SWIM FOR DEBBIE The journey of a waterman Follow along as seventy year old Nelson Nichols attempts to swim the 15 mile length of the Chatuge Reservoir from North Carolina to Georgia, all in honor of his Niece Debra Bordeos. Nelson chose to attempt this feat in honor of her courage against hardship and to help provide support to the Allied Services Foundation.
By Mike Nichols 6/21/2008
Some Work Best When the Rest of the World is Asleep Itâ€™s 1 a.m., June 14, and Nelson Nichols is restless as he wanders the house. Although he should be sleeping, the pain from many years of neck and back injuries keeps him awake. He thinks to himself that the pain this particular morning is greater than usual. You see, after four major back operations and eight inguinal hernia operations, Nelsonâ€™s pain is really only bad or better, there really are not good days and this particular morning appears to be a really bad day. This is usually not a problem as he can deal with the pain but today is no usual day, today is the swim. You see, Nelson has been training the past few months for this day. To swim in honor of his niece, Debbie Bordeos, for her courage against the hardship she has had to endure in her life and help provide support to the Allied Services Foundation where Debbie now resides. This swim is not for him, it is for Debbie. As he sits in the early morning hours, he reminds himself that no matter the pain he is in, he will be getting in the cold waters of the Chatuge Reservoir. He will challenge what these waters have to throw at him in an attempt to swim the some 15 miles of the Chatuge from its most northern point in North Carolina to the southernmost point in Georgia. This is no ordinary feat, rather it is a monumental challenge that Nelson is determined to take on to swim such a distance non-stop, dealing with cold water, 125-foot depths, heavy currents, blinding surface pollutants like gasoline etc., the many fishing and recreation craft on the lake and just plain trying not to get run over. Oh, did I mention he is 70 years old! So there Nelson sits in the early morning hours, in pain and waiting for the rest of us to awake from our good nightâ€™s rest so
he can start the day. Breakfast Energy As Nelsonâ€™s son I want to make sure he has the best shot at achieving his goal of reaching the south shore of the Chatuge Reservoir. Although Nelson is accustomed to athletic competition, as he was quite the swimmer in his day, that day was over 50 years ago. And when he did compete it was not for endurance but 200 yard sprints to the finish that did not required the same training and nutrition regimen that a marathon event like this swim will require. One of my main objectives was to get Nelson on the right plan to make sure he has the best shot at this swim. If any of you are runners or athletes that have participated in endurance events such as a marathon then you know, when the wall comes, it comes quick. One moment you feel great the next you have no energy and your body is shutting down. When the wall does come there is no recovery. My Goal, make sure Nelson does not hit that wall! With this I had three major areas of concern; nutrition, pace and cold water. I donâ€™t think eating has ever been a problem for Nelson. He certainly enjoys his food. Plus, he is always active enough so that his calorie burn offsets his caloric intake, but this was different, now it was about building up sustainable energy and
tapping quick energy when needed. One of the first measures was to introduce Nelson to quick energy so he can get used to this concept during his workout regimen. It quickly became evident that this concept of energy was a bit foreign to Nelson as the discussion about gel shots went something like this: Mike: ―Dad, you need to practice taking gel shots during your training regimen. For one, you need to become accustomed to doing this while you are swimming and additionally you need to find a gel shot that you like. You don’t want to be introducing something new to your body during the actual swim. Besides, there are all kinds of flavors and you should find one you like.‖ Nelson: ―What’s a gel shot?‖ Anyway, Nelson picked Raspberry Cream Power Gel and figured out how to swim and take a shot at the same time. Welcome to the world of endurance sports, Nelson. So now, I set off on addressing my concern about being subjected to cold water for a long period of time. Up to this point, Nelson was dead set against wearing any sort of wet suit as he probably viewed it as some sort of modern new fangled contraption that he did not see necessary. Besides, how many times did I hear the story of how my dad used to break the ice on the lake to go practice his swimming when he was a kid up in Pennsylvania? Really, how did he walk uphill to school and uphill back home every day, in the snow, no less? After much discussion, we seemed to settle on a compromise. I will not make him wear the full ironman’s wetsuit I brought up for him but he will wear the short 1 mil spring suit that seemed less constrictive to him. At least I got him in something other than just his swim trunks, not optimum in my opinion, but
doable. Speaking of nutrition, the morning has arrived and the swim support crew is gathering. Nelson seems anxious to get going but I insist not before a good breakfast. Today, the breakfast energy is hot oatmeal with brown sugar and a banana. Let’s make sure he starts out with good sustainable breakfast energy. Tranquil Beginnings The morning is quiet, the winds are calm and the sky is clear as we gather at the northernmost point of Lake Chatuge Reservoir. The launch spot is just a small parking area just off SR64 nestled along the mountain highway near Ledford Chapel. It’s good to start from a church. There is a scurry of readiness about as the small group of close friends and family prepare for the start of the swim. Terry Preston, Nelson’s childhood friend, works on getting his canoe ready for portage. Terry insists on being there with Nelson, although a quick cursory inventory of his gear leads me to believe he is preparing for the worst. Really, I hope we will not need that sleeping bag! I am also going through the last minute check of readiness: GPS – check; nautical maps – check; food – check; water – check; phone – check; and an assortment of other items I hope I never need check. All along, Nelson goes about being upbeat and excited.
