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Going the distance

LO's Bob Needham combines long-distance, open-ocean swimming with support for suicide prevention
by: submitted photo Lake Oswego resident Bob Needham focuses on his strokes while swimming the 21 miles from Catalina Island to the Southern California mainland.

Many of us remember back to 1958 when The Four Preps wrote and performed the song, 'Twenty-six Miles Across the Sea, Santa Catalina is a-waitin for me.'

On Sept. 20, the Catalina Channel in Southern California was visited by Lake Oswego resident Bob Needham. Despite the many bounties this location has to offer, it was no ordinary visit to view the spectacular scenery or gawk at the aquatic wildlife. Rather, Needham's intention was to swim across the 21-mile stretch of open-ocean from Catalina Island to the mainland.

Needham migrated from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Lake Oswego in 2004 when his wife's children decided to move to Portland. Though it was his first time living in Lake Oswego, Needham was no stranger to Oregon as he attended law school at the University of Oregon in Eugene and graduated there in the early 1980s. Needham then became a civil litigation lawyer and practiced law for more than 15 years. By 2004, he was retired and made the move to Lake Oswego in order to be close to his family.

Needham incorporated swimming throughout much of his life, but it was not until 2005 when he started to dabble in triathlons, that he found his calling.

'I did triathlons for the fun of it, and I realized I loved the open water swimming,' he said.

This realization triggered the beginning of a new chapter in Needham's life. One in which he would merge two of his passions: Swimming and suicide prevention and awareness.

Needham discovered that he could elicit change if he attached a meaningful cause to the competitions he participated in as well as his own personal challenges. The reasons he chose suicide prevention and awareness stem from personal experiences.

'It is a complex health problem, and because people don't talk about it there is no one talking about how to deal with it,' Needham said when discussing suicide awareness. 'With diseases that people find scary, we are not going to get anywhere unless we move past the stigma and shame attached with mental health.'

With suicide awareness as Needham's inspiration, he has been able to take on numerous challenges that have taken him all over the United States, including the Golden Gate to Bay Bridge in San Francisco, a 24-mile marathon swim in Tampa Bay, Fla., and the 11 bridges-11 mile swim in Portland.

Though he has participated in several challenging swims, Needham describes crossing the Catalina Channel as different than anything he has ever done.

'You usually start (swimming) in the morning, but there I started right before midnight. This is because of the conditions. The ocean is calmer at this time and with less boat traffic.'

He also noted that it is better to cross at certain times of the month than others because of the moon and tides.

'Some people count strokes, some have songs in their head, but it is different for me. I just stay in the moment and focus on being in the water and moving my arms,' Needham recalls, when asked what is going through his mind while he swims.

'Until you do one of these swims, you don't know what will happen, so it's important to be present.'

Helping keep Needham present and focused is his crew alongside him in a charter boat the whole way.

'The crew is comprised of a number of people performing different jobs,' Needham explains. For example there are people making sure that the swim is following federal regulations to ensure that the swim is certified, and that the swimmer is safe and fed on time.

Feedings are an important aspect of a long swim. For the first six hours of the swim, a member of the crew would throw two bottles attached to a rope out to Needham in 20-minute intervals. In one bottle was a carbohydrate-protein mixture, and in the other was an electrolyte mixture. These are designed to replenish energy and keep the swimmer hydrated.

Not only did Needham have a trusty crew of experienced swimmers and observers on a charter boat next to him, but for part of the swim he also had his daughter paddling in a kayak next to him. She was there to make sure he was following a straight course, and to easily communicate with him.

The Catalina Channel is often a hotspot for tourists to catch glimpses of unique aquatic wildlife such as whales and dolphins as well as an assortment of beautiful birds. With all of these distractions, it might be difficult not to drift off in awe at the amazing wildlife. However, Needham says that he did not come into contact with any such creatures on the day of his swim. In fact, the crew is specifically instructed not to tell him of any wildlife unless it represents a danger.

'The only contact of interest is probably the dolphins that were nearby, but I never saw them. However, I knew they were there because I could hear them clicking away.'

Needham noticed that crossing the Catalina Channel was not the same the whole way through. He discovered that it was two entirely different swims: Night and day. Beginning his trek in the dark hours of the night, Needham found out quickly that the waters could be disorienting because it is hard to know where you are going.

Though nighttime swimming can be a challenge in and of itself, Needham was amidst nature disclosing some of its beauties, purely reserved for those who undertake its challenges.

'The plankton in the waters of the channel give off light when they are disturbed, and so with each stroke it looked as though my hands and arms were on fire! It is mesmerizing, but you have to be careful or else you will get too far (from) or close to the boat.'

After 'witching hour,' which is said to be around 5 a.m., swimmers rest on the fact that things will improve with the arrival of daylight.

'After the witching hour, visibility improved and my body naturally woke up, which was extremely helpful.'

A little more than 21 miles and 13 hours later, Needham had reached a rocky beach on the mainland coast. This swim will be similar to future endeavors, as Needham plans on crossing the English Channel in 2013, which is also about 21 miles long. He hopes to be accepted to participate in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim next year, which is a 28-mile lap around the island.

Not only has Bob Needham pushed himself through physical gauntlets all over the country, he has raised awareness for suicide prevention, an extremely noble cause. Visit his website at www.bobswims.com for more information on his upcoming events and how to take part in his journey.