Swimming team alumni live up to their motto, ‘Swim for life,’ with transcontinental crossing

Joe Zemaitis ’02 and Brandon Johnson ’03, former teammates of the Lake Forest College swimming and cross country teams, completed a turbulent 12-mile (or so) swim across the Strait of Gibraltar on Aug. 23. The adventure swim was a year in the making and posed a new challenge for the endurance sports enthusiasts. More importantly, it gave them a reason to get together.

“The whole idea of the swim was to reunite around a common goal and have somebody to train with,” said Zemaitis, who first started organizing a group of seven friends a year ago. 

Zemaitis and Johnson first crossed paths in sixth and seventh grade while growing up in Phoenix. They swam competitively together in high school before attending Lake Forest College. Zemaitis now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona where he owns the successful competitive swimming club Swim Neptune, and Johnson lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he and his wife run a tutoring company. In Spain, Zemaitis and Johnson were joined by two other friends from their high school swim team days as well as a few other friends they picked up along the way. 

The group signed up for the swim through the Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association last year. To date, fewer than 400 people have completed the crossing. For both Zemaitis and Johnson, the 5 hour and 34-minute swim was their furthest open water swim ever. It also took an hour longer than they expected because of uncooperative elemental conditions

“There have to be four of five elements in your favor to even start the attempt. The wind was too strong and there was concern about the fog and chop of the water,” Zemaitis said. “The support boat captain told us they were the roughest conditions he’d ever seen people get across.” 

In fact, they had to wait a week in Spain for conditions to improve before they finally got the OK to step into the water the day before they were scheduled to fly home.

Johnson, who says he has surfed in “less forgiving conditions,” welcomed the challenge of the waves and winds, but not the cold so much.

“There was a point where I was definitely losing some of my mental faculties due to hypothermia. Nothing serious, but I knew I wasn’t thinking clearly,” he said. “Not wearing a wet suit changes the ball game. The water wasn’t terribly cold at 70 degrees or so, but over a period of five hours, that was enough for me to get a bit hypothermic.”

He says it could have been worse, though.

“There was no conquering of the strait, that’s for sure. We were definitely invited by Mother Nature to make the crossing. There were many things she could have thrown at us, but she spared us,” he said.

For instance, they did not encounter any sharks. Instead, they were fortunate enough to meet some pilot whales and a pod of dolphins along the way.

“Swim for life” is a phrase Zemaitis and Johnson like to say. It’s an idea Zemaitis teaches through Swim Neptune and the Foundation for Aquatic Safety and

Training (F.A.S.T.) that he started to promote water safety and prevent childhood drowning. F.A.S.T. often sponsors adventure swims for children.

Zemaitis said his initial intention of the Gibraltar trip was to bring the group together for a single event, but some of them already are setting their next goals.

“There are plenty of really exciting swims all around the world,” said Zemaitis. To name a few, he cited the swim across Lake Zurich in Switzerland and the Catalina Channel swim between Santa Catalina Island and Los Angeles.

Johnson already has plans to participate in the 20-mile Catalina Channel swim next August, when the water temperatures are the highest. After that, he hopes to head to Hawaii to swim the Molokai Channel.