Glorious Bastard: Martin Strel

He's kinda fat and more than a little rude (and he drinks like a fish). But long-distance swimmer Martin Strel has become the world's most unlikely philanthropist—out to save the world's dirtiest rivers a million awkward strokes at a time.

Strel on tour on Oxford Street, in London    

Martin Strel

Emerging from the Serpentine, in London's Hyde Park: "Mind is power, believe me," Strel says. "Fat is power too"

Martin Strel

Swimming in the rain: Day 41 of Strel's 2007 Amazon Expedition

Well, I thought the Man Who Swam the Amazon was stripping down to nothing. So despite the throngs of people strolling beside Lake Bled, in northwestern Slovenia, I followed suit, hurriedly ripping off shirt and jeans to catch up. It was only after he silently handed me a towel to finish my costume change more modestly that I realized my error. Ever prepared, the world's greatest endurance swimmer had been wearing a Speedo underneath his khakis all along.

I should have known. This was, after all, Martin Strel, the man who, at age 55, has never seen a body of water he didn't want to swim. In 2000, he established his first long-distance-swimming world record by descending the 1,867-mile Danube River in 58 days; in 2002, he swam all 2,350 miles of the mighty Mississippi in 68 days; in 2004, he slogged 2,487 miles down the vile Yangtze in 51 days; and in 2007, he conquered 3,274 miles of the 4,000-mile Amazon, the world's second-longest river, in 66. I'd naturally assumed that a guy who'd spent much of the past decade in a dripping banana hammock wouldn't think twice about disrobing in public. But apparently skinny-dipping in one of his country's most popular tourist sites was out of the question.

A quick glance confirmed that Strel was still the world's heaviest elite endurance swimmer, all barrel chest and belly. The proud, famous tummy jiggled and bounced—one, two, three times—as we jumped in together. The glacial lake's unexpectedly warm waters felt good, and I smiled with anticipation as we placed our first strokes together: Martin Strel and me, embarking on an epic journey! But moments later, as we stopped to adjust our goggles, he pointed out a not-so-distant float as our destination.

I had been hoping for something a bit longer. Strel usually trains five hours a day, and as a lifelong competitive swimmer I was expecting to understand the man by the way he swam. It turned out, though, he wasn't training. He was mostly swimming to promote the documentary of his Amazon swim, Big River Man, which wowed audiences at Sundance and the rest of the film-festival circuit, and premieres January 9 on Discovery's Planet Green. The week before I arrived, Strel was swimming and speaking in Norway; the day after I left, he was inspiring them on the Thames; and a week later, he was in Texas answering the age-old big-belly-man question: over or under the Speedo?

But Strel didn't disappoint me. O Homem Peixe ("the Fish Man"), as the Brazilians worshipfully call him, eventually emerged in full force. Strel has a natural, rolling stroke that recruits his entire body for each long pull through the water. It's the kind of stroke one might employ to be the first person to swim all the way from Africa to Europe—which he was, in 1997. The farther we swam, the more his hips gracefully rolled from side to side, driving him forward with ease.

"You cannot do fancy high-elbow swimming for 50 miles, Hodding," Strel said, in the way one might tell a five-year-old that, no, his umbrella wouldn't break the fall from a two-story roof. "Swimming the Amazon. It wasn't the hard part. Not about technique. It was about staying alive. You must be different when staying with the animals so long. You have to change your mind. You have to be part of jungle."

This is the kind of unorthodox mind-set that allows one man to swim the earth's longest rivers while someone like me splashes around in a pool. A light wind rippled across Lake Bled, bringing with it a slight chill, so we headed back. As we neared the shore, gray-haired Strel sped ahead, ostensibly to be the first to touch land.

"I SWIM FOR PEACE, friendship, and clean water," Strel likes to tell people, and, while that's not the entire story, it's all true. Strel wants to save the world, by swimming it.

