Belfast Telegraph

Mexican wave as Antonio beats North Channel to attain swimming's 'holy grail'

By Claire McNeilly

Very few people were watching when a lone swimmer entered the freezing sea at Donaghadee last Thursday morning.

But when Antonio Arguelles Diaz-Gonzalez emerged from the water in Scotland nearly 14 hours later it was front page news in one of the world's biggest papers.

And that's because the 58-year-old Mexican had achieved swimming's historic 'holy grail' - completing the Ocean's Seven, which takes in the most arduous of all channel crossings.

It's the swimmers' equivalent of a mountaineer climbing the Seven Summits and only a handful have managed it, which makes the achievement of a man approaching his 60th birthday - the oldest to have succeeded - all the more remarkable.

And afterwards businessman Antonio said his big moment marked the final stage in a journey of redemption that began over 30 years ago.

"Three times in my life I have been this well prepared for an event: the Olympic trials in 1976 and 1980 and today," he told the New York Times on the boat ride back to Donaghadee.

"I never made the Olympics, but today I redeemed myself."

The Mexico City native arrived in Donaghadee a few weeks ago to prepare for what the uninitiated believe is the easiest crossing of the legendary challenge - the 21-mile North Channel between Northern Ireland and Portpatrick on the Mull of Galloway

It may not have the high winds, rugged surf, sharks, tuna shoals and big ships associated with the other six challenges, but the cold winds, unpredictable tidal flows and jellyfish more than make up for that.

Antonio's biggest fear was, however, hypothermia.

"I'm from Mexico, and we don't do cold water there," he said.

Having reserved his spot nearly three years in advance, Antonio was granted a one-week window from July 28 to August 4 to attempt the swim.

According to open water swimming experts, it's nigh on impossible to do it in winds above 10 knots, so the intrepid athlete had to wait for the least inclement weather.

His big chance came last Thursday, and he entered the water wearing only a swimsuit, cap and goggles at 7.15am with the obligitory support crew and official observers following in a boat.

The water wasn't especially rough but, despite having his body coated with zinc oxide and petroleum jelly, Antonio struggled to make headway.

He finally found his rhythm in the third hour, stopping every 30 minutes for refreshments. During these breaks he had to tread water while an observer from the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association ensured he had no illegal physical contact with his team. The North Channel is notorious for denying swimmers their moment of glory in the final mile because of the wind and cold, and at one stage the eldest of four brothers got caught in an eddy for an hour. "I had to use all my mental training at that moment," he said.

Three hours later, at 9pm, the exhausted swimmer reached the Scottish shore. The swim had taken 13 hours, 32 minutes, 32 seconds - and a total of 25.7 miles due to the inevitable meandering.

The Ocean's Seven had been achieved - with the conquering of the North Channel following that of the English Channel, Catalina Crossing, Kaiwi Channel, Cook Strait, Tsugaru Strait and Strait of Gibraltar - and Antonio's glory moment made the cover of the New York Times.

Not bad for someone who, as a child, had dreamed of Olympic glory but had failed to make the grade for both the the 1976 and 1980 Games.

Gutted and disillusioned, he gave up swimming, returning in 1999. And, for his 40th birthday, he swam the English Channel for the first time.

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