Sean Nuttall had swum the English Channel. He had completed a circumnavigation of Manhattan. Once, despite being violently ill, he kicked and stroked his way from Santa Catalina Island, Calif., to Los Angeles.
Those endeavours – considered the triple crown of open-water swimming – covered distances from 32 to 46 kilometres and took from nearly nine to 15 hours each.
On Friday, Aug. 12, the 43-year-old stepped into Lake Ontario and out of it again on Sunday, Aug. 14, after becoming only the second person to achieve a double-crossing. He covered 100 kilometres in 42 hours. The only other to do it – his hero Vicki Keith – accomplished the feat in 1987 in 56 hours and 10 minutes. She travelled a total of 95 km.
In 1954, Marilyn Bell did a freestyle swim for 20:59 through high winds and five-metre waves to be the first to swim one way across Lake Ontario. A 16-year-old, she left from Youngstown, N.Y., and landed near the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds, approximately 60 km away.
Born in Toronto and now a public defence lawyer in New York, Nuttall plowed through the 20 C water without a wetsuit or floats or any other aids. It was the longest unassisted swim ever completed by a Canadian and the eighth longest in the world.
“The difference in this case when compared to my other swims was the order of magnitude,” Nuttall says. “It was a big jump up. The biggest thing that scared me was the water temperature. Because of the length of time there was a high risk of hypothermia.
“Every time I stopped I curled into a ball and tried to get my arms warm. At one point I yelled to my support team, ‘Please don’t let me die here!’ My core temperature was fine but the actual sensation I felt said otherwise.”
A former water polo player at Yale, Nuttall commenced and concluded the conquest at Budapest Park, the site of a freedom monument for Hungary and a plaque that honours Marilyn Bell, who in 1954 became the first to do a one-way crossing of Lake Ontario.
Nuttall’s mother’s family fled Hungary after the Second World War.
“I visited the park the night before I started and looked around and it kind of felt like kismet to me,” Nuttall says.
He did the swim in memory of his father, Robert, a Toronto defence lawyer who died at age 67 in 2017 from a sudden and unknown neurodegenerative disease. Funds raised through the swim were forwarded to the University of Toronto to be used in research for brain disorders.
“My father went from the end of a jury trial to being in an emergency ward three months later because of paranoia,” Nuttall says. “A couple of months later he was gone.
“It went so quickly we never got a diagnosis. It was horrific.”
The double-crossing took place a little more than five years after his father’s death.
“I wanted to do something and all of it felt so special,” he says.
Nuttall remained in the water all of the time and took a break each 40 minutes on his way from Toronto to St. Catharines, Ont., and then every 30 minutes on the way back. A support team periodically fed him gel packets, which provide an energy boost, peanut butter and jam, Jujubes, bananas and gave him energy drinks.
At the midway point, he stopped and ate a hamburger. Keith had done the same halfway through her swim in 2005. He texted her a photo to let her know.
Nuttall had never attempted a marathon swim but was nearly talked into one in 2013 when two friends attempted to persuade him to join them in an attempt across the Strait of Gibraltar.
He had not swam in a long time and found he was tired after training for 30 minutes in a pool.
“Thankfully I had a trial that came up and wasn’t able to do it,” Nuttall says.
The following year he made his first long-distance swim from Battery Park on Lower Manhattan beneath the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge to Sandy Hook, N.J., a total of 28 km.
A year ago, he completed the triple crown when he swam from England to France in water temperatures that fluctuated from 15 to 20 C.
“Many swimmers would tell you the English Channel is the most difficult,” Nuttall said. “I found the Catalina Crossing to be the most gruelling. You start at midnight so can’t see anything so that is a mental challenge. The first two hours I was convinced I would never make it.”
He is at home in Brooklyn now recovering from the swim of his life.
“I can’t really feel my left arm,” he says. “I can’t raise it above my head.”
The swim cap he wore was so tight he still can’t feel his forehead.
“I feel like I got a Botox injection,” he says.
He is not sure what to tackle next.
“Since my girlfriend will read this, I am officially retired,” he says. “There are a couple [of long-distance swims] I am thinking about. But when you get to this stage it’s probable that nobody has ever swum them because it is not possible.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Vicki Keith’s double crossing (date, time, length) and Marilyn Bell’s swim style. This version has been corrected.