The Endless Swimmer

When people learn that Pedro Ordenes, 55, has swum to or from Alcatraz 126 times, or that he crossed the Strait of Magellan in 39-degree water, they often joke about his sanity. That's before they hear about his idea to swim the Bering Strait.

That's a way of saying that Pedro Ordenes couldn't stop. But for three months after the Strait of Magellan swim, he found himself unable to face the water. On top of suffering what he calls a "heavy-duty" depression, he would begin to shake as soon as he walked to shore. "When I'd see the water, my body would start trembling. The core of my body was at such a low temperature. The brain remembers exactly what you went through without you remembering. I was numb. I don't remember that, but my body does."

Dr. Acevedo argues that there are two types of long-distance, cold-water swimmers. There are those he calls "life-marker" swimmers, folks who just want to do a big swim once: Cross the English Channel, say you did it, be done with it. And then there are the competitive swimmers, for whom each crossing is just another accomplishment. The need never goes away, though there's a certain self-respect that comes with it. "It's as if you have money in your back pocket and you can pull it out in terms of your confidence bank," he says. "No one can ever take it, and you can't waste it."

But if swimming is wedded to confidence, then Ordenes needs to keep swimming. The hundred swims to Alcatraz made a nice goal to latch onto, and he figured that once it was done he might be finished with Alcatraz, perhaps forever. But forever lasted two months. He keeps going.

"It's an addiction," Ordenes says of his regular swims 
in the bay.
Anthony Pidgeon
"It's an addiction," Ordenes says of his regular swims in the bay.
Ordenes in the locker room of the South End Rowing 
Anthony Pidgeon
Ordenes in the locker room of the South End Rowing Club.

As for why, he wisecracks about psychiatry at first. "I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone," he insists. "I'm trying to prove something to myself."

He pauses for a beat.

"Maybe for my father."

Pedro Ordenes grew up with his family in Chile in the 1950s, in a family of swimmers. His grandfather Pablo was a swimmer -- he dove off a pier in Valparaiso every morning, leaping into the Pacific Ocean he called his back yard. His father, who worked for the government railroad administration, swam as well. His brother also grew up to be a competitive swimmer. And then there was Pedro, who everybody figured was too short and unathletic to swim.

"I remember asking my father how to grow," he says.

Ordenes would go to the University of Miami, smoke cigarettes, hang out with dope-smoking roommates. The longest swimming he'd do was on the school's water polo team.

One day, when Ordenes was 11, his father came home with a box full of brand-new swim gear for Pedro. The next morning Pedro walked to the shore of the coastal town of Quintaro, watched his father and his brother Carlos swim out from shore, and then followed them into the water, though far enough away that they couldn't see him. He nearly drowned before his brother rescued him. It takes Pedro half an hour to tell that story. He lingers over its details: the sound of his father's train coming with his present, the weather on the bay the next morning, the feeling of desperation in the water. "I started swimming, swimming, swimming, and all of a sudden, I just started losing it," he recalls. "Panic. I turned around -- it was one of those foggy days, I couldn't find the beach. At that age, you can get in such a panic that you don't say a word. I remember feeling shock, like, 'They're never going to find me. I'm dead here.'

"I thought: 'This is it, they're not going to let me swim anymore.'"

He was on the verge of going under, he says, until Carlos saved him -- yanked him by the hair and tugged him to shore. Pedro begged his older brother not to tell anybody about his foolish venture. And he didn't.

Carlos Ordenes died two months ago, of stomach cancer. The kid brother has been thinking about family a lot lately. It's what he thinks about in the water.

That, and an Enya song he keeps in his head to help shut his brain off.

Sitting in a pilot boat in the middle of the bay recently, Ordenes explains that his father always romanticized Alcatraz, ever since he visited San Francisco on a diplomatic trip in the '50s. "He created this monster in me," Ordenes says, one hand on the handle of the outboard motor, looking out at the swimmers he's charged with keeping an eye on. He adds, quietly, almost under his breath: "Challenge, challenge, challenge."

Ordenes would swim while living in Miami, but not with the competitive intensity he has now. After moving to San Francisco 10 years ago, he joined the Sunrisers, where he found a community that not only didn't raise its eyebrows at absurd swims, but encouraged them. "Pedro's a firm believer in the idea that if it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing," says Lee Block, one of his fellow swimmers.

On a recent swim from Alcatraz when Ordenes was manning the pilot boat, Gary Emich joked about getting one swim closer to his friend's record.

"But it doesn't matter," he said. "Soon as I catch up, he'll be out at 3 in the morning, getting one ahead again." Ordenes just laughed. He wasn't denying it.

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