Meet Martin Strel | The Endurance Swimmer Who Goes For Days Without Stopping
This Slovenian swimmer has tackled pirates and swum through piranha-infested waters but this is his most dangerous and important journey yet…
Words by Jade Bremner | Photography Strel Swimming
The gnarliest swimmer you’ve probably never heard of, Martin Strel is so badass he gets his safety crew to chuck buckets of blood overboard so he can swim through the piranha-infested waters of the Amazon ignoring any occasional nip that comes his way, of course. This 61-year-old Slovenian powerhouse has defied death on numerous occasions. He holds five Guinness World Records for swimming the lengths of the Danube (1,866 miles), the Mississippi (2,360 miles), the Yangtze (2,487 miles) and the Amazon River (3,273 miles). “I’m not Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps, but I’m happy," he says nonchalantly, before his next ultra-challenge.
“I swim for peace, friendship, and clean water"
The down to earth athlete drinks booze every day, has the body of a mini-sumo wrestler, and some say Strel is borderline insane, but his driving force is clear – to monitor the world’s oceans. “I swim for peace, friendship, and clean water," says Strel, and he makes friends in high places. “I’m a little politician, I’m a diplomat," he tells me. He’s had the ear of some of the most powerful people on the planet, having dined with the Trumps and even swum with the Romanian prime minister, but he hopes his next swim will really make a difference. This November, Strel will go on a monumental journey across almost all of the world’s oceans, swimming through the waters in 109 countries, over 24,900miles+ in 470 days – to raise awareness about the state of pollution in the world’s seas.
“I was six years old when I started swimming," remembers Strel, who taught himself in the little town of Mokronog in Slovenia. “Water was a part of us. Between May and October we were in the water every day catching fish and fighting with snakes. I was a pretty good swimmer, even though I didn’t know it. Looking back, though, I could beat anyone. Being under the water for two minutes was nothing special for me."
Leaving home at 16 for Slovenia’s capital of Ljubljana, he went in search of adventure. And he’s come a long way from his humble beginnings, in addition to swimming the world’s mightiest rivers, he’s written a book (The Man Who Swam the Amazon), had a film (Big River Man) dedicated to him and set up a wild swimming holiday company in which he takes people to the most beautiful wild swimming spots, including his Slovenian home, known as the ‘land of pure water’, providing a rare chance to experience the place where he learnt to swim.“We have green forests, rivers, waterfalls, mountains and big lakes," he says.
"Specialists once believed that Strel’s body disposes of lactic acid unlike other people’s, so he doesn’t get fatigued during marathon swims. But Strel shrugs off any theories."
Strel’s next feat will cost him around $15 million in funding, which he says is “not so much," when you consider what a professional athlete gets paid. “You might get an okay footballer in the UK for that," he tells me. He’ll need a big live-aboard boat, where he and his crew can sleep during the swim. Starting in the USA, Strel will plough through 15 to 50 miles a day, as he navigates and monitors the globe’s waters via the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, plus the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Black, Caspian, Red and Tasman Seas.
Specialists once believed that Strel’s body disposes of lactic acid unlike other people’s, so he doesn’t get fatigued during marathon swims. But Strel shrugs off any theories. He reckons the key to his success is his stomach of steel. “I’m never sick," he says – his Yangtze swim being the exception, when he was violently ill due to swimming in off-the-chart polluted waters (but completed the route regardless). Strel says drinking Schnapps and whisky during swims helps too. “It’s good to drink, especially the first two or three days," he advises. “I wash my mouth with it before every meal. Don’t drink a lot, so you are drunk, but a little is good so you won’t get sick."
“My longest single swim was 53 hours and 50 minutes in salt water," remembers Strel. “My mouth and eyes were fighting with the salt; it was like they were on fire."
How else does he prepare for such an enormous endeavour? “I don’t do anything special," says the Aquaman. While people his age are eligible age for a free bus pass, Strel swims everyday, goes to the gym and does cross-country skiing “I feel like I’m 25 years old," he says.
Lathered up with a mix of lanoline and Vaseline, to avoid parasites and chafing, the athlete will swim up to 12 hours continuously every day during his World Swim, depending on the conditions and currents. Not only does Strel have to be a swimming machine, he has to be a weather expert – in exposed ocean waters there will be the risk of vicious storms, tornadoes and hurricanes. “You never know what will happen tomorrow," he says. Meanwhile, the water’s high concentration of salt will play havoc with his eyes and skin. “My longest single swim was 53 hours and 50 minutes in salt water," remembers Strel. “My mouth and eyes were fighting with the salt; it was like they were on fire."
Intimidating marine-life will also be a factor, “I have a good relationship with animals, but working with these animals you also have to be a kind of scientist," he says. Lethal predators are something he’s had to swat up on over the years, but they don’t put off fearless Strel. “It’s just a big animal," he dismisses when recalling seeing a great white in the water in South Africa. “It looks a little dangerous maybe, especially its mouth, but I’m not afraid of swimming with sharks." While swimming the length of the Amazon swim he encountered electric fish, crocodiles, snakes, and candiru fish (the one that swims right up your pee hole).
Strel has also suffered a larvae infection in his brain, various levels of sunburn, dehydration and delirium, plus the odd hallucination. Yet, it was an injury to his son that caused him the most worry. “The stingray – that is a crazy fish," recalls Strel. “My son Borut was bitten in the middle of the jungle. He was paralysed in six seconds; he was dying. Steve Irwin was immediately in my mind. There was no time to call a helicopter or a speed boat. That was the most terrible moment of any swim." Thankfully, Borut is alive and well and continues to following his father to remote parts of the world and promoting his challenges.
“Somali pirates are very dangerous, too… These guys are crazy and they don’t respect anything. I just hope it’s going to be okay. That’s why I need good professionals with me."
Strel’s World Swim will require top notch security too, due to unstable regions on the route. Pirates operate in the waters around Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Remarkably, pirates are another thing on this adventurer’s CV. During his Amazon swim, Strel fought with a local tribe of bandits for weeks during the journey. At night the crew would hide from the pirates, changing locations multiple times to avoid attack. “But they did attack us on the last day when everything was done. It was okay, nobody died," explains Strel. “There was a little fighting between them and my security, but that was all," he says. “Somali pirates are very dangerous, too… These guys are crazy and they don’t respect anything. I just hope it’s going to be okay. That’s why I need good professionals with me."
An addictive personality drives this dynamo, anything Strel turns his hand to he puts his full attention, he’s been a guitar instructor, is currently learning how to be the best at pool (billiards) and was once a professional gambler – but as the voiceover in his movie explains – it’s only with swimming that he gamble with his life.
"Strel has also suffered a larvae infection in his brain, various levels of sunburn, dehydration and delirium, plus the odd hallucination."
“It’s not a poker game," Strel insists about his World Swim. “One mistake and I could die. Physically, it’s going to be hard. I’ll have to be ready every day. It’s very important what I eat and drink each day. It’s not just one or two months, it’s for a year or more. Everything must be okay." But he remains level-headed. “I am very calm, I’m good," he says in the lead up to the swim. “I would like to see this world clean again, so mentally I have to be strong."
Find out more about Martin Strel’s upcoming World Swim and achievements at strel-swimming.com