“All things considered, North Channel is the most difficult because of the cold water, jellyfish and tidal flows,” said Steven Munatones, founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association. “The currents and winds fluctuate.”
But it wasn’t the currents or the North Channel’s notorious jellyfish blooms that frightened Argüelles going into the swim. It was hypothermia. “I’m from Mexico,” he said the day before his attempt. “We don’t have cold water.”
The oldest of four brothers, Argüelles grew up in the Coyoacán borough of Mexico City.
In 1968, when he was 9, the Olympics came to town, and Felipe Muñoz Kapamas became the first Mexican to win a gold medal, in the 200-meter breaststroke. His feat captivated Argüelles and he took up swimming. Five years later, after his father lost his job, Argüelles started selling Speedo caps and goggles at swim meets to help feed the family.
A speedo executive, Bill Lee, took notice and became his mentor and benefactor.
Argüelles moved in with Lee’s family in Northern California and swam for one year at Stanford, narrowly missing out on making the Mexican Olympic team in 1976 and 1980.
In the 1990s, having stopped swimming, he started a business to bring competitive triathlons to Mexico and completed his first of five Ironman distance races (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run) in Kona, Hawaii, in 1994.
In 1999, he went back to swimming, and for his 40th birthday he swam the English Channel for the first time.
He has also swum around Manhattan Island twice. All while serving in multiple Mexican government ministries and running a private school system he founded.
Ever since he made the commitment to complete the Oceans Seven two years ago, he has spent weekends training. He hired a strength coach and a mental fitness coach, studied muscle activation technique, and bulked up in the gym and at the kitchen table, adding both muscle and fat until he reached 210 pounds.
He does not swim in a wetsuit.
“People ask me if I swim with neoprene,” he said Wednesday, “and I say I have my own bioprene.”
Good thing. Steep yourself in 55-degree water for, say, 12 hours without a wetsuit, and it won’t take long before your blood is shunted from your head and extremities to the core, to protect your internal organs. “That’s why open water swimmers have hallucinations,” Munatones said, “They start to lose their mental clarity because the capillaries of their brain start to close up.”
Kim Chambers, the third woman and sixth athlete to complete the Oceans Seven, said, “You are a bit delirious, as if emerging from general anesthesia.”
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