In the beginning, though, he swam to escape his father. Young Martin was a normal child growing up in Mokronog, a small town 40 miles outside the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, then part of Yugoslavia. He broke rules, things, and body parts (like his nose, when another kid sucker-punched him), and his father beat him for it. Strel would run away whenever he could; he slept in the family barn so frequently that his mother took to leaving food and clothes in it. One day, Strel says, his father was chasing him when a stream cut off his escape. He jumped in and, with Dad pursuing on foot, ended up swimming for miles. It was his first long-distance race. He also learned a very valuable lesson: Swim downstream.

Strel's childhood is full of fabulous tales like that. He learned to swim, he says, in a pool he made by damming the Mirna River, not far from his home. Evidently he did a good job, because when he was ten a troop of soldiers decided to race one another in his river-made pool. The winner got a crate of beer. Strel joined in and, although he was half their size and age, won the race, leaving with the beer. He's been swimming and drinking, the story goes, ever since.

Strel escaped to Ljubljana as a teen, working an assortment of odd jobs, including paper boy, mechanic, and bricklayer. It wasn't until he was 24, on vacation on the Adriatic after graduating from the music academy where he learned to teach flamenco guitar, that Strel began to fulfill his aquatic destiny. He was swimming long stretches along the crowded seawall, day after day, when one afternoon a man called him over. What followed was like a scene out of Hollywood, only one that would never happen in the U.S.

"You could be a good swimmer, maybe," the man said. He was the Yugoslavian national long-distance-swimming coach. "You train every day?"

"No," Strel responded.

"You want to be a professional marathon swimmer? Race in lakes and oceans around the world?"

"Yes."

This was in 1978. Strel signed the requisite papers that day and, less than three months later, completed his first 20-mile race. From that day on, aside from a one-year stint in the Yugoslavian army—from which he went AWOL 42 times but was usually let off, he says, thanks to his swimming and because he agreed to teach his superiors to solve a Rubik's Cube in less than a minute (Martin's best is 46 seconds)—Strel has been a professional swimmer and guitar instructor, with a sideline in gambling on sleepless nights. He got married (he and his wife, Nusa, an architect, are now separated) and had two children: Borut, 28, who lives near his father in Ljubljana and serves as his project manager, publicist, and head cheerleader, and Nina, 24, a student in Monte Carlo.

Strel performed well enough on the race circuit to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. But open-water swimming is an invisible sport, and Strel wasn't the best. So in 1992, a year after Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia, Strel left racing behind and swam the 63-mile-long Krka River in 28 hours, nonstop. It was a cold, miserable ordeal, but he emerged with a mission: to swim the longest distances ever while saving the planet on the side. His M.O. has been the same ever since: Spot a river on the map, gather sponsors, plan the expedition, swim. Repeat.

LOOKING BACK, BORUT says that perhaps Martin had grown weary of his obscurity in an obscure sport. Strel himself cites the environmental concerns he'd developed over more than a decade of swimming in dirty water. Either way, he attacked his mission with relish. He tackled the Kupa, which forms part of Slovenia's boundary with Croatia, in 1993, and has since swum every river the young nation has to offer except one. His first foray outside his country's borders, his 1,867-mile descent of the Danube in 2000, set the world record for distance. The next year Strel went back to the Danube and set the record for nonstop swimming, covering 313 miles in 84 hours.

When I asked if he slept on his back during this swim, perhaps kicking to maintain his momentum, he laughed and explained, "No, no. Not possible. I slept only when doing the crawl—only way. First night, no sleep. Second night, slept five, six times, less than ten minutes total. Third night—again, ten minutes, maybe. This shows how strong mind is. Mind is power, believe me. Fat is power, too. You wouldn't last one week on the Amazon."

