A defense of Ben’s sanity
Whenever we present The Longest Swim to someone new, the same question often comes up once their surprise and astonishment wears off. Swim across the entire Pacific Ocean?? they might say. Wow! It sounds incredible, but Ben must be crazy! Why would anyone want to do that?? At first their mind can only focus on a seemingly insurmountable list of obstacles: the training and endurance required, how you could sleep and eat during the journey, the possibility of encountering sharks and other hazards in the open ocean. Sometimes even Ben finds it complicated to explain why he wants to spend six months swimming such a long distance, but we promise he’s perfectly sane (mostly)!
Why take on The Longest Swim?
It’s often the simplest questions that are the most difficult to answer, and we have to admit that there is a little bit of craziness involved in accepting the challenge of this expedition. But did you ever dream, asleep or awake, of being the main character in an epic adventure? Did you ever imagine taking extreme risks, endangering yourself in order to brave elements much stronger than you? Let’s be honest, we’ve all fantasized about it, even if only for a second, even if we didn’t dare to share those dreams with anyone else.
In order to understand what’s motivating Ben we have to plunge into his innermost thoughts, deeper even than those venturesome dreams, and examine what connects him to the ocean. Because beyond the sporting effort of the Swim there is something more, something powerful pushing Ben forward: a sense of belonging to something higher than himself. This conviction is what gives him the desire and the strength to return to the water for another swim after his historic Atlantic crossing in 1998:
“It is quite strange because I’m not always aware of my body when I’m in the water. Swimming in the ocean amplifies every sensation, so that we have to confront its vastness. You feel so small next to the ocean.
In that moment of total disconnect between body and spirit you allow yourself to be pulled into a much greater force: nature. There are no visible landmarks once you’re in the ocean. You feel only the cold, the power of the currents and waves, and hear the sound of the wind. For Ben, once you have that experience, you possess a lasting impression of the power of this moving, huge, unreliable body you get to be a part of.”
And what about control? Your self-control, the control of your life, of others around you, of all the small worlds you’ve built up? If you read between the lines it quickly becomes clear that Ben is also talking about escape when he talks about his reasons for swimming. Not to run away, but instead surrender control of his daily life and emotions for a little while. Like going for a jog, watching a movie, reading a book, or taking a nighttime stroll, Ben is able to forget himself and retreat inward while he’s in the water. This release helps him better appreciate what it means to be alive.
So, is Ben crazy for taking on such a monumental task? Yes, perhaps he is. Every person finds liberation in different ways, some through more extreme means than others. For Ben, swimming is a cathartic release not unlike a trance, a way to rise above and out of daily life to connect with something larger than himself. It is, ultimately, an experience best described in his own words: “Sport is something very intimate, and when we make our bodies confront something more powerful than themselves, and we have the opportunity to belong to that, then the experience becomes transcendent.”