Taking on Water

June 20, 2006

by Mark Patton, News-Press Staff Writer

Mark Warkentin swam in a pool -- lap after lap, mile after mile, year after year -- and felt he was getting nowhere.

"I'd been a pro ever since graduating from college four years ago, but I hadn't been able to swim well enough to get any money at all," said the former San Marcos High star. "I thought it was something that I'd never be good enough to do."

He swam in three Olympic Trials -- but there were always enough superstars to keep him out of the Games.

But Warkentin has finally found some open water.

The Santa Barbara Swim Club member burst onto the national scene earlier this month by winning the 25,000-meter race at the USA Swimming Open Water Championships in the ocean off Ft. Myers, Fla. He also took third in the 10K, which will become an official Olympic event at the 2008 Beijing Games, as well as the 5K.

The sports world has now opened up to Warkentin -- a spot on both the roster and payroll of USA Swimming.

"The guy from USA Swimming was telling me, 'Wow! He looks so great!' " said his coach, Gregg Wilson. "The thing is, he trained so hard for this event. He really stretched my imagination as far as training goes."

Warkentin's time of 5 hours, 1 minute and 34 seconds beat the unofficial record by nearly 20 minutes even while the kayak containing Wilson and their official paddler struggled to the end. Choppy water submerged the craft a few miles from the finish.

"We found out after the race that our paddler was a last-minute replacement and had never paddled a kayak before," Wilson pointed out. "I should've known, since he twice hit me in the head with the paddle."

Warkentin, 26, had come around Estero Island when the kayak got into trouble.

"The water started getting rough again, with the current and the wind, and it was also a shipping lane where you'd have all these motor yachts kicking up waves," said Wilson, who sat in the front of the kayak. "Everytime we'd hit a wave, a big splash of water would come over me and get into the boat.

"I tried to bail it out with these little Dixie Cups, but we really started to take on water."

Warkentin figured something was wrong when he noticed that he had pulled about 30 meters ahead of the kayak.

"Hey, I need some help here!' " he yelled back at the boat.

"I looked up and yelled back, 'So do we!' " Wilson said. "And then we became totally submerged, with everything floating away."

A sheriff's boat rescued the kayak and eventually refloated it, although Warkentin nearly lost his way before it could rejoin him.

"I was 4 hours into the race and a bit confused, and I missed a buoy -- which would've meant disqualification," he said. "I was relying on Gregg to navigate, and when he wasn't there anymore, it put me in a bit of a panic.

"I kept looking back, and I saw Gregg signaling me to go back. I had to backtrack about 200 meters to go around the buoy, and it cost me about three or four minutes."

Warkentin, who had no idea how close the second-place swimmer had come, still won by about a 15-minute margin.

He got his start in ocean swimming just a year ago, when coach Jeremy Kipp suggested he enter Semana Nautica's One-Mile Swim.

"I ended up swimming real fast, about a 16:30," he said. "I was still just focusing on pool swimming, but I had such a rough outing at the Spring Nationals, and I was training distance so much, that I decided to give this a shot."

He "got a lot of confidence" by taking third in the 5K, the first race at the Open Water Championships. He then led the 10K most of the way before finishing third again, just three seconds behind the winner and defending world champion.

"I started thinking about it," Warkentin said, "and I told myself, 'OK, I've been getting faster with every single race, and Gregg and I have been training for the 25K, so I should be pretty good at this."

He was also buoyed during the 10K by having beaten Larson Jensen -- an Olympic silver medalist and American record-holder in the 1,500 -- by four minutes.

"Everyone thought he'd walk away with it," Warkentin said. "I've raced against him a lot of times, and he's always gotten the better of me."

His performance in Ft. Myers qualifies him for the World Championships in Melbourne, Australia next March. It also restores him as a candidate for the Olympics, although Warkentin doesn't want to look that far ahead.

"There's so much time between now and then, and I've been disappointed before," he explained. "But what is neat is that this opens up a lot of international opportunities for me. I'll now be able to represent America and travel the world as an American athlete."

It's enough for Warkentin to realize that he's finally gotten somewhere.

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