It's hard to overestimate the physical toll Strel's swims take on his body. It's not just the actual swimming, which is plenty grueling, but the isolation and the environment. He celebrated the end of his swim down the Mississippi—which flows so thick with agricultural runoff and heavy metals that it has created a more than 5,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico—with a three-day stay in the hospital. On the Yangtze, Strel told me, doctors gave him daily transfusions of new, clean blood for the last ten days. "The Yangtze almost killed me," he said. "Too much dangers and chemicals. Almost destroyed liver. It was black by end of swim. I swim next to dead bodies—human bodies—every day. Men facedown, women breast up. Many dead bodies."

The Amazon too claimed its pound of flesh—42 pounds, actually. As the mileage piled up and momentum grew and thousands of fans in Slovenia, Brazil, and around the world tracked his daily progress, Strel lost both his strength and his mind. In the final weeks, Borut, in addition to running the expedition, dealing with the global media, and translating for his dad, had to feed Martin his meals and carry him to and from the water.

"It was like taking care of a baby," Borut says in the film. "Except the baby is your father, swimming the Amazon."

HANGING OUT with Strel, I could quickly feel in my bloated belly exactly how he puts that lost river weight back on. My wife, Lisa, and I were tagging along for a day in the life, which included the presence of ever-mindful Borut as we drove all over New Jersey–size Slovenia in Martin's sponsored Mazda 6. Borut is Martin's Everything Man and, indicative of their close working relationship, calls his father by his first name. We ate and ate and ate—and drank and drank and drank. Strel fervently believes not only in being overweight but also in the replenishing power of the vine. On his swims, he drinks two bottles of wine, made from his own grapes, every day—and even more when he's home on dry land. Soon enough, I lost count.

First stop was a lakeside café for après-swim cappuccinos and hot chocolate. Strel is a star in his native Slovenia. Women of a certain age blush and giggle at the mere mention of his name. He is a heroic national treasure, sought after for endorsements and advice. He judges national beauty contests. Appears in Slovenian movies. Meets with heads of state. Basically he can do whatever he wants: Swim and sauna free at the country's biggest pool complex. Double-park in front of swanky hotels. And dine and dash—as I discovered when he walked out on the tab. Not understanding Slovenian, I had assumed that either Martin or Borut had beaten me to the check when we abruptly left.

"They know me there," Strel said later, explaining to his concerned son. "Not possible to pay. Besides, we swam. We put on a show. The people, they stopped to watch. Good for business." I hadn't noticed anyone so entranced, but then, I'd been watching Strel.

This is the Strel that shows up in the first few minutes of Big River Man. Producer and director John Maringouin—the director of Running Stumbled, a 2006 indie documentary about his drug-addicted father—starts off with a feint: a funny intro painting Strel as a friendly Slovenian Borat. We see Strel flub his lines, drive drunk, steal bread from a U.S. embassy function, ride a kids' water slide, and strut around Hollywood in the ever-present Speedo—until February 1, 2007, day one of the Amazon swim. Then the movie turns furiously dark and the real Martin Strel—the man who sacrifices his entire being and sanity to win records and bring attention to the earth's filthiest rivers—takes over.

It's a huge, choreographed undertaking, swimming the world's largest river. There was a mother ship that housed the cooks, guides, boat crew, guards (due to death threats, drug runners, and pirates), medical team, and assorted local reporters. Then there was the camera boat for Maringouin's film crew and the much smaller pilot boat that served as Strel's link to the world during his ten-hour, 50-mile daily swims. Strel's trusted guide was Matt Mohlke, a 35-year-old country-club bartender from Fountain City, Wisconsin, who was one of the safety boaters when Strel swam the Mississippi. Mohlke—who wrote his own lively account of the expedition, The Man Who Swam the Amazon—was the other half of Strel's psyche on the river, tasked with the job of feeding him, keeping the piranhas away, and, most important, finding the current. While previous swims might have included Borut, a river captain, and maybe somebody like Mohlke to help find the good water, the Amazon was a full-blown Fitzcarraldo-esque production, costing $1 million and powered by a crew of 20 or more.

