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Swimming Lake Michigan

July 4, 2012

(This article has a special place in my heart.  I interviewed Daren after this Swim and wrote this article immediately afterwards in one of those magical writing flurries where you just can’t seem to type fast enough.  This story was alive before I even wrote it!  Daren and I took a long journey trying to find a magazine to publish it but, alas, it appears it was not meant to be.  Although we had positive feedback on the initial stages of finding a home for it we just couldn’t find someone who would actually read it.  Coming up on the one year anniversary, it seemed now was the time to bring it to the world.  I hope this story finds a special place in your heart like it has in mine.  If it does so, share it with others.)

Swimming Lake Michigan
by Todd Tipton


On August 5th, 2011 Daren Wendell destroyed his body on a 35 hour, 50.6 mile swim from New Buffalo, MI across Lake Michigan to Navy Pier in Chicago, IL to raise money for and awareness of the water crisis in Zambia, Africa.  This is why we don’t care.  And this is why he compels us to anyway.

“People often say to me when I do something like this, ‘I could never do that.’  What they really mean is ‘I WOULD never do that.’  They’ve been blessed with the same body I have, they just don’t have the same desire.”

Daren Wendell, whip thin and every day handsome, leaned back slightly to watch me weigh that statement.  It was as if he knew before he said it that I wouldn’t quite believe him.  Normally wiry, Wendell had lost 8 pounds during his 35 hour, 50.6 mile swim across Lake Michigan making him look slightly gaunt.  He wore a baggy button up brown shirt with short sleeves that gave plenty of room for the wicked burns under his arms to breathe.

Earlier he had taken off his shirt to show me his wounds.  It looked like he had been scourged.  Deep, thick, ruler-straight cuts ran on his back from his shoulders to his tailbone, each spaced 4 inches from the next.  He told me they were from the seams of his wetsuit.  His front was no better.  Burn scars crisscrossed his torso with no identifiable pattern leaving it up to the imagination how he got them.

Worst of all were his armpits.  They were so scarred he could not put his arms down to his side.  I could give no better description than that of one observer who quipped upon seeing them, “It looks like a raccoon has been nesting in your armpits for 2 weeks”.

Wendell’s face had not escaped unscathed.  He had a deep, irregular tan.  Surrounding his eyes were perfect white circles from his goggles.  The top of his head was the same from his swim cap.  His right cheek was more tanned than the left, testifying to the side he pulled air from during the swim.  It all gave the impression of someone who had gone through a harrowing ordeal.  Still, Wendell’s sharp features carried unmistakable charisma.  It seemed to come from his eyes.  Slightly large, a quality in them shown with an inner smolder tempered with pain.

Wendell continued.  “It’s all mental.  How much pain are you willing to endure”?  This was the question that I feared.  It is the one that keeps me from wanting to know too much about these kinds of things.  It’s easier to imagine that people can do these things only because their DNA allows them, or better yet, demands that they do so.  I am in no hurry to be guilted into testing the limits of my pain.  But, this is the mesmerizing quality of Wendell.  Even with his broken body, he can make you want to give into that part inside of you that really does want to know how much you can endure and really does want to know how much you can care.

“Most people unconsciously set a limit in their mind for the pain they are willing to endure.  That’s what I mean by stating that what they are really saying is they wouldn’t do that.  They’ve set a limit they are not willing to endure for any reason. ”

“Most people sell themselves way too short”.Image

On Friday August 5th, 2011, Daren Wendell zipped up his wetsuit, lowered his goggles, and strode out into the calm Lake Michigan waters in New Buffalo, MI.  If you squint hard enough on a clear night you can sometimes see the red lights on top of Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower, over 40 miles across the lake.

It’s hard to wrap your brain around what it means to swim across Lake Michigan.  Far more people have climbed Everest or been to outer space than have done it.  Wendell’s route was over twice the length of one of the more famous swims, the English Channel, and only 1% of the amount of total people who have swum the Channel have swum across Lake Michigan.  If you broke it into laps in an Olympic pool, Wendell’s course would have been 3,562 laps.  Michael Phelps record swim of the 200m was 8 laps.

Still, all of these examples fail to grip what he did in a way that actually means something.  Swimming like this is just so foreign to the mind.  There is nothing to measure its dimensions against in everyday experience.  Only in standing on the beach looking at the expanse of water stretching seemingly endless to the horizon– only in watching the water lap placidly with the strong hint of a powerful wildness under its surface – only in standing in Chicago under the shadows, feeling the weight of its massive buildings while  looking towards a mass of seething blue – only in seeing with your own two eyes the toll on his body – only then can you get a sense of the extent of what he did.  True distance in this case was measured in pounds of flesh ripped, not freely given, from his body.  8 Pounds to be exact and that is more than in a metaphorical way.

