Warkentin goes to great lengths, and heights, in Olympic swimming bid

Oct. 24, 2007

Note: This story originally ran in the Santa Barbara News-Press on Oct. 20, 2007.

Mark Warkentin needed a good sense of direction to navigate the 25 kilometers of ocean when he won his last two U.S. Open Swimming Championships.

You just had to wonder, though, if he knew where he was going three weeks ago.

To prepare for Sunday's Olympic Trials in the 10k, Warkentin headed nearly 1,200 miles east of the Pacific -- and more than 6,000 feet above it.

"The higher the better for my red blood cells and lung capacity," he explained earlier this week from the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

But as far as developing heart goes, Warkentin was entirely on his own. The high-altitude center has all the feel of a Himalayan monastery when you're an ocean swimmer.

"When I was at the Santa Barbara Swim Club and at UCSB, I'd have other people to train with, but I've had to do a lot of it by myself up here," he said. "It can be pretty difficult when you put your face into the water and tell yourself to swim hard for two hours with no one else there to endure the pain with you."

It was such a strain that Warkentin hounded U.S. Olympic officials into letting his wife Diana join him at the training center. She's now part of his support team, along with SBSC coach John Dussliere.

"There's this long-standing tradition that only athletes are allowed on campus," he said, "but I just kept pushing them and pushing them."

It's no wonder that Warkentin is now up for USA Swimming's Perseverance Award, which will be presented at the Golden Goggle Awards Banquet in Los Angeles on Nov. 18. Fans pick the winner online (you can cast your vote at www.goldengoggles.com).

But he's more concerned about Sunday's competition in Fort Myers, Fla. It will determine the two U.S. qualifiers for the 10k at next spring's World Championships in Seville, Spain. He placed third in the 10k at the previous two U.S. Championships.

"In my estimation, it should be a three-person race, and I'm one of the three," Warkentin said. "There's a second level of guys who are very close, though."

The Olympic field of 25 swimmers will then be selected from the international meet in Spain.

Warkentin has already qualified for those World Championships in the 25k, but that won't help him get to Beijing: The Olympics only holds the 10k in open-water swimming.

"It won't be a cakewalk to get to the Olympics even if I do make it to the World Championships in the 10k, since they limit the number of people from larger countries," Warkentin said. "But I do have to rate the difficulty of advancing as being tougher this weekend."

And it won't be as lonely as his training, if last spring's World Championships in Australia are any indication. Warkentin finished 17th in the shorter 5k after getting tangled up with other swimmers on the first two turns.

"That wasn't a swim race," he told reporters afterward. "That was a wrestling match."

Other creatures have been known to crowd into the competition, too. He noticed a penguin swimming just in front of him during his last competition in Australia.

"It was strange -- the thought suddenly entering my brain, 'What's a penguin doing here ?' " said Warkentin, who was wondering if he were hallucinating. "I've also swum with turtles and seals and dolphins . . . I even had a jellyfish encounter in Australia.

"There were thousands upon thousands of them. You couldn't take a stroke without touching one, it was like some cartoon invasion. They weren't the stinging kind, but a lot of people got allergic reactions to them."

He's raced several times in the ocean off Fort Myers, but Sunday's competition will be held at a man-made lake rimmed by mansions.

"It's going to be like swimming through Montecito, with people sitting on their balconies to watch us," Warkentin said.

The biggest difference is that there are no "Beware of Alligator" signs in Montecito.

"We're told that when they see an alligator in that lake, they quickly remove it," he said. "The thing is, one week before last year's ocean race in Fort Myers, a fisherman there snagged the largest hammerhead shark ever caught.

"I'd rather take my chances with the alligators."

The monotony can be just as daunting. Although times will vary depending on water conditions, Warkentin figures that it will take between one hour and 40 minutes to 2:10 to complete Sunday's race.

He sings to himself to get through it.

"I listen to a lot of Christian rock, and I'll be thinking of Christian songs during my races," he said. "It's kind of a comfort to my soul and gets me get through the pain.

"I've got faith in my life, and it's really helped me this past year."

He'll be counting on it again this Sunday against swimmers of all species.