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Going Against Tide of Time : At 43, Ventura’s McConica Out of Sync in Bid to Reprise 1983 Catalina Channel Swim

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jim McConica’s biological clock was ticking. It wasn’t enough that he had the job, the wife, the kids, and the house on the hill a few blocks from the Ventura high school where he was a star swimmer in the late 1960s.

Last summer, at 42, Jim McConica was running out of time. He had become his own ultimate nightmare, a man without a challenge. So he recycled an old one and devoted a year to it.

He would again swim the 22-mile stretch from Catalina Island to the nearest shore on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, proving that middle age precludes nothing, that what matters most is the mind and the man.

He even convinced himself that he could break the record he set in 1983--8 hours 27 minutes--which is recognized by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation in Manhattan Beach. Then, when he discovered in September of last year that some 24-year-old kid from Texas had shaved 13 minutes off his mark, that just made McConica even more determined. He had his challenge.

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Saturday, at precisely midnight, McConica dove into the Pacific Ocean. He went after his past.

And it was quite a past. As a senior in 1969, he led the Buena High swim team to a Southern Section championship. On scholarship at USC, he won two gold medals and one silver at the 1971 Pan American Games.

The next challenge was Munich and the 1972 Olympics. Among the swimmers competing with him for a berth on the U.S. team was a kid from Indiana named Mark Spitz. A year earlier, McConica said, he had become the first U.S. swimmer--following Spitz--to swim the 200-yard freestyle in less than 1:40.

But McConica traveled to Germany at his own expense. He missed qualifying for the team by one place--by one-tenth of a second. “It was very disappointing,” he said.

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He competed for another year, but he knew he couldn’t spend his life in the water. There was a career in the real world to build. His grandfather had founded a car dealership in Ventura in 1929 and McConica’s father had assumed the business. Now it was his turn to work there.

He gave up swimming for nine years.

“I was just burned out,” he said. “Swimming wasn’t part of my life anymore.”

He couldn’t resist the sport forever, though. In the early 1980s, he dove right back into the deep end. With only two weeks of preparation, he made his first Catalina swim in October, 1982, at the age of 31. It took him more than nine hours.

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“I couldn’t lift my arms over my head for days,” he recalled. “I thought I had done some serious damage to myself.”

Before long, he began preparations for another channel swim the next summer. This time, he trained thoroughly. This time, he set the record, breaking the old mark by six minutes.

One channel conquered, he set out for another, the most famous of all. In 1988, he navigated the English Channel in 8 hours 39 minutes which, he is proud to say, was the second-fastest time of the 60 attempts that summer.

Back home, he competed in a series of swimming events. In 1989, he was ranked third in the country among long-distance swimmers. Peter Daland, his USC coach, said McConica’s success in the channel swims surprises him.

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“For a guy who was a middle-distance swimmer in college, it’s a big jump to go 22 miles in the sea,” Daland said. “He’s effective from 50 yards all the way to 22 miles, and very few people have that range.”

While still competing in long-distance races, suddenly last summer the idea of another Catalina run hit him again.

“I had to do it again before I was too old,” he said.

He began training a year ago, working on his mind first. Since the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation started to keep thorough records in the early 1970s, more than 50 people have completed the swim. But more than twice as many quit in the ocean. The federation charts swims from Catalina to Palos Verdes--McConica’s route--and vice versa, as well as other destinations to and from the island.

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“The toughest part is to get yourself mentally committed,” McConica said. “Once you do that, the physical part is easier.”

The mental part got help from Chad Hundeby. He’s the Texas upstart who set the record last summer. He also happens to be one of the nation’s best marathon swimmers.

“It just locked the whole thing into place,” McConica said. “It was inevitable” that someone would break it. “I was happy that it had lasted 10 years.”

For almost a year, he swam an average of 31 miles a week. In the last month, he rose at 4 a.m. six days a week to practice alone in the ocean near Ventura.

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“I was more physically and mentally prepared than I was for the other three channel swims,” he said.

He had even scouted the elements. On the night before the swim, he measured the ocean’s currents and plotted his pace. For the first four hours, he would take 68 strokes per minute, then work up to 72 for the second four hours.

He would be closely monitored by a six-member crew on a 32-foot sailboat. The crew, which included a federation observer and his brother who had flown in from Colorado, was responsible for counting his strokes and the miles he had traveled.

The swim started at midnight, and it didn’t take long for McConica to realize he was in hot water.

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First, the currents were stronger than the crew’s projections, which meant McConica couldn’t swim on a straight line. He was swimming farther and gaining less ground than he needed to make record time.

Still, when he took 10-second breaks for food and water every 15 minutes and was informed by the crew of his status, he remained confident.

“I was waiting for the currents to change,” he said. “They had changed the night before.”

Not on this night, however. He also faced rough seas. Two hours into the swim, McConica felt seasick.

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At 4:30 a.m., shortly after the halfway point, he realized the record was impossible. The currents hadn’t changed. “It then became a situation where I was just trying to complete the swim,” he said. “All I had worked for the whole year was gone.”

An hour later, seasickness overwhelmed him--he threw up a dozen times--and he aborted the swim. “I might have been a little stronger mentally,” he said, “if I had been in a record-breaking position.”

The crew pulled him into the boat. His parents greeted him at the shore and he trudged home.

“I feel like I let a lot of people down,” he said, “the people on the boat, and all those who helped me through the year.”

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McConica also disappointed himself. The challenge had not been met.

Will he try again? He looks away. No answer.

Was he simply a victim of unlucky circumstances? Or has Jim McConica, the former Buena High standout, the Trojan gold-medal winner, the man who missed Munich by one-tenth of a second, finally, at age 43, come face to face with Father Time?

“I keep trying to fight old age,” he said. “I don’t want to cave in to it. I don’t want to think about it.”

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