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Shadle Park grad goes the distance

Shadle Park grad (1978) Craig Coombs recently swam the Strait of Gilbraltar. (Courtesy of Craig Coombs)
Shadle Park grad (1978) Craig Coombs recently swam the Strait of Gilbraltar. (Courtesy of Craig Coombs)

Craig Coombs competed in youth swimming events through high school, and continued to swim for years as a way to exercise.

The 1978 Shadle Park valedictorian reached a point two years ago when he was on the brink of giving up swimming.

“The problem is I don’t like to exercise,” Coombs, 51, said. “I found pool swimming, by itself, to be boring.”

So he decided to challenge himself. He took up open water swimming.

“Open water swimming is as different as running on a treadmill is to running in the woods,” Coombs said. “Open water swimming in general is much more difficult and keeps me motivated to exercise every day.”

Coombs, who lives in the Bay Area near San Francisco, waded his way into the sport. He started with relatively short swims including the 1 ¼-mile stretch to Alcatraz Island. After that came swims between the Hawaiian Islands. He was the 18th person ever to swim from Molokai to Lanai in May and the 28th person to do the Maui to Molokai stretch in February.

“After I swam Alcrataz the first time, I’ve been hooked on open water swimming,” Coombs said.

The biggest challenge to date, though, came July 1 In Europe when he swam the Strait of Gibraltar.

The plan was to start the swim on the Spanish side of the strait at a military installation at Tarifa and conclude near Morocco.

The goal was to finish the 9.3-mile stretch in five hours. He didn’t come close and he was fortunate to finish.

“It was supposed to be about 12 miles of swimming but we got stuck in bad currents and it turned into almost 16 miles,” Coombs said.

Coombs started with three others, and two had to drop out.

At one point because of the conditions, Coombs found himself swimming seemingly in place for nearly an hour.

“The currents that we were swimming against were unlike what they’re supposed to be,” Coombs said. “It was much more difficult than what we expected. The conditions may not be replicated again for weeks or years.”

During open water swims, competitors are allowed a 30-second break every 30 minutes to quickly down liquid meals.

“We follow English Channel rules,” Coombs said. “We have no swimming aides except for goggles. You can’t have a wetsuit and you’re not allowed to touch the boat or anybody else the entire time.”

Racing for a specific time isn’t what open water swimmers do.

“You typically don’t talk about the times,” he said. “You talk about whether you did it or not.”

Completing the Strait of Gibraltar swim was no small task.

“The funny thing is I never wanted to quit, but there were times I wished they had pulled me out (for safety reasons),” Coombs said. “I would have been glad for that. But we just kept going fast enough that the captain let us keep going.”

It took Coombs 6 hours and 40 minutes to finish.

Coombs, who graduated from Stanford University with a degree in biology, owns his own business. Although he’ll most likely attempt another open water swim, nothing is planned at this point.

“It’s a lot like asking a woman who just gave birth how many more kids she wants,” Coombs said. “I’m going to go swim for a couple of hours in the (San Francisco) Bay this weekend, but that’s just for fun. I would enjoy another one (like the Strait of Gibraltar) again in the future.”