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‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself’: Newport Beach stroke survivor swims 100 miles

Kenneth Mullinix, who survived a stroke in 2015, prepares for a swim in the ocean near the Newport Beach Pier.
Kenneth Mullinix, who survived a stroke in 2015, prepares for a swim in the ocean near the Newport Beach Pier on Friday. From Memorial Day until Labor Day weekend, Mullinix swam 100 miles in the ocean.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

When Newport Beach resident Kenneth Mullinix got out of the water on Sept. 6, he saw the number “100" etched in the sand.

The 63-year-old doesn’t know who wrote it there, but he knows the reason why — it was Labor Day weekend when he finished swimming the last mile of his 100-mile goal, an effort that started on Memorial Day weekend as a challenge to himself as he continues his recovery from a stroke he had in 2015.

He lived in Laguna Beach at the time and had a persistent cough. After a pickup volleyball match, an acquaintance called and offered him a prescription medication to relieve the symptoms. Twenty minutes later, Mullinix said he came home when the first signs of a stroke began to emerge — though he didn’t know it at the time.

Doctors told him in 2016 he had survived a “mid- to moderate-sized stroke,” which could be “lethal and leave someone permanently disabled.”

Mullinix said the stroke left him unable to speak, walk or form sentences for a year.

Kenneth Mullinix, who survived a stroke in 2015, prepares for a swim in the ocean.
Kenneth Mullinix sits on the sand with half of his wet suit on Friday in Newport Beach.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I was scared to death,” Mullinix said.

On the advice of his doctors, Mullinix started to exercise and gradually to run in the deep sand along the beach and do short swims. He also biked along Coast Highway in Laguna Beach in hopes of growing his body stronger as he recovered.

“I used to go out to Main Beach and swim 30, 35 yards. Then, it was ‘Are the paramedics too far away?’ I would stumble and fall, and it was just horrible,” he said.

On the anniversary of his release from Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo in 2016, he ran a round-trip through the sand between Newport and Huntington Beach piers.

This year, he decided to swim 100 miles.

“Last year, I went 65 miles without keeping track,” Mullinix said. “I was just going, so I thought, ‘If I can do that, I’m going to do 100.'"

Mullinix said he started swimming along Newport Beach’s coast during Memorial Day weekend, typically traveling between 22nd Street and the Newport Pier depending on the currents. On average, he did about 10 to 12 miles every week for 12 weeks, but 2 to 3 miles every other day. In addition to his 100 miles of swimming, he walked a couple of miles from where he left his bike and back.

Kenneth Mullinix swims next to the Newport Beach Pier on Friday.
Kenneth Mullinix swims next to the Newport Beach Pier on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

He said he checked in every day with the Newport Beach lifeguards before he went on his swims, adding that he lived alone.

“A lot of the lifeguards were aware of what I was doing,” Mullinix said. “There’s an LDS — a long-distance swimmer. When I checked in, they would know that I’m out there two or 300 yards [offshore], it makes you feel good that they’re there if something happens to me."

“I even had a joke,” he said, laughing. “‘I’m the crazy guy out there swimming on his back all the time.’”

Newport Beach chief lifeguard Mike Halphide said there are a number of long-distance swimmers, but the biggest concentration is in Corona del Mar, where a designated swim area has swim lines, and the waves tend to be calmer.

“We just appreciate when people come and check in with us because, one, we can keep an eye on them,” Halphide said. “Two … it gives us a little reassurance and the swimmers an extra layer of caution particularly if they’re out swimming by themselves."

Kenneth Mullinix plans to start training for a marathon and run 26 miles in the deep sand by the end of summer.
Kenneth Mullinix plans to start training for a marathon and run 26 miles in the deep sand by the end of summer.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Mullinix met with Capt. Clay Rinker on Sunday morning, asking if anyone would be around to take a picture of him after he finished the last of his 100 miles. By the end of his swim, the “100" had been etched in the sand, and Mullinix held up a framed paper that read “May 31 to Aug. 6, 2020. Summer of 2020. 100 Miles.”

“It’s a great dedication to something that he feels accountable for and he really wanted to do,” Rinker said. “It’s a great thing. I think that’s important for everyone to do.”

Mullinix said he didn’t want to pat himself on the back too much, but he wanted to motivate people that may feel depressed during the pandemic. He said he wanted to do something positive and tell his story in hopes of inspiring other stroke victims.

“Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Accept it for what it is and get out there,” he said. “With this city of Newport and with the lifeguards egging me on and helping me, I didn’t punch it in.”

As for what’s next, Mullinix said he plans to start training for a marathon and run 26 miles in the deep sand by the end of summer.

Kenneth Mullinix, who survived a stroke in 2015, prepares for a swim in the ocean.
On average, Kenneth Mullinix says he swam about 10 to 12 miles every week for 12 weeks, but 2 to 3 miles every other day.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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