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Published: Friday, 7/31/2009

Maumee native Muenzer makes Channel crossing dream come true

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Wielding a broom handle underwater, John Muenzer furiously cut through a huge mass of jellyfish to clear a path through the English Channel in the middle of the night.

The improbable scenario unfolded a few weeks ago when Muenzer, a Maumee native, completed his lifelong dream of swimming across the English Channel. Muenzer, 47, swam the 21 miles overnight on July 20-21.

It took the University of Toledo Hall of Fame member 13 hours and 12 minutes to complete the most coveted feat in open water, marathon swimming.

Muenzer, who now resides in Elgin, Ill., also survived a brush with a pod of porpoises and nearly was rundown by a cargo ship.

"More people have been in outer space and climbed Mount Everest than have swum across the English Channel," Muenzer said. "I fulfilled my dream."

John's wife Mary said he trained incredibly hard, but that didn't

alleviate her concerns.

"The nighttime swim is a very scary thing. You can't see a thing," Mary said. "I was very thrilled when he finished. He had waited 32 years."

The dream formed when Muenzer was a sophomore at St. John's Jesuit High School.

John Muenzer celebrates crossing the English Channel after he reached his destination in France. Muenzer set six schoolrecords when he was a swimmer at the University of Toledo. John Muenzer celebrates crossing the English Channel after he reached his destination in France. Muenzer set six schoolrecords when he was a swimmer at the University of Toledo.
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Shortly after graduating from UT where he set six school

records, Muenzer swam across Lake Erie in 1983. At 22, he swam from Point Pelee, Canada to

Cedar Point.

"It was 36 miles. I was quite slow. It took 24 hours and 20 minutes," he said.

Muenzer said the accomplishment further whet his appetite to cross the English Channel. But a career, marriage and the raising of seven children intervened.

"The English Channel is the granddaddy of swimming," he said. "There have been only a little more than 1,400 solo swims completed. It was always in the back of my mind. I maintained my stroke by swimming three times a week. Last July I told the family it would take a year to train. They were all on board with it."

Muenzer entered the murky water at 9:40 p.m. at Abbot's Cliff in Dover, England.

"It was just waves and darkness," he said. "The pilot yelled let's go. The boat was really rocking. But it all came together. I said, 'You do your job and I'll do mine. Let's get this done.' I jumped in the water and it was surreal. There was no noise

underwater."

Muenzer first had to swim 200 yards into the beach to start the crossing.

"It was rough the first hour and a half," he said. "But the waves started to dissipate."

Just then Muenzer encountered what he called "the most unknown thing."

"I got stung by a jellyfish on my left forearm," he said. "It radiated for five minutes. It was a really hot pain, like a nail was driven into my arm. It was prickly heat."

Muenzer continued swimming until he got stung eight more times on his arms, legs and back.

"The big one was in the face," he said. "That stopped me in my tracks. I lifted my head out of the water and stopped."

He yelled to the captain who trained a large hand-held spotlight onto the dark water.

"I put my face under water and what I saw was unbelievable. I was looking at a curtain of hundreds and hundreds of jellyfish," he said. "I was so scared. I thought the swim was over. I was going to be stopped by jellyfish."

The captain said he had not seen anything like it in his 40 years.

"At that point I had to find a way to get through. I asked for a broom handle," Muenzer said. "I banged them out of my way and made a path for myself. It took half an hour and I got stung at least 20 times."

Muenzer then encountered another of the Channel's major hazards.

"The ship traffic was very heavy," he said. "I got into the French shipping lane with big cargo ships with containers stacked high. One came really close."

Muenzer estimated that the ship came within 75 yards.

"It left a huge wake. I couldn't believe it," he said. "I saw my captain shaking his fist at the ship."

Muenzer's wife accompanied him on the trip, but did not want to be on the boat.

"I heard a lot of times attempts are abandoned because the person with them gets seasick or talks them out of it," Mary said. "We had a friend on the boat and he would call my phone. I kept everyone up to date on Twitter."

John's mother-in-law, Dee Dillon, of Temperance, said the family stayed up all night watching for new "tweets."

"We got updates about every 40 minutes," she said. "He had all these

obstacles."

Late in the swim, Muenzer thought he'd been grazed by a shark.

"I was 15 yards out parallel with the boat when it hit my leg," he said. "I pulled tight to the boat. The captain told me there were three porpoises that were swimming with me. One had nudged me."

Muenzer said he got back into a rhythm and was on pace for a 10-hour crossing. But the current changed when he was just a mile from shore.

"I was sprinting and I looked up and I was still a mile away," he said.

He finally reached a calm cove.

"The last hour was just a blast. I could see the bottom," he said. "I landed at Wissant, France. It was an uninhabited beach. When I walked out, I looked up and saw two World War II German bunkers built into the hill."

It was 10:52 a.m. The crossing had taken just over 13 hours.

Muenzer did not start competitive swimming

until he was a freshman and competed in AAU events.

"I had some success early and that's why I gravitated to it," Muenzer said.

After graduating from St. John's in 1979, Muenzer earned a partial scholarship to Toledo. He finished among the top six in the 200, 500 and 1,650 (or the mile) freestyle events at the Mid-American Conference championships as a senior.

Twenty five years later, Muenzer found himself swimming 30 to 45 miles per week. Muenzer would make a 45-minute drive to Lake Michigan three days per week to train in 45 degree water.

"I'd get there at 4 in the morning," he said. "It's so cold you have to fight yourself to stay in the water. All's I had was a regular swim suit, swim cap and goggles."

Muenzer reached his goal of averaging two-plus miles per hour in open water. He also dropped 35 pounds off his 6-foot-5 frame going from 260 to 225 pounds.

Muenzer said crossing attempts are made only from May to September. "It's typically a two year wait to get a pilot [to assist in the crossing]," he said.

Participants have a seven-day window and weather conditions and currents have to be perfect, Muenzer said. It takes an average of

9 to 17 hours to complete.

Muenzer's window was July 14-20 and the weather, with wind gusts up to 30 miles per hour and waves has high as 12 feet, did not cooperate until the final day.

"I had trained for 10 months and it would have been so disheartening," he said. "Finally the pilot called and said the winds were down, but I'd have to swim at night.

"I wasn't afraid of what was in the water, I was afraid of not having the sun on my back in 61 degree water," he said. "But I knew it was my only opportunity."

Muenzer, who is vice president and co-owner of a freight brokerage company, said he spent about $11,000 on the venture.

He said he'll receive a commemorative map that charts his path.

Muenzer said he will stay in shape by swimming three days a week and will compete for a local club. He also plans to be a part of the support crew for a friend who will attempt to cross the Channel.

"I'd love to do Loch Ness next. And I think I'd like to put together a relay team to swim from Florida to Cuba," Muenzer said.

Contact Mark Monroe at:

mmonroe@theblade.com

or 419-304-4760.



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