My Perfect Adventure: Antonio Argüelles

The decorated swimmer tells us what he admires about a former Bhutan king, which danger to watch out for if you're ever jogging in Tibet, and why he went ahead with his epic second Triple Crown—even when everyone told him he was crazy

Antonio Arguelles.     Photo: David Leah

What better job than doing what you enjoy and being paid for it?

Only 67 people have completed the Triple Crown of open water swimming, which includes three famous courses: the 20.2-mile Catalina Channel, off California; the 21-mile English Channel swim between England and France; and the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon. Antonio Argüelles of Mexico is part of this elite group, but he’s also in a league of his own, as the only person in the world to ever do the Triple Crown twice. The second time, when he was 50 years old, he finished all three courses in just one year, becoming the third person to accomplish the feat so quickly.

Argüelles, now 53, learned to swim at his grandfather’s house in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He developed Olympic ambitions after watching Mexican swimmers Felipe Muñoz and Maria Teresa Ramirez Gómez win medals in the 1968 Games, and he eventually moved from the local YMCA pool to Mexico’s national team, swimming the 400-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle. At 17 he moved to California, lived with Speedo's North America manager, Bill Lee (who he met through his national swim coach), and enrolled at Stanford University, where he swam for two months on the school team. He worked hard in the water but hit a rough patch. “I realized that even though I was putting all my body and soul into the sport, I was never going to be good enough. I just didn’t have the genes,” he told Outside. One day he climbed out of the pool and told his coach that he was done swimming competitively.

He turned from the water to the road, running several marathons, including one in less than three hours, and finishing one Ironman race in the 1990s. But all that running took a toll on his body, so a few years later he started swimming again to rehabilitate. He finished the Manhattan Island Marathon swim in 1997, and the Catalina Channel and English Channel two years later, joining the Triple Crown club. He was simultaneously working as a high-ranking education official in the Mexican government, but he left his post in 2000 and started a system of seven private high schools for about 2,500 low- to middle-income students in Mexico City.

In 2009 Argüelles swam the Triple Crown courses a second time, finishing the English Channel in less than 13 hours. That year he was awarded Mexico’s National Sports Award from then-President Felipe Calderón. Of the ambitious year, he says his main motivation was “to start a crusade against dropping out from school and in favor of healthy living. I was turning 50 and wanted to celebrate by swimming the three most important long-distance swims in one season, using this experience to change and inspire other people’s lives.” In this interview, he tells us what he admires about a former Bhutan king, which danger to watch out for if you're ever jogging in Tibet, and why he went ahead with his epic second Triple Crown, even when everyone told him he was crazy.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I wake near Zirahuen, a lake situated in the Mexican state of Michoacán, up in the mountains where boats are restricted, and I start my day with a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Then comes stretching, at least 30 minutes to get every muscle in place from my head to my toes, and I finish with situps and lower back exercises.

A long swim in the lake is always a thrill. Getting into the cold water is incredible when no boats or other swimmers are around. Floating along, the sensation of peace embraces me, the water is crystal clear, and the kayak that’s guiding me makes no sound. The sun comes up, and for several hours, almost eight, I swim. Finally, I get back to shore.

A proper meal is in order: No more Aceel Gel. Eating solids and a cold beer usually makes lunch and dinner a time to forget the pain and enjoy the thrill of a good workout. It is the ultimate test before the big swim. I enjoy the company of my crew: the coaches, the doctor, and the physical therapist. We all have stories to remember and dreams to share.

As the sun goes down, the sky turns for a few minutes into a symphony of colors, which I love to capture with my camera. When night comes, the final minutes before bed are spent looking at stars. Living in a metropolitan area with 20 million people gives me no opportunity to see a black sky with stars shining.

As I go to bed, my body is so tired that I disconnect and fall asleep immediately.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go?
I’d love to go to the North or South Poles, traveling in a sled, and camping in the company of dogs. I think it would be the ultimate experience of endurance.

Where is the best place you've ever visited?
Bhutan. It is such a beautiful country, and I appreciate the importance of emphasizing happiness instead of wealth. I admire Bhutan's fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who coined, in 1972, the term "gross national happiness" in substitution of the gross natural product index. Everyone seems happy and enjoys living in their country without the pressures of wealth or modern life amenities.

