Tom Hecker never expected it go this far.
He was just looking for a way to get in shape after blowing out his knee playing soccer when he stumbled upon a swimming program at UCSD in the late 1980s.
About 20 years and literally millions of strokes later, Hecker joined an elite group of exertion addicts.
He completed the Triple Crown of open water swimming when he crossed the 21-mile Catalina Channel on July 10. Hecker's swim culminated a marine-ultramarathon trifecta that began with him swimming the 21-mile English Channel in July 2005. He completed a 28.5-mile swim around the island of Manhattan in July 2007, some 18 months after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back.
Hecker, a 57-year-old sales manager who lives in Carmel Valley and has worked in Del Mar for some 25 years, swam almost exclusively in UCSD's pools until about 10 years ago, when he was invited to join friends for early morning swims in the pristine La Jolla Cove, a protected marine wildlife sanctuary that because of its spectacular beauty and temperate waters has become a Mecca for open ocean swimmers worldwide.
Hecker, who suffers from poor eyesight, says he wouldn't have been able to take the plunge if not for corrective vision goggles he'd recently found.
"My intent at UCSD was to get some exercise, but I got with a group that was doing some open water swimming that's the rest of the story," he said.
Hecker said at first he struggled completing quarter-mile swims, but gradually worked his way up. The quarter miles soon turned to half-mile swims and then into five-mile swims. Eventually, people started asked him when he was going to attempt the "channel."
"I didn't know what they were talking about at first," he admits. "I said to myself, 'What channel?' "
Hecker was a quick learner. He picked up books on "feeding" during an open ocean swim. The English Channel swim would take him 21 hours and five minutes.
Open ocean swimmers are accompanied by a support canoe that carries their food, but are permitted to enter the open waters with nothing but a cap and a bathing suit. Hecker is the 27th of 33 people who've completed the Triple Crown, according to
Hecker's open ocean swimming career highlights also include a September 2006 completion of the Gibraltar Strait, a perilous 10-mile swim through notoriously rough waters amid high winds.
He set a personal goal of completing six such events. The others are Cook Strait in New Zealand, and a swim across the frigid waters of Lake Tahoe. He plans to swim Cook Strait next year and Tahoe sometime after that.
Hecker attempted but did not complete a swim across Lake Tahoe last summer.
"I went out too fast, and about two hours in, I knew I wasn't going to finish it, so I got out," Hecker said, acknowledging that dealing with failure is part of the experience.
"You don't want to admit it, but there is some (failure) and you've got to move on," he said. "Sometimes it gets into your head and you can't move on."
Hecker says the camaraderie he's developed with other swimmers at La Jolla Cove, and the water's inspirational scenery, helped propel his career.
Sometimes, he said, native bat rays will swim in formations resembling geese soaring in the sky.
"It's as if you're flying in an airplane," he said of swimming in the cove. "You're seeing all kinds of fish and plant life … you can forget to breathe almost."