MONTROSE – Imagine the danger of being kicked in the head repeatedly, shoved, pulled and elbowed while swimming blind through muscle-draining currents in chilled saltwater for over a mile. Maybe now you understand what Montrose High School junior Connor King went through last weekend, after competing on Sunday, Sept. 29, in the RCP Tiburon Mile Open Water Swim, considered the most prestigious open-water swim competition in the world.
King, in just his second over-water swim (first without a wetsuit) finished fifth in his age group of boys, ages 13-18, with a time of just over 30 minutes.
Race winner Mateusz Sawrymowicz of Poland finished just seven minutes ahead of him.
"Horrible water visibility, cold, cold water and the currents were really tough," King said, adding he was drawn to open-water swimming by the memory of his grandfather, Bob Zigenhagen, who also swam open-water events.
At home Monday, King 16, climbed from the Montrose Aquatic Center pool still wearing his race number 256, proud of his accomplishment. He beat over one-third of the elite racers in the competition, including Olympic medalists from around the world, with over a hundred from within his own age group and hundreds more from other age groups.
"It was so cool,” he said, of competing with the elite swimmers. “I wasn't expecting to beat a single one of them. They all had their fast suits on and I could tell they meant business. It was fun to not only beat them but catch up to them, because they had a one-minute head start," King said.
The day before, swimmers had gathered on the beach on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay under the skyline of the city of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. A siren sound begam what King describes as the "mad-dash" for hundreds of swimmers collapsing into the sea. Their course one-mile course went from Angel Island through the channel to the harbor of the City of Tiburon.
"You’re dealing with guys pushing and kicking and shoving you, you’re dealing with your lungs shrinking when you get hit the water, you’re dealing with getting used to the water, the temperature, strong currents,” King said. And all the while, “looking up, because you can’t see, and looking to pick guys off by drafting off them.
“And at the end, you just give it all you got.”
There were a lot of "blue lips" and shivering at the finish area, as visible signs of hypothermia begin to set in on competitors.
“Race announcers called this race the hardest open water swim in the world,” said Mike King, Connors father. “To watch Connor handle it with confidence and excel amazed me."
King began swimming at age 6, and now, ten years later, swimming coach Silas Almgren says King exhibited build great confidence even attempting an open-water competition.
"Overall, really, when I look at the elite swimmers, being within six or seven minutes of their time, it's a good place to be,” Almgren said. “I don't think that many with his lack of experience in open water swimming would have put together the same result. What a wonderful opportunity.”
King will compete on the Montrose High School team this spring, where he hopes to improve from his showing in last year's state competition, hoping to break the five-minute mark (he came “really close” last year).
After high school, King hopes to swim for a college team. In 2011, King competed in his first open-water swim, the Alcatraz Classic, a mile-and-a-half journey from the famous Alcatraz prison to San Francisco.
“I am proud that Connor took a risk,” said Suzi King, his mother. “He signed up for a race where he had not seen the course. He had not swam in 62 degrees water, he chose not to wear a wetsuit, he didn’t worry about the fact he would be swimming in the ocean with currents and sharks. He chose a competitive race where he was swimming with Olympians, and he finished," she said.