Pushing back the age barrier

The young swimmers at the YMCA pool in Wilton, Connecticut, call him “Grandpa.”

They even ask their seasoned coach, “Are you the oldest person in the world?”

No. But lean and fit George Brunstad is the oldest person ever to swim the English Channel.

On August 28, 2004, three days after his 70th birthday, Brunstad swam from Dover, England to Sangatte, France, a feat no one older than 67 had ever tried. But just swimming the channel wasn’t enough for the retired pilot from Ridegefield, Connecticut. He also raised more than $11,000 for a project to benefit children in Haiti.

Brunstad’s swim is a milestone in a long history of channel events. Captain Matthew Webb of the British merchant navy made the first recorded unassisted swim across in 1875. In 1926 Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the channel, a feat that garnered her a tickertape parade in Manhattan.

“Now you have a 70-year-old man performing the feat,” says Phil Whitten, editor of Swim Magazine and Swimming World. “It’s absolutely phenomenal. It is still the benchmark for truly supreme distance swimming.”

“The real significance is that this is another example of a person pushing back the barrier of age . . . doing something that not very long ago was thought impossible.”

Brunstad’s time of 15 hours, 59 minutes is a little more than twice the record of seven hours, 17 minutes, set by Chad Hundeby in 1994. But time in a channel swim depends on more than the swimmer. Current, waves, water and air temperature, and the traffic in the shipping lanes all play a part. “Depending on how these variables work out, an individual’s time could vary by four to five hours,” says Whitten.

The self-described “undistinguished swimmer” from Washington State University’s 1953-54 varsity team learned two decades after college that he could excel at the longest of water events. Ten years later, he won his first U.S. Masters gold medals in his age group at 400- and 1500-meters. Since then he has earned more than 100 national championship gold medals, half in open water events of up to 10 miles.

“The biggest thing about George, anything he pursues he pursues with perfection,” says his younger brother, Harold Brunstad of Camas, Washington.

George Brunstad’s efforts toward perfection showed early in the classroom. After graduating with highest honors (’56 Animal Science), he completed a two-year master’s degree program in one year. The former Richland resident then spent seven years as an Air Force pilot, mainly flying B-52s. And for 30 years, he flew for American Airlines, logging more than 28,000 hours.

Even with his flying career, Brunstad has never taken more than two weeks off from training since he got back into swimming at age 40. Three years ago, his time at the pool changed to include coaching children at the YMCA. “I teach because I love teaching and I love the kids,” says Brunstad, who with his wife Judy has five children and 10 grandchildren.

One night nearly two years ago, just before falling asleep, he had a vision that he was an old man and had an opportunity to do something no one had ever done or even tried. As his 69th birthday approached, the idea solidified. He told his family he didn’t want a party and asked them to wait until his 70th, when he would swim the English Channel. The family encouraged the idea, but with a caveat. “We thought there should be a purpose beyond swimming the Channel,” says his wife.

The Brunstad’s church, Wilton Baptist Church, was raising money for an orphanage with a medical clinic and three schools near Hinche, Haiti, a remote community of about 80,000 people. In 2003, the Brunstads spent five days visiting the town. “It was a life-changing experience,” says Judy Brunstad. “It’s like going back in time. They need a lot. There are 200,000 orphans in the country, and 300,000 children enslaved there.”

So the Brunstads planned for the Channel swim to raise awareness and money for the project.

On August 28, three days after his birthday, Brunstad slipped into the 60-degree water at Dover at 9:13 a.m. He climbed out of the water at 2:12 a.m. Sunday near Calais, having swum at a rate of about 50 strokes per minute, and a distance of about 32 miles.

With a crew in a pilot boat coaching him, he would flip over on his back and rest at their instruction. They also fed him every 30 minutes by floating out a squeeze bottle on the end of a rope. At the end of each feeding, he would start to feel the cold and have to start strong freestyle strokes to avoid hypothermia. “As long as I kept going at a hard pace, I was all right,” he says.

Channel swimmer Marcy MacDonald swam along side during the sixth and twelfth hours for an hour each time. “It was a big boost to have her there,” Brunstad says.

During the darkness of the last leg, Brunstad had a light stick on his cap so his crew boat could see him.

As he approached the French coast, he could see the lights along the beach, but realized his progress was slowing.

“The tide was coming out. We were being swept northward toward Calais,” he says. “It took two miles of swimming to go the last mile.”

But with the end in sight, he didn’t flag. “Unless I face the challenge and take the risk, I’ll never know what I can do,” he says.

Near the end, the crew dropped back, unable to approach the beach in the dark. Brunstad dug in as hard as he could.

A spotlight was on him, and he could see surf and behind it streetlights and buildings on the shore. At last, his left hand struck sand. He surged up the beach, raised his arms to the cheers of the waiting crowd and shouted, “Praise God. God is great. Thank you Lord.”