If you could have lunch with any athlete or adventurer, who would it be?
George Mallory. I would love to find out if he really made it to the top of Mount Everest 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. To me, Mallory is the greatest adventurer of the 20th century.

What's something you can't travel without?
Tennis shoes and swimming goggles are always in my bag. Usually I run and swim wherever I go, and I can’t get into water without goggles.

I love to run when I travel, though I had a scary experience once in Lhasa. I went out at 5 a.m. and had never thought about the size of dogs in that part of the world. I was scared by a couple of them.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
I make sure I have a place to work out—to run or swim. I hate hotel gyms. Sadly, hotel employees always recommend the “safe” areas for running; if they show me a map, I know I’m in trouble.

Unfortunately, swimming is different. Unless I can get a boat to escort me, I stick to the pools.

What motivated you to complete the Triple Crown twice?
I never thought about doing it twice. I just didn’t want a birthday party with a video of all my friends getting drunk. I aimed at something special, something that was worth telling my grandchildren one day. I decided to do the Triple Crown in one year, which nobody had done yet. When I spoke to Nora Toledano (she is one of the few people who have done a double English Channel swim) about the idea, she thought I was crazy. I became the third person after Andrew Alan Voisard and Rendy Lynn Opdycke to do it.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
I think many children want to be pilots or doctors. That was my case, at least: I wanted to be both. Unfortunately, though, I had to begin working at a very young age.

I started my first company when I was 14 years old, selling Speedo goods in Mexico. This job paid my tuition at Stanford, but I always wanted to be a writer. I have written several books, some of them have even sold on Amazon, but I finally gave up writing and studied economics, which lead me to public service and later entrepreneurship.

I have no regrets; education and motivation come in different forms.

When and how did you start marathon swimming?
It was a two-stage process. When I was a competitive swimmer, I excelled at long-distance races. Marathon swimming did not exist at the time, but there were some races in Mexico’s oceans that were three to five kilometers long, and I did well in them. I quit swimming in ’78 and for almost 20 years never got back into a pool. I did several triathlons but never trained for the swimming part of the competition.

After several injuries and no more challenges on land, except Everest, I decided I wanted to swim the English Channel and started training in 1996 to accomplish that for my 40th birthday.

I did Manhattan in ‘97 and Catalina and the Channel in ‘99. In those days, the Triple Crown did not exist. I always joke that in ‘99 I did not want to do Manhattan because I wanted a different swim, and instead in June I swam around Key West.

What advice would you give to an aspiring open-water swimmer?
Respect the oceans, lakes, and rivers. Prepare well and do not expect miracles. Take time to achieve your goal and do not rush your swims. All my big swims took three years of preparation.

Who has been your most influential mentor?
Different people have influenced me at different stages of my life. If I had to choose only one, it would be Marcelo Pasternac. He was a Lacanian psychoanalyst who I worked with for seven years—going twice a week for analysis. He helped me put some perspective back into my life.

After him, it was Bill Lee, who was like a father to me. He taught me the meaning of generosity and gave me the foundations on which I have developed my life: honesty, hard work, enjoyment of life, family values (his way).

Do you have a life philosophy?
Work hard, don’t whine, and never give up.

Have you ever had an accident while swimming that made you think about going such long distances again?
Fortunately, I’ve never had an accident while swimming, though I did make a big mistake in my first attempt to cross Catalina.

It was my first big swim and Greg Elliot picked us up in Newport. The crew had gone shopping and we had a pile of food—we intended to eat spaghetti at some point. Trying to show my appreciation for their cooking, I went down into the cabin; I must have been down there for less than five minutes but I started getting seasick. I went back to the deck but the symptoms never disappeared. To make matters worse, we had wind all the way and the sea never stopped moving.

I started the swim at 4 a.m., and after four hours I had to be pulled out of the water. I felt terrible; never before had I not finished a race or swim. As I climbed into the boat, everyone but Greg and Nora were OK. Even Nora's husband, an accomplished sailor, was sick. I felt better. After that day, I never went back into a cabin while on a boat.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be?
I would love to have been a professional athlete. What better job than doing what you enjoy and being paid for it?

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Being a grandfather. I have a son, David (29), and a daughter, Ximena (21), who I hope will one day have children for me to spoil.

Writing a new book on the quest of the Triple Crown in one year.

Getting to the top of Everest.

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