Diving into the Extraordinary

Open Water Swimmer John Muenzer Goes the Distance With His Goals—and Says You Can Too

Hello, 2023! This is it. This is the year that you’re going to do it! You’re going to lose those 10 pounds, run the half marathon, take that overseas trip, swim 20 miles to Catalina Island and back. Wait. What? Swim 20 miles to an island?!

Oh, that is so last year for John Muenzer, who on the morning of August 3, 2022, completed the Catalina Channel Swim in 10 hours, 15 minutes, 47 seconds—a personal record. At 60 years of age, he became the oldest person to achieve the Grand Slam in open water swimming, which entails swimming the English Channel, the 20 Bridges Manhattan Swim, the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim and the Catalina Channel Swim. 

His story is one of unimaginably grueling workouts, menacing waters and plenty of McDonald’s and V8 Juice. It’s a nearly superhuman tale, but it can teach the rest of us a lot about setting and achieving goals, even if it’s just cutting down on carbs or matching all the socks in our laundry. 

On August 2, John started his swim, entering a rough Pacific Ocean at 11:30 at night. His boat captain had given him a choice—swim now or wait until as late as noon the next day. So, he got in and started swimming in four- to five-foot swells. At one point, he swam across water that was 2,000 meters deep. For a while, a couple of whales joined him. He saw dolphins, too, and when the sun was coming up, he swam over a jellyfish field.

“I got there just in the nick of time because if I got in there an hour earlier, I would’ve run through them just like I did in the English Channel,” John says matter-of-factly. Speaking like a true jellyfish veteran, he explains, “They start to go down when the sun's coming up, and so when I went over them, they were already three feet below me.”

Despite the initial high waves, sea creature encounters, and swimming through “stuff” that was like “worms and straw,” John said the hours went by quickly. He became a machine that just kept moving—with occasional breaks for “feedings,” as he calls them, until the sun came up. Around eight in the morning, he could start to see the coast. It seemed so near, but he still had about two and half hours to go. Towards the finish line, his youngest son Ray swam the last 800 meters with him. 

“That was really special for me,” he says.

John’s Grand Slam goal, which he began working on in 2009, the year he completed the Tampa Bay and English Channel swims, had been achieved. He did it despite obstacles that included training with a broken foot in late 2021 and with torn cartilage in his left wrist in early 2022. Then, of course, there was COVID, which caused all the pools to shut down—but that didn’t stop John from finding a way to swim. He simply drove to a lake about a half hour from his house. 

“I was swimming out there by myself in literally 45-, 50-degree water—with logs,” he recalls.

And if the thought of working out after working all day makes you just want to lie on the couch and binge-watch Netflix, consider John, who in the middle of the winter was getting up just before four in the morning to swim three to three-and-a-half hours a day before work.  

For John, the secret to staying on track—through jellyfish, logs, COVID and injuries—was commitment. It was his North Star, and he absolutely refused to give up on it. 

“Once you start the commitment on anything—I don’t care what it is—you’ve got to finish it,” he says. 

Also, he used time as a strategic advantage. There was a board in his office in West Chester, listing his 56 weeks of training, and he would cross off each week as he completed it. As John sees it, “Your goal will find you, because time never stops.”

Like any endurance athlete, John didn’t start off swimming 20 miles at once. He built up to it, going from swimming 4,000 yards a day to 14,000-yard daily workouts before tapering down.

Very few of us plan to swim 20 miles in the open water. In fact, John is one of only 27 people who have completed the Grand Slam in open water swimming. However, we can all have goals that motivate us to move forward. As John sees it, we’re all on our own path to create our own story of the extraordinary. It may not be one that makes us famous, but pursuing it can lead to self-discovery, and for John, a great sense of fulfillment.

“All of us are born ordinary,” John reflects. “It’s how do we find what we’re extraordinary at and take that extraordinary and build it into your life?”

So, if it’s a gray day outside, and it’s oh-so-tempting to stay in your cozy pants and watch that next episode, John has this invitation: 

“Get up off the sofa and go create your own story,” he says. “You only get to live one time, so go create your own story. It’s fun.”

Jellyfish and all.

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