This put even more pressure on Strel. Unable to land a solo sponsor, the Strels had cobbled together more than a dozen, many of which could be seen on his wetsuit. Half of the budget came in the form of material and technological support from outfits like the Peruvian navy and the Slovenian armed forces. Father and son have an undisclosed percentage in the film, but everybody's livelihood, to some degree, depended on Strel's swim—the longer and farther he could go, the longer they'd be employed. The combined psychic and physical stress was enough that at one point Strel and Mohlke disappeared from a mid-expedition fete, only to be found more than a day later and dozens of miles downstream, naked, muttering to themselves, and staring into the roots of an overturned tree.

Unlike those of the Yangtze or the Mississippi, the Amazon's threats were of a more natural variety. The river is home to piranhas, electric eels, and candiru, those terrifying barbed fish that can swim up a urine trail into your penis. But the world's most dangerous river's critters left Strel alone. This was because, he believes, he paid them proper respect. Before he dipped a toe into the Amazon, Strel met with elders and shamans, asking for their permission to swim sacred sections of the river. For his animal diplomacy, he touched a crocodile and held a 100-pound anaconda. He talked aloud to the Amazon's animals throughout the swim and was escorted nearly every day by a cadre of the river's endangered pink dolphins.

But Strel didn't escape unscathed. The sun blistered his skin until he had to swim all day in a homemade mask that made him look like a drenched Klansman. The heat brought on dehydration (not helped by his insistence on maintaining his daily wine intake) that contributed to his life-threatening elevated blood pressure. Microscopic parasites attacked him subcutaneously, driving him to clamp jumper cables to his soaking-wet head in a misguided effort to zap them out of his brain. By then, his doctor had made him sign a waiver admitting that he'd continued to swim against her advice.

Why did he press on? Any normal person would have stopped a thousand miles back. Mohlke attributed Strel's dogged perseverance to unsettled issues with his abusive father. I wanted to ask Maringouin, but he never responded to my questions. For Borut, the answer was simple. "The rainforest was not the number-one reason for him to swim the Amazon," he told me. "It was about Martin himself—to prove who he is and what he can do. 'This is who I am. I did it first. I put my life on the edge.'"

DRIVING AROUND Slovenia, past the surprisingly metropolitan city of Ljubljana and into the nearby countryside, we continued to replenish body and soul. At a butcher shop/bar/restaurant near Strel's boyhood home in Mokronog, we downed heaping plates of roasted pork, vegetables, and bread. Two bottles of cvicek—the light, vinegary local red wine—helped wash it all down.

The feast then moved to the Strel family homestead, a scattering of Swiss-chalet-style buildings surrounded by rolling hills and small vineyards. It's here that Strel retreats to recover from his swims. The farm felt especially ancient to us Americans—with a roughly 1,000-year-old shrine to a woman who gave birth on her pilgrimage to Rome—and it was immediately clear why it restores him.

The surrounding quiet enveloped us, and we ate pears canned from Strel's own trees and drank bottles of his own cvicek, the label heralding Strel and his Amazon swim. He played his flamenco guitar and talked about previous swims. He stayed tight-lipped about any future conquests, only hinting with a broad smile that it was going to be big.

Lulled by the quiet, the wine, and our endlessly fascinating discussion of all things aquatic (those of us engaged in marginal sports love moments like these), I was under Strel's spell, pushing aside some nagging concerns, like the strange numbers he'd shown me beside Lake Bled. After our swim, he'd taped two white patches to his chest. They looked like hastily prepared bandages, and when I asked about them, Borut quickly looked away. Strel, however, excitedly peeled them from his chest and turned them over, revealing a series of digits. "These were given for me to wear by my doctor—a very famous scientist," he said. "He chooses these numbers for me. If you wear these numbers, you cannot get cancer. It is impossible."