Wendell began swimming in a northwestn direction.  “I’m not a swimmer”, he told me in the after interview without a hint of understanding the irony of his statement.  What Wendell had meant was that he had relearned to swim over the last year with the help of swim coaches.  He decided to do the entire swim in the forward crawl.  He had abandoned kicking as too energy wasting.  It would be his arms and mind that would carry him.  “My body will do what I tell it to do”, Wendell said just minutes before entering the water.

Wendell’s arms started, falling into an easy rhythm that he had practiced in swimming pools and lakes during a year of arduous preparation.  Support kayakers monitored his health.  A 50’ support boat volunteered by Captain Craig Harden with Co-Captain Dean Sparkman coasted ahead of him with supplies, a support team, Wendell’s girlfriend, and the campaign manager, Amy Napier.  Wendell was not the only person who had sacrificed himself during a year of rigorous preparation.  Napier and the Public Relations Director, Kara Tipton, among others had dedicated a year of their lives in the gamble that anyone would actually care about this.

“There are a ton of variables that can keep you from succeeding”, said Wendell.  “We didn’t even have a boat in the beginning.  Our window for swimming was only 2-3 weeks.  Consistent bad weather would put the swim in jeopardy.  And even if that all fell together, in the end people could still say ‘Who cares?’ ”.  This is where the compulsive magnetism of Wendell is in its full glory.  Wendell can tell you the size of the obstacles in your path and, then, not only can he get you to still sacrifice, he can actually convince you it will be worth it.

5 miles.  10 miles.  15 miles.  Wendell’s arms pulled him toward Chicago robotically.  He averaged 1.5 miles an hour.  The kayakers switched in and out while Wendell surged on toward the setting sun and the deep, ever darkening expanse in front of him.  Wendell ate every half hour.  Eating enough was a significant early issue the team faced.  Many endurance athletes had ended in a long hospital stay due to eating too little.  Kayakers threw him bottles of smoothies, water, and coffee.  Wendell even managed to eat burgers, olive and cream cheese sandwiches, and Doritos that were thrown to him in ziplocked plastic bags.

Wendell followed open water rules.  While he was allowed a wet suit, he could not touch a boat or another human being during the swim.  That meant that if he was in trouble any rescue attempt would have instantly disqualified him.  He couldn’t find a music player that could handle the length of his swim so his only company was the occasional comment by kayakers, his mind, and the sound of bubbles rushing by his ears headed toward the surface.

Just after 9 pm the first 4 foot wave hit.  This was one of the teams biggest concerns: the rough waves that are all too common in Lake Michigan.  A kayaker flipped over and the boat had to turn around to get him.  Wendell swam on.

The support team was faced with its first difficult decision.  If a kayaker were to flip under full darkness they might not be found in the rough waves.  It could mean a long delay for Wendell.  If he continued swimming it would mean help was farther away.  A decision was made.  The boat would pull directly ahead of Wendell and spotlight him.  The kayakers were pulled.  Wendell would swim through the rolling waves monitored only from the small dinghy.

For the next 4 hours, Wendell swam through 4 to 5 foot waves.  He had a new unexpected problem though.  He was now breathing the heavy diesel fumes from the boat ahead and it was making him nauseous.  A web update stirred anxious friends and supporters from their beds to action back on land.  Prayers and well wishes poured in encouraging Wendell through the difficulties.  Your faith will determine how you interpret what happened next.

“It was incredible.  You could see the calm approaching the boat from afar.  Within minutes the lake went from rough to almost completely still.  We were stunned”, said Captain Sparkman.

In the calm, Wendell swam on toward the dawn with the sun rising behind him.  Despite being in the water nearly 24 hours he kept his sense of humor.  He swam up to one of the kayakers and said through a grin “Excuse me sir.  Do you know the way to Chicago”?

The day was warm and the water was now perfect for swimming.  Wendell’s arms continued in cadence through midday.  The long swim, however, had finally started to take a toll.  Wendell could no longer keep his fingers together.  He was now forced to claw his way through the water.

More problems came.  Serious ones.  At 3pm Wendell started to vomit uncontrollably.  Every 30 minutes he would experience what felt like severe heartburn.  The support team reported that he would let out a ear piercing scream each time and then vomit.

This was just the start.  The seams on his wet suit had created horrible burns all over his body.  Wendell described the feeling as being like a lighter held to the skin.  Furthermore, Wendell’s left rotator cuff was breaking down.  He was now swimming at the elbow, almost dog paddling his way as the sun slowly sank toward the horizon.

It was at this time that Wendell let out another ear piercing scream.  He had urinated and the wetsuit had forced it into his open wounds.  Wendell told me that it felt like someone had thrown acid on him.

