Chad Hundeby of Irvine shattered the English Channel swimming record Tuesday, covering the 20-mile trek from Dover, England, to Cap Gris-Nez, France, in 7 hours, 17 minutes.
"The English Channel is the most widely known marathon swim. It is special even for the Americans," he told The Times of London afterward.
"However, I decided to take it as it came, because the channel is a strange beast and you never quite know how the weather, water and tides will work out," he said. "I did not expect to (break the record). I just wanted to get across."
The former Woodbridge High School swimmer's feat prompted a daylong barrage of phone calls to the Hundeby house in Irvine and at least two impromptu celebrations, one at his younger brother's Los Angeles home and one in the Upland home of Penny Lee Dean, who held the previous channel swim record of 7 hours, 40 minutes, for 16 years.
"I'm ecstatic that he did it," said Dean, who spent three years (1988-91) as Hundeby's distance-swimming coach and is now the women's swimming and water polo coach at Pomona College. "You couldn't ask for a nicer person to destroy your record."
Hundeby, 23, the 1991 and '93 U.S. Swimming Long Distance Swimmer of the Year, said much of the credit for his accomplishment should go to Dean.
"I could not have reached this stage without Penny," Hundeby said. "She played a big part in my record today."
Dean, 39, said she was surprised that her record, set in 1978, lasted so long, but not that it was Hundeby who broke it.
"The first time I saw Chad swim, I knew this would happen, because I know his ability and I know how hard he works," Dean said.
Coleman Hundeby, a senior at UCLA, also believed his brother Chad was capable of breaking the record, but he was still stunned when a reporter called with the news.
"Wow! The guy's an animal!" Coleman said. "But to tell you the truth it doesn't really shock me, because Chad is the most amazing swimmer I've ever seen. He's unreal."
Jan Hundeby, Chad's mother, spent most of Tuesday fielding a flood of calls from Orange County swimming friends and from coaches and former teammates at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where Hundeby completed his college swimming career in 1993.
"I had to go out in the back yard to take a break from it," Jan Hundeby said.
Only one of the calls, however, was from Chad.
"I just talked to him for a few moments," Jan said. "He was real excited and he said he really enjoyed it. He was also extremely modest."
This comes as no surprise to those who know Hundeby, who has never been one to seek out the spotlight.
"The last thing he looks for is recognition," Coleman Hundeby said. "Like in high school, he never wore a letterman's jacket. He was on the national swim team but he never wore national swim team apparel. Basically it's a personal thing. He does it for himself, whereas a lot of athletes want a lot of attention."
Shattering the English Channel record by 23 minutes and establishing himself as one of the world's best open-water swimmers will hardly reduce the glare of that spotlight, though. The channel is considered one of the world's most demanding swims because of frigid water temperatures, which average 56 to 65 degrees, and changing tides and currents.
In fact, while the distance between Dover and Cap Gris-Nez is approximately 20 miles, those monitoring the swim Tuesday said the shifting tide meant Hundeby likely swam several miles more.
"There are three sets of currents that run through the channel and some of the biggest tides in the world," Dean said. "There's also over 300 ships that go through there every day, and they're a lot faster than you are."
The channel record comes one year after Hundeby set a men's world record for the Santa Catalina Island-to-Cabrillo Beach swim, a course he covered in 8 hours, 14 minutes, 46 seconds.
Hundeby, twice The Times Orange County Swimmer of the Year while at Woodbridge and an All-American at SMU, also won the 25-kilometer race during the 1991 World Championships at Perth, Australia, covering that course in 5 hours, 1 minute, 45.78 seconds.
He placed seventh at last month's World Championship race in Rome, but Coleman Hundeby said Chad was not in peak condition for that race. According to Jan Hundeby, Chad will spend the rest of this year touring Europe, Egypt and Africa and will enroll at Concordia University in Irvine next winter to work on his teaching credential.
Hundeby is not the first Orange County native to hold the record for the channel crossing. Lynne Cox, a near legendary cold-water distance swimmer from Los Alamitos, set a men's and women's mark of 9 hours, 57 minutes, at age 16 in 1972, then broke it with a time of 9:36 in 1973.
Cox went on to complete history-making swims across the Bering Strait between the United States and Soviet Union (in 1987), Lake Baikal in Russia (1988) and the River Spree between East and West Berlin (1990), among a number of other efforts around the world.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.