Strel had other health tips. The prodigious amounts of wine were necessary, he explained, since wine "helps diabetes, dissolves harmful substances in digestive tract, gallbladder, kidneys." This I could buy: Hadn't many modern scientists toasted wine's cardiovascular benefits? But he lost me when, as we ate sliced tomatoes just picked from his garden, he brought out a special drinking glass embedded with "information and energy" that can both repel and cure cancer and other illnesses. When he kept insisting that "information" was built into the attractive blue glasses, even Borut raised an eyebrow.

We learned more about these special properties the next day, when we set off to meet Strel's physician, biotherapist Vili Poznik, at his home and clinic outside Ljubljana. Regrettably, we couldn't ask Poznik what a biotherapist is because, although the doctor's specialty is harnessing cosmic energy capable of warding off illnesses even modern medicine has failed to tame, he was in the hospital with an upset stomach. But his daughter, Mojca, gave us a quick tour.

The clinic's rooms overflowed with Seussian machines, all humming with comforting activity. These, I later learned, were inspired by earlier devices called orgone energy accumulators, invented by Wilhelm Reich, a colleague of Sigmund Freud. Before he went to jail in 1956 for disobeying a court order against the distribution of his machinery, Reich had allegedly discovered this cosmic energy, which he named orgone, and built machines to transmit it to his patients as they sat in specially built chambers, fighting cancer and improving their "orgiastic potency."

When we returned to the car, my wife asked Strel again how it all worked. We had drunk some bottled water being sold by the Pozniks—a product Strel is hoping to market in the U.S. It had tasted like chlorine and had special numbers stamped on its label.

"But how does the information get in the glass?" Lisa asked. "How is it captured?"

Strel had grown weary of our ignorance. "You are a simple woman, Lisa," he said. "It would take days to explain this to you. It is not possible."

SO, YES, MARTIN STREL can be an ass. And, yes, I found plenty of his countrymen, especially among the younger set, who were sick of seeing him touted as Mr. Slovenia and embarrassed by his drinking. The nation, after all, has one of the highest alcoholism rates in Europe. They even call him Plavni Les—Slovenian for "Driftwood."

And yet, when you really look at Strel's feats and the waters in which he's immersed himself, you're left with the fact that he alone has put himself in harm's way, again and again. The Yangtze, littered with rotting bodies and dying species, is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. He swam it for 51 days, ten hours a day. He did the same for the toxic Mississippi. And then we have the Amazon. I don't care how great a swimmer you are or how much of a jerk he might be; anybody has to look on those 66 days with awe and respect.

Somewhere thousands of miles downstream, thanks to Strel's real suffering and Maringouin's useful juxtaposition of his journey into despair with images of a destroyed rainforest, the Fish Man becomes King Lear, blind in the storm but finally able to see. He swims on—despite all attempts to stop him—to save the river. This is what he does, who he is, and his insistence on continuing despite being struck mute, unable to feed himself or even walk, is the only chance he and the river have.

It's difficult to gauge Strel's impact on the waters he's out to save. Raised awareness is not, after all, a measurable commodity. The Amazon swim didn't get a lot of mainstream coverage in the U.S., so we didn't see the adoring crowds cheering him down the Amazon, from village to town to city, for thousands of miles. We didn't see the swelling interest around the world when his attempt went from joke of the week to triumph of the spirit. We weren't constantly reminded that the rainforest needed our help by a solitary, ungainly man doing the impossible, living where all had bet that he would die, inching inexorably closer to the mouth of the Amazon.

But everyone in Slovenia was. And thanks to frequent updates on BBC TV and other media outlets, most of Europe knew about Martin Strel.

So when I heard that Norway had recently committed $500,000 a year to rainforest preservation, I had to wonder. A highly placed official in Norway's foreign ministry denies any connection, of course, saying that the swim "has had no effect on the Norwegian decision." For many months, however, Strel was the rainforest zeitgeist. His swim was on Norwegian television, in their papers, and he's been front-page news there, swimming Norway's fjords. They saw what we in America missed: Martin suffered, the forest suffered. The forest suffered, Martin suffered.

Norway is helping save the rainforest. Martin Strel got them to do it.

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