He is lathering in Vaseline, not my doing, someone else advised him on the Vaseline trick to protect from the cold water. I’m okay with this as I suspect it will at least help with any possible chafing which may occur as a result of wearing a wetsuit for the first time. It’s now 20 minutes before our scheduled departure and Nelson takes his first shot of Raspberry Cream Power Gel in preparation for the swim. All systems are ―go‖ for an on time launch as the countdown approaches 8 a.m. Hey, I had to slip that one in given Nelson’s NASA legacy. I think Mom is quiet during this time, as she has made it clear that she really thinks this is one of the most harebrained ideas Nelson has come up with. So with an updated life insurance policy and swearing that there are only two possible outcomes, either he will end up in the hospital or he will end up as fish food, she stays calm and reserved as the moment of no return approaches. And They’re Off It’s 8 a.m. and family and friends are growing ever so much smaller as they stand and wave from the shore behind us. Nelson is off with a strong freestyle stroke as we take a south heading across silk smooth waters. This morning the only waves in the water are the ones we create as our ripples radiate out from our position and they eventually
lap silent on a nearby shore. The conditions could not be better with clear sky, calm wind, smooth water and no boat traffic. As Nelson would often say, ―The Dream Team, not to be confused with The Three Stooges,‖ was off. Nelson with a strong stroke and tons of determination and Terry in his freshly borrowed canoe. Did I mention that Terry really has not spent much time in the saddle of a canoe, and me on the Stand Up Paddle board appearing to be walking on water at first glance, all just minutes into a long and winding road, Okay, lake. First Signs of Life Nelson remains constant in his swim taking little break in his stroke. Only to alternate occasionally to his breaststroke and back to the freestyle, a strategy he has employed to take best advantage of his strongest techniques and to use different muscle groups for swim optimization. For me, it seems like just moments after getting started that I feel the heat of the day already in full force. Although it was early in the morning, I had already removed my shirt in an attempt to stay cool as the heat was just beginning to bear down on us. At this point being in the water and swimming did not seem like such a bad idea. But I am the first to admit that it would only be for play and to cool off. I was asked in an interview for The Franklin Press what I thought my dad’s chances were for completing this swim. Honestly I gave him a 100% chance just based on his determination. After that I think I told the reporter I would have given myself a 50% chance. Well I lied on that one, after seeing what this swim was really turning out to be, my chances would be way less and I consider myself a very capable swimmer and of course, I am much younger. We must have only been into the swim for half an hour when
that first sound of a roaring engine came from around the comer. The official lake day had started as we got buzzed by a powerboat, towing a large rubber banana with two kids screaming and hanging on for dear life. This would be the first of many as Lake Chatuge proved to be a very active recreational playground and probably not the best of choices for a long distance endurance swim. Nelson's Old Friend Hector Those who know Nelson know he is an avid outdoorsman. He thoroughly enjoys being in nature and all it has to give. Well, on one of his trips into nature, what nature almost gave was a bite from a timber rattler that was hanging out on the banks of the Chatuge Lake near the dam. As Nelson swam past the dam, he made sure we stopped for a moment to pay our respects to Hector the Snake, as Nelson has come to refer to his reptilian friend. Terry and I were glad that this respect was done from a distance; as we passed the dam to leave it well behind in the distance. For now, we had our sights set on Penland Island, the next milestone mark on the route. Regular Feedings I really think that Nelson would have done this swim regardless of the support he may or may not have been given. See the determination comment I made earlier. With that said, he swims like Forrest runs, sort of the â€•Swim Nelson, Swimâ€– thing. If I was not there to stop him and make him eat and take energy gels, for which I was calculating even setting my watch to go off on predetermined increments as a reminder, I suppose he would have swam until there was no reason to swim anymore. I made sure he had plenty of liquids, along with electrolytes, sugars and food along the way. Whether this had any real impact on his
