Irish marathon swimmer Stephen Redmond has one goal in life: to be the first human to conquer the infamous Ocean’s Seven of the world. With three swims already tucked under his cap, Redmond battled the 22-mile channel separating Los Angeles and Catalina Island. He had no idea it would be the toughest swim of his life. Click HERE to start at the beginning with Volume 1; all images by Chris Baldwin.
Very few human beings could put themselves through the physical torment, mental hazing and terminal fatigue that Redmond is withstanding. You have to subject your mind to a Sisyphusian ordeal with the only reward being the sharp rocks of shore underfoot some 20-odd miles away.
Redmond isn’t just doing this the one time either. He aims to be the first human to cross the Ocean’s Seven – the open water marathon swimmer’s version of the Seven Summits. He has so far conquered 3 (see sidebar). But he’s not alone in his quest — his hometown of Cork raised the 4,000 Euros needed for this swim, launching a fundraiser where friends paid for the pleasure of waxing the hair off his chest: local farmers, fisherman, pub owners, shopkeepers, all pitched in 50 Euros per rip. (“I’ve never seen so many happy people in all my life,” he quips dryly). He claims to do it all for country, but it is clear Redmond draws his strength from a much closer familial well.
The eldest son of Irish pub owners and barkeeps, Redmond was born in London and pruned to raise hell from the crib. Rubbish at football, swimming was his only sport from a young age and he spent several years as a commercial diver off the coast of Scotland plucking scallops for cash. The man is not only stout and gnarled as a stubborn stump, he is sharp-witted, loquacious (when he cares to be) and amicable. You can easily discern the damage he might’ve done as a young lad. “For me the swim’s all guilt, a way of trying to make up for all the shit you did when you were young. Cause I was such a fucking crazy bugger, drinking and whoring around and having fun, and it’s kind of payback time now,” says Redmond. “You realize there isn’t much time; all of a sudden you’re 45, 50, and you haven’t achieved much.”
Epiphany struck at the age of 40 when his wife Anne gave birth to Siadbh, his now 11-year-old daughter. He stopped drinking, started training, opened up a triathlon club and tried to focus his substantial energies into more productive endeavors.
“Everybody wants instant gratification; everyone is celebrating mediocrity now. You can sing a song and all of a sudden you’re a celebrity,” says Redmond. “But I always find the harder you work the more you get out of something. It’s like building a statue out of salt; [the doubts] can chip away at the mental side of things and you get very weak and exhausted quickly.”
Redmond drinking one of his critical feeds below; hit the Jump to continue reading The Long Way Home vol 2: Marathon Swimming the Seven Channels of the World…
“I don’t think nobody knows much about pain. None of us. But we don’t know how far we can go either, you know? That’s what we’re testing: how far can we go…?”
But watching him tread, hour-for-godless-hour, you question his very sanity. At that pivotal moment in his swim, shortly after the pipes were played at dawn, Redmond had nothing left in his gut, no strength. His hours were all over the place; he didn’t know what time it was, day or night. He couldn’t get warm for some reason, and the feeds — critical 1,000 calorie cocktails of protein powder, bananas and Irish tea delivered every 45 minutes like clockwork — weren’t agreeing with his digestive tract. “Then Forrest just whispered into my ear: ‘Siadbh is thinking of you,’” recalls Redmond. “And that was it, just like flipping a switch — you couldn’t really quit, cause you were letting everyone down. I thought, ‘A complete stranger comes over on a boat in the middle of the water in a faraway country and tells you your daughter wouldn’t want you to stop?’ It makes you pause; it becomes a surreal moment in your life. See you don’t know — I don’t think nobody knows — much about pain. None of us. But we don’t know how far we can go either, you know? That’s what we’re testing: how far can we go?”
The near failure itself seems to be integral to Stephen and his esoteric quest — without touching that edge of failure, that lightless precipice of despair and the very threshold of his abilities, there would be no victory. There would be no reason. Without the aphotic void of darkness, there would be no swim. “I think people are all looking for some golden happiness, but it doesn’t really exist out there does it? You have to create that yourself. By having all these possessions it’s not going to make you any happier; it’s all gonna come back down to your family and friends in the end,” he says.
“After that nothing else means much. In Ireland we see it with the economy going down, people are living quieter and concentrating on different things. Everything comes back to normal, and maybe the swims are my way of figuring out how to get back to normal. Because you go out, then you come back — and you keep going until you can’t go any further. It’s just if you have people on the boat that will keep you going, and that’s all life is in the end.”
In moments of near-failure, Redmond applies a mantra on each hand: Siadbh on one hand, his 7-year-old son Stevie on the other. “Siadbh and Stevie, Siadbh and Stevie, Siadbh and Stevie,” he repeats in a trance, rhythmically pushing his meat cleaver hands through the air. “I know that sounds crazy, but after you get into a rhythm, you kind of feel like you’re only skidding in through the water, like you’re going through a tunnel in a water park, and you actually feel like it’s effortless in the end. It’s the nearest thing to being dead when you’re alive.”
Come back tomorrow for the 3rd & final volume of “The Long Way Home: Marathon Swimming the Seven Channels of the World”