Despite all of this, he swam.  “I like to quote a line from the movie Prefontaine.  When people asked him how he could be so sure he was going to win a race, Prefontaine would tell them, ‘Because I can withstand more pain than anyone out here’.  That is my mindset.  I never thought of quitting”.  As proof of this, at this point, Wendell could have swam straight for shore and touched down in southern Chicago.  However, he decided to continue 5 more miles to Navy Pier.

The medical technician, Mike Wilson, now refused to leave Wendell’s side.  He would kayak the last 8 hours with him to monitor his health.  Wendell could clearly see the Chicago skyline in the ever deepening dusk.  Despite his pain, he swam up to a kayaker and said, “Sure is pretty”.  After swimming a stroke he looked up again with a grin and said, “Wish I could get there … ”.

The final hours were torture.  Wendell stopped eating to quell the vomiting despite the pleas of the support team that he must eat.  He now made another potentially life threatening decision.  He decided to strip his wet suit half way off to try to ease the pain of his burns.  This would cause him to eventually get hypothermia.  He would risk it.

3 miles from the end, Wendell started to hallucinate.  He believed he saw people standing on top of the kayak and that fish were chasing him.  Wilson watched him worriedly.  Because of his injured left rotator cuff, Wendell was pulling to the left as he swam causing him to go off course.  He was not responding well to directions given by the team.

Complicating matters, the team was contacted by the Coast Guard because, being off schedule, they now wanted to re-route him due to fireworks set to go off above Navy Pier for the music festival, Lollapalooza, a stone’s throw away.  The support team pleaded with the Coast Guard to let him stay on course.  After a tense hour, the Coast Guard agreed to let Wendell swim in with a fire rescue and police escort.

A half mile from shore, things got desperate.  Wendell was stuck in a powerful current.  Exhausted and sick, he could not punch through it.  The team anxiously waited as he seemed to be swimming in place for nearly an hour.  Because he was not responding to directions, the team informed him that he would be pulled.  Wendell, however, would not be pulled.  He convinced the team to let him give it all he could before they took him out of the water.  Interviewing the support team afterwards, awe was on their faces as the described what happened next.

Wendell exploded in the water sprinting with all of his remaining might towards the Navy Pier breakwall.  At this point he had far surpassed the 42 miles he had trained to swim.  He had now swum nearly 50 miles.  He sprinted 5 minutes, 10, 15, 20 … The breakwall grew nearer.  In the end he sprinted 45 minutes.

200 feet from the break wall he became stuck again in another current.  The crew calculated that he would have to swim the equivalent of a mile to get through the final feet.  This time he felt something wrong with his body that he had never felt before.  The campaign manager, Napier, came near and Wendell said, “You’re going to have to call it.  I can’t.”  Napier was forced into a terrible decision.  Wendell had already made it to Chicago.  He could have touched 5 miles back.  However, would anyone care if there wasn’t the iconic picture of him walking out of the Lake on to a beach or off the pier?  Looking at him, though, it was obvious that keeping him in the water may kill him.  Napier made her decision.  There was nothing left to prove.  She called it.

The fire team grabbed Wendell.  He screamed.  Their hands felt like fire.   As soon as his body touched the dinghy, the fireworks started directly over him.  Members of the team broke into tears of joy.  The fire boat brought him the final 200 feet and laid him on Navy Pier.

Wendell denies this, but after talking to members of the team, the consensus was that if Napier hadn’t called it Wendell would have swam until he made it to the Pier or died.

As it was, a good case could be made that Wendell nearly did swim himself to death.  He was rushed to the nearest hospital, Northwestern Memorial, just blocks away from Navy Pier.  The emergency room went silent  and stared when they saw the state of Wendell’s body as he was wheeled through it.  Medical personal sprang into action.  Wendell had hypothermia, severe wet suit burns, anemic red blood cell counts, and double normal white blood cell counts.  His blood work came back so strange that the hospital ran them again to check their accuracy.

Wendell’s most serious condition was hypoglycemia.  His blood sugar count was below 40.  Blood sugar levels measure the energy stores available in a body for use.  Normal levels are typically in the 90’s.  Below 65, the body starts to suffer.  Symptoms include vomiting and disorientation.  40 is the bench mark for serious concern.  This is the point that seizures and unconsciousness can occur.  If levels below 40 continue for 2 hours or more, heart attacks are a real possibility.  It is not known how long Wendell swam with his blood sugar level below 40.

Wendell’s father, who had been nervously pacing the destination beach for over 6 hours, was one of the first to arrive at the hospital.  With evident weariness and pride in his eyes he told his son, “No more swimming”.  Other members of the welcoming party streamed into the waiting room.  After an hour they were allowed to see him two by two.  Wendell rolled his eyes over to them, smiled, gave each a weak fist bump, and said “We made it … We made it.”