ability to complete this swim is really unknown, but I like to think I went through all those motions for a reason. Regardless, I did stop him regularly to make sure he took in energy. Funny thing is, one of the reasons I chose to support Nelson from a Stand Up Paddle board is I figured it would make things easier for him when it came time to eat. I sort of envisioned Nelson using the board as a water table where he could swim up and hold on to the side of the board and rest for a moment while he ate and took in some fluids. Who knew that when Nelson said he was going to swim the length of Lake Chatuge that it meant not touching anything, including my Stand Up Paddle board. Nelson took every break treading water without touching anything. He took his gel shots, ate bananas, oranges, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drank without ever touching anything but good old lake H20. Good Luck From the Lake The day has progressed and Nelson is still swimming strong, Penland Island is a thing of the past along with several other landmarks like Brown Island, where we wave at lake party-goers as they moor their pontoon boats to the island for a day of water recreation and family picnics. By this time, several hours have passed and I can only think that many people have already read the morning paper, ate breakfast and gone through all sorts of
morning routines that have brought them to mid-day. So much done by so many and yet Nelson has been full on swimming non-stop for the entire morning. Here we are now past a large section of lake where the recreation traffic was particularly heavy. I can only imagine what most of these people are thinking as they scream past on their powerboats and jet skis when they see these three oddball figures, a man swimming in the middle of a large lake, with a canoeist and a guy walking on water. For real, they must have thought it a bit odd. Even so, we did have people stop and ask what was going on, and of course Terry being the jokester could give a straight-faced reply such as, ―Not sure, I’m just out for a paddle and this old man swimming keeps following me.‖ But for many it was admiration and two thumbs up when we explained what Nelson was doing and the cause he was doing it for. I have to say the Lake was cheering him on this day! A Sign From Above I knew going into this that the lake was a recreation area but never realized how much it was used, especially on a busy Father’s Day weekend. It seemed one of my main concerns now was not even one of my main concerns going into this swim. As to you recall, the three things I thought were the big concerns going in were nutrition, pace, and cold water. Well forget everything I told you. Now my sole purpose is to keep Nelson from getting run over. I really am amazed at how many jet skis
there are on this lake. I felt like, well like a big turd and all these flies were buzzing around just out to get a little piece. They would come out of nowhere and buzz right by before you knew it. It seemed to become ever more important that Terry and I kept our swimmer in between us and to watch all flanks with me guarding port and Terry taking charge of starboard. Then all of a sudden what we originally figured to be a bad thing happened and it turned out to be a sign from above that I believe helped greatly in Nelsonâ€™s race. The storms moved in, the skies opened up and it began to rain, and it appears that the only three idiots that remained on the lake were a swimmer, a canoeist and a guy walking on water. No Help from the South The best laid plans do not always come to be. I think I am supposed to say something about mice and men here but I really donâ€™t understand that proverb so forget about that. As part of my greater plan for support this day, I planned to have a rented pontoon boat come from the south end of the lake and have it meet us as we headed south. Well, even though the thunderstorms cleared the lake, it now prevented me from having the pontoon boat launch in such storms. No sense of risking any more on this adventure, besides the support on the pontoon boats was Stephanie my wife, Mikaela my 5 month old daughter, my mother, as old as my dad, and her friend Betty, even older than mom. I really think Stephanie was a bit thankful for the rain and may have even had a hand drumming it up. Well that and possibly Terry who seemed to believe some sort of connection between it raining and Terryâ€™s rain jacket. Long story here but I will try to make it short. With three people left on the lake, you know who they are, the swimmer could care
less about the rain, and he is already wet. The guy walking on water, I was wearing a bathing suit and rash guard that were intended to be wet. But Terry was in full on docker shorts, tshirt, socks and loafers, so every time it started to rain, he would pull out his rain jacket and struggle to get it on. Once settled in with his rain jacket in place, the rain would back off and he would begin the struggle to get it off and tucked away neatly. Of course this became a vicious cycle and to this day, Terry will swear that the rain knew when he did not have his jacket on. The point of this is no support from the south can now be expected. Welcome to Georgia Nelson had been going at it for many hours by this time and the bridge at SR76 was now in sight. I could feel Nelson’s energy pick up at this point. For one, I think he felt that he had made it past the halfway point and was now in Georgia waters, and two, I had called ahead to our pontoon support crew