really lose its ability in endurance sports as much as we allow it to lose its ability. I want to promote that people of my age can do better than what they're doing. When I started this, I wasn't in shape. I had to start all over again. But I'm not just some old crackpot who thinks he can swim the English Channel—I stand a very good chance of making it. What were your previous crossings like?
I made an attempt in 1983, but the weather got very rough, the boat hit me twice, and emotionally I wasn't as strong as I should have been. So when the boat pilot said, "You're doing very well, all the other swimmers have quit," that didn't encourage me. I thought, "I've beaten them." And I climbed up the ladder into the boat. I'd swum 18 miles and had only five to go. In 1986, my boat hit a sandbar and I stood up 400 yards from France. [Authorities ruled that attempt fell short of the full channel crossing.] I went back and did it three weeks later. So legally, I'm in the books as having done it once. How has your training been different this time?
I have an older body now! When I was younger, I could swim every day; I'd swim four or five or six hours every day. Now I can't do that—I need a day's rest in between. So I tend to swim a little less in terms of hours per week, but each swim is a little longer. [Paris swims in a salt-water pool in Florida and in the ocean.] How else do you train?
I took a leaf from Tiger Woods's book; you don't just train to be a golfer by being on the links, and you don't just train to swim in the pool. I was getting tired when I first got into the pool, so I started going to the gym. I mainly worked on my upper extremities—I didn't want to build a lot of muscle mass in my legs because I don't use them when I swim. Kicking consumes too much energy and draws too much blood to my legs when I want to keep it in my torso to keep my core temperature up. After three months of going to the gym, I could stroke very well as soon as I got in the pool. Don't you get tired of swimming for hours?
One of the things that is hardest is the utter boredom of going up and down a swimming pool. When you go on a run or bike ride, you have company or can look at the scenery around you. But I found an MP3 player that lets me listen to music when I train in the pool. I listen to the "Chariots of Fire" theme, Fats Domino, Neil Diamond, Billy Joel. I like the Tina Turner song, "Simply the Best." But when I'm swimming the Channel, I won't be using the MP3 player. I'll be focusing on my stroke. You're raising money for physical therapy research. That's not a cause I've heard of before.
Physical therapy is now an independent profession, and patients can come directly to us without having been referred by a physician. But we don't have the research that shows we are more effective than replacing a hip or a knee or fusing the spine. We can show in the short term that physical therapy can be more effective than medication or surgery but we don't have the five- to 10-year studies showing that it's more effective and more cost effective. We feel that the ability to restore and maintain and enhance physical functioning hasn't been shown in long-term studies. And we need money to do that research. And what will you do when you hit the beach in France?
When I finished up my third attempt, I felt so fresh that I regret that I didn't turn around and try to swim back to England. It gnawed at me all this time. So this time, I'm going to swim until I'm defeated.