After Wendell finished recounting the story, he leaned back, his eyes searching mine for the question he knew was coming next.  “Why?”  
When asked, Wendell answered in the low tone of professional ease.  He had clearly answered this question many times before.  Wendell co-runs a non-profit organization called ActiveWater which holistically brings safe, clean drinking water to Zambia.  In a plain way he told me of the plight of many ordinary Zambian children, mostly young girls, who are forced to walk 2-6 miles a day to get the water from a river to survive.  Their jugs are heavy, weighing 40 pounds or more and the water is dirty.  It makes them sick.  Often, children can’t be in school because they are retrieving the water their family needs to live for the day.  ActiveWater holistically provides sanitation training, wells, and filters to help.  Besides directing the non-profit, Wendell does endurance events to personally raise money to help.  Endurance events make sense because each of these children participates in their own endurance event day after day to bring home water. The Swim to Chicago was one of these events.  So far the Swim has raised $13,500.  “A life lived for others is the best life”, he finished with the calm surety of a man who had tested that statement under fire and found it true.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask the “Why?” question.  This is usually the point where I turn off a little bit.  I sometimes go to the grocery store and, after the cashier rings up $100 worth of hot pockets and pepsi, I get asked if I want to donate a dollar towards some charity or another.  I call it a charity ambush.  Looking down at my pile of junk food I am easily guilted into giving money but I always resent it.  It’s not that I don’t care.  I do.  It’s just that there are so many things to care about: orphans, cancer, Africa, Japan, Haiti, New Orleans, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, homeless … it’s all overwhelming.  I’ve internally set the threshold for the amount of the world’s pain I am willing to feel and I don’t particularly like my calibrations being challenged, especially since I feel like a charity case all on my own.  After all, is anyone looking out for me?  This is why I don’t care.  I don’t want to care because it all seems impossible.

Yet, instead of leaning away, I found myself leaning towards Wendell because his answer had a fascinating undercurrent.  It is obvious that Wendell cares about Zambia.  However, there is a quality to his tone that leads you to believe that solving the water crisis in Zambia is a somewhat arbitrary target to him.  It’s almost as if he picked it out of a hat.  What drives Wendell, that slow burn evident in his eyes, is genuine concern and love for people.  It seems that Wendell realized that he could be most effective if he targeted one problem at a time and that just so happened to be the water crisis in Zambia.  Once committed, it was not enough for Wendell to simply send money to fix the problem.  He decided that he needed to share in their suffering.  Looking at him with my own two eyes I can testify that that sharing is compulsively powerful.

“Sacrifice inspires.” Wendell said to me.  I tried to circumvent that with more questions but he kept coming back to it.  “Sacrifice inspires.”

Wendell’s sacrifice has already inspired thousands.  One of the special attributes of ActiveWater is that it partners with the passions, sacrifices, and abilities of others to bring safe drinking water to Zambia.  This is not a charity where you simply give a dollar.  ActiveWater asks you to give of yourself in any way you choose.  Besides from other endurance athletes, ActiveWater has partnered with a girl who gave up every drink but water for a year (and donated the money she would spend on other drinks), kids giving out $1 hugs, unicyclists, magicians, and many others.  All have one thing in common: they involve personal sacrifice.  They then share in the suffering of fellow humans across the world.  That sacrifice of theirs inspires others to do the same.  Wendell’s knows his greatest endurance event – bringing safe, accessible, drinking water to Africa and around the world – can only be accomplished with others.  At the end, his life may be spent, he may be weak or old, but he will be there with a smile and a weak fist bump saying not “I made it … I made it” but “We made it … We made it.”

“I hate that question” Wendell said to me with a laugh when I asked “What next”?  He’s already walked the United States, started an expedition to physically walk the world (which is now halfway through Australia), biked across the U.S., ran marathons, hiked the Appalachian trail, completed ½ iron mans, and, now, swam Lake Michigan.  He’s working on a book about selling everything he owned, quitting his job as a youth pastor, and walking the United States called Within Walking Distance.  He’s running the Goofy Challenge at Walt Disney World Resort to raise awareness of the world water crisis.  ActiveWater is taking off and his duties have gotten more and more pressing.  In October, the organization will expand holistic action to Poipet, Cambodia.  Yet, as he says that he hates the question, a sparkle remains in his eyes to let you know that he is thinking about what next.

He is thinking about greater challenges.  He is thinking about those that are suffering in the world.  He is thinking about how his body can be painted in their suffering.  He is thinking about how much pain he will have to endure to make it right.

In quiet times, when it’s dark and the world is a murmur, I’m surprised to find my mind has wandered into thought about that same thing.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 7, 2012 11:19 pm

    WOW! What an amazing, inspiring story. Thank you Todd for bringing light and life to this inspiring story.

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