to let them know that this was probably a great place to cheer Nelson on as he swam past. As we approached the bridge, I had to laugh to myself. You see, there was a small fishing boat anchored in between the first pylons of the bridge, which would have been the most direct route for him to swim. Now I don’t know Nelson’s actual thought process here but instead of skirting the boat on a direct route, he decides to head back out toward the channel and pass under the bridge several pylons farther away. I can only figure Nelson being an avid fisherman, he did not want to disturb these folks chances at catching the big one or maybe he did not want them to catch the fish of a lifetime, a 70-yearold swimmer as he heads on his migration to the southern spawning grounds. Anyway, I had a good laugh with that one. As he rounded the corner, there they were — our pontoon
support crew high and dry on land cheering and clapping encouragement. They were willing to throw some sub sandwiches to us to eat, but at this point I think we had grown accustomed to our regimen of 0power gel, PB&J, bananas and oranges that we did not want to break the routine. I had Nelson take a break for some nutrition. As I turned to straighten some items on the board I realized that this is where Nelson was on a mission. I had only looked away for a second and he was already heading down the lake towards the town of Hiawassee. Seems at this point, there is no time for rest. I have to remind him this is not a race. Not sure if this really registers with him. The Final Stretch As we pass the town of Hiawassee, there are many homes and lake cottages. I can hear the voices of people as they sit on their decks as they look out over the lake while a steady downpour of rain continues to fall. I can only imagine what these people must think as a swimmer, a canoeist and a guy walking on water head past down the lake. I am sure it must have something to do with words like crazy or idiots. At this point, it is getting late in the afternoon and Nelson still has that same determination he had as when he entered the water at 8 a.m. Only at this point it is becoming much more evident that the hours and hours in the water are starting to take its toll. Nelson starts to indicate that we must be getting closer to the headwaters because he is feeling the cold. He does not want to
admit that it may have something to do with being subjected to cold water for close to nine hours and his core temperature is starting to react. The bodyâ€™s way of protecting its vital organs when cold is to start shutting down non-vital parts such as legs and arms to protect the vital parts. This is the first stage of hypothermia and what people donâ€™t realize is that hypothermia is not limited to freezing temperatures. Long periods in cool water can have the same effect. This is what Nelson was starting to experience; the water was no cooler from where we got in at 8 a.m. as it was at this point in the swim. It was his body starting to say enough is enough; I am going to start protecting my vital organs. I See the Steeple When the swim started in the morning we left from a Chapel. Well it is good to end at one as well. We rounded the last bend in the lake and about a mile away, you can see standing high on a hill the Macedonia Baptist Church Steeple. This was it, the swim was almost over. Nelson was still moving along at a good pace but it was clear that he had given it his all. By this time, he had lost use of his left leg due a newly-developed groin pain, so his breaststroke looked a little ragged. The reach on his freestyle was not as crisp or out-reaching as it was when he first started the day. But given all this, he was still going. At the point he saw the church steeple, he calmly said to Terry and me that he figures since this was the home stretch that he should probably finish it out with a good butterfly stroke. Now, I would have really been impressed if he actually did. As we approached the take out point, many friends and family were there to cheer Nelson on to finish in style. Good friend Mark Hollis was running down the road beside Nelson yelling,
â€•Go â€™Canes.â€– Others were also there to lend a hand as Nelson arrived at the end of his swim only to suffer the worst injury of the day. After all that, Nelson stubs his toe on a rock climbing out of the lake. You have to wonder if that is all the lake could do in return for its defeat of allowing this 70-year-old man to swim the breadth of its waters. Celebration With champagne and cheers, we all gathered around in the shadow of the steeple to congratulate Nelson on his accomplishment. And more importantly to reflect on the reason for this swim, to honor Debbie and the challenges she has had to face and overcome over the years, and to raise awareness to the Allied Services Foundation and all it is doing to help not only Debbie but thousands of others who need help day to day. This was an amazing accomplishment by dad and I hope it brings inspiration to others that there is more to give than just money: you can give of yourself. For those who gave your support to this cause, thanks from all of us.