Go Big

Jan 1, 2006
Outside Magazine

Compete in the Olympics
By W. Hodding Carter

"You can't do anything violently or suddenly in water. It even takes time for a stone to sink," Johnny Weissmuller's swimming coach once said. "Things must be done with relaxation and undulation, like that of a snake."

That's me these days—an undulating, relaxed 43-year-old snake slipping my way toward the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Like many people, I dreamed of being an Olympian as a kid. I slept with Heroes of the Olympics. I worshiped my sister's life-size poster of Mark Spitz. I drank Gatorade like a hungover frat boy. I memorized all the quotes from Rod McKuen's 1971 classic The Will to Win. Muhammad Ali: "I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was." . . . Sonja Henie: "Winning is like taking a vacation." . . . Joe Frazier . . . well, you get the picture.

I started swimming when I was 11 months old, got second at state so many times I lost count, and eventually became an all-American and Division III national champion in 1984, my senior year in college. Although I'd finally found my stroke, I had to stop right then "to get on with your life," as my dad put it. I was just over a second off the Olympic-trials qualifying time in the 200 freestyle, and I believed that with more training I'd make it in 1988. Instead, I went off to the Peace Corps. As a result of quitting then, I never stopped dreaming. I simply put my big splash on hold for a few years. Today, not only am I stronger than I was back then; my stroke is better, my heart, contrary to all principles of aging, is still as efficient as a 20-year-old's, and I'm training faster than I ever have.

Just because I ended up puking on the deck of the Harvard pool last spring at a masters race and my feet turned a sickly yellow from lack of circulation and I cried in my hotel room all that night because my times were only equal to what I did when I was 15 doesn't mean a thing.

Why am I doing this—setting myself up for such an inevitable (and now public) fall? Because I can't just sit on my ass and do nothing. I've done that long enough. When there's a big thing that you feel you can do and you don't try for it, it's a slow, painful life. Trying is the one thing that raises me above my baser self. It's where greatness floats, waiting for me to surface.

I am a snake.

W. Hodding Carter's book Flushed (Atria Books) is due out in May.

Swim with Sharks
get chummy with the ten-ton whale sharks of Belize, which feast on snapper spawn each spring in the Caribbean's Gladden Spit Marine Reserve, off Placencia. The Oceanic Society offers two-week trips. $1,890 plus airfare; 800-326-7491, www.oceanicsociety.org

Go Deep in the Big Five.
Glacier National Park: Cross the Continental Divide on the Gunsight Pass Trail and camp at Lake Ellen Wilson. Great Smoky Mountains NP: Cast for browns and rainbows on Little Cataloochee Creek. Rocky Mountain NP: Snowshoe to Lake Helene from the Bear Lake trailhead. Yellowstone NP: Count the waterfalls along the Bechler River. Yosemite NP: Climb 11,180-foot Forsyth Peak, on the park's remote northern edge. www.nps.gov

Listen to hippos laughing.
OK, so they're not really laughing, but the odds of a sighting—or at least a hearing of the guttural har-har-har—are excellent in Lower Zambezi National Park, where CC Africa Safaris spends two days boating through prime hippo country during its nine-day Zambian Spice Trail trip. $3,893; 888-882-3742, www.ccafricasafaris.com

Get a Six-Pack
Sculpt washboard abs by combining short, high-intensity cardio exercise (to fry unwanted body fat), fiber-rich meals (to replace saturated and trans fats), and core-building drills. Our suggestion: Try three sets of ten stomach crunches while holding a medicine ball above your head and twisting your torso at the top of each rep.