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Original Issue

Some win, some survive

A few were showing their competitive stuff and a lot more were just showing off, but everyone who finished the offshore course got a medal

They assembled on a crescent beach a few miles north of downtown San Diego before scrambling, one huge group after another, into the Pacific. Many of them, obviously, were not really ocean swimmers at all. One fellow relied on what might charitably be termed side-strokes, another never even removed his eyeglasses—he was, as it happened, an optical manufacturer in nearby Escondido—and one bosomy young creature had to pause repeatedly in midswim to pull up her bikini top. A 57-year-old woman succeeded in falling nearly an hour behind everybody else in her mile race, a situation that lifeguards accepted with cool forebearance. "It's O.K.," one of them shrugged. "We're on overtime."

And so the 44th annual La Jolla Rough Water Swim came off with the usual hilarity. The most celebrated of many such ocean swims that flourish in Southern California, the event attracted a mixed bag of swimmers to several triangular, round-the-buoys courses, each of which began and ended on the scalloped little beach at La Jolla Cove. Swimmers 12 and under raced over a 250-yard course while separate mile-long circuits were set up for men and women. All but a few of the record 790 entrants managed to finish, thus earning "survivor's medals," cups of hot chocolate and the cheers of sunbathers who lined the overlooking cliffs.

But the holiday atmosphere did not entirely rule out more serious business. The La Jolla swim also attracted would-be Olympians and distance stars in the mold of San Diego native Florence Chadwick, who won the women's race seven times in the 1930s and 1940s. For every competitor just out for a Sunday swim there seemed to be more intense types like Alanna Blackwell, who burst into tears after placing sixth among 12-year-old girls. Alanna would have done better, she complained, except that "the other girls kept grabbing me during the race."

It is apparent from this lament that the roughest thing about rough-water swimming may not be the water. La Jolla Cove is partly protected by a rocky protrusion known as Alligator Point, and the water for the big splash-in was a tepid 72°. Instead of cold and heaving seas, swimmers only had to put up with each other, the biggest danger being collision, accidental or otherwise, during the en masse starts. This particularly concerned the defending men's champion, Gary Rees, a 17-year-old schoolboy from suburban El Cajon. His coach, Tom Causey, broke two teeth in a bruising start in the same race a decade ago, but young Rees worried more about his legs.

"Other guys grab your legs at the start," he said. "I'm going to put Vaseline on my ankles so they can't get a good grip." Then Rees did something even better when the mile race got going: he moved out front in a hurry, shaking all but a few rivals on the first lap, a 700-yard run northward along the shoreline. He fell behind after a wide turn at the first buoy but gained steadily on the long leg across open water, pulling ahead for keeps on the final dash back to the beach to win in 19:51.

As in each of the previous five years, the women's race went to Sandra Keshka. The 19-year-old San Diego State coed, a Chadwick protégée, barely missed the English Channel record two months ago (SI, Aug. 26), and victory No. 6 at La Jolla left her just one shy of her mentor's mark. By contrast with Rees' win, it required toughness at the finish rather than the start to defeat 13-year-old Patty Martinez, a club teammate from Chula Vista.

Martinez, who is dwarfed by her 5'8", 160-pound rival, matched Keshka stroke for stroke most of the way. But when she tried to stand up a few feet off the beach, she was rocked back on her heels by the surf. An instant later Sandra got up and ran ashore, crossing the finish line—two red flags planted in the sand—in 20:56.

"My experience paid off," Keshka said after her one-second victory. "Patty stood too soon. You've got to let the surf carry you as far as possible before you get up."

It seemed odd that a swim should be decided by a footrace, but then its sponsors like to call the La Jolla event the Boston Marathon of Swimming. It is the biggest annual civic to-do in this serene and wealthy community that is justly proud of its beaches. Besides the cove, these include one of the few officially sanctioned "swimsuit-optional" beaches—so designated by the city council—and Windansea, a celebrated surfing area. The popularity of La Jolla's beaches has survived periodic shark scares, the worst of which occurred in 1959 when a skindiver was presumably killed by a white shark off the cove. No trace of his body was found and that year's swim was prudently canceled.

Both hammerheads and whites were sighted off San Diego during the summer, and mere mention of the fact gave Clarence Burdette, executive manager of the La Jolla town council, an uneasy feeling. Reacting in the time-honored fashion of civic boosters everywhere, Burdette said, "I wish people wouldn't keep bringing up sharks."

Burdette need not have worried. No sharks disturbed this rough-water swim, and John O'Brien, one of the few entrants to drop out, did so for apparently unrelated reasons. John, not yet 5, was entered in the 9-and-under class. But even as the PA announcer was introducing him as "the sentimental favorite," little John was cowering at water's edge, defying his mother's urgings to take the plunge.

"You'll be the youngest," she promised, but her son, lacking the requisite sense of mission, refused to budge.

John O'Brien's balkiness left three 6-year-olds the youngest swimmers. The eldest was the Reverend Lewis Sassé II, a 73-year-old Episcopal priest from Arizona who was vacationing in La Jolla. Father Sassé showed up in a gaily striped swimsuit and, after allowing that the scene could pass for a "mass baptism," boldly churned through the mile swim. He finished some 45 minutes after Gary Rees, a distant 206th in a field of 217, and came ashore with a troubled conscience that made clear he was no real ocean swimmer, either.

"I bumped into another fellow during the race," the priest said, roaming the crowded beach. "I'd like to find him and apologize."