"Come on pain, show me what you got"
An Interview with Attila Mányoki - Hungarian Ultra-Marathon Swimmer, 6/7 "Seven Oceans" Swims.
If you want to join a really exclusive club, there's usually a pretty high fee involved, plus a tedious and long entry process. Your process is complete, you transferred the funds - basically, you bought yourself a membership at a club and you can enjoy all the privileges. All you need is money and some connections, and you have the status which either means something or it doesn't.
But there is one club where it doesn't matter how much money you can pay, it doesn't matter who you know, all that matters is whether you can pass a test. This is a highly exclusive club that currently has exactly 16 members.
There's one Hungarian ultra-marathon swimmer who is only one swim away from becoming the 17th member of Oceans Seven, a series of seven open water channel crossings, a swimming equivalent of Seven Summits. His name is widely known in the swimming community because he's not only an exceptional swimmer with the determination of a bull but a true fanatic who actually gives more than he's got to achieve his dream.
The last time Attila Mányoki's name was circulated in the press was in August 2018. He attempted to cross the North Channel from Ireland to Scotland for a second time and he failed. But "failure" is not the correct word to describe what happened. He couldn't finish the crossing because he had been swimming pretty much zoned out of his mind and consciousness for almost four hours when he was taken out of the water, transferred to a hospital in Belfast where he was treated for severe hypothermia, jellyfish stings plus his left lung collapsed from the venom. Let's clear this up. The North Channel is a notoriously nasty crossing. "There are five factors that make it especially hard: the water temperature is 11-12-degrees, the sea is angry all the time with high waves and ugly currents, the wind is strong and usually it's raining, plus there are the jellyfish whose sting is not lethal but close to it", recalls Attila.
After he regained consciousness in the hospital after a long battle to stay alive, his doctor told him about the most common pain scale where 1 is a mild irritation and 10 is unbearable spinal pain. The good doctor also told him that the sting of this particular jellyfish on this scale is a strong 12. "The doctor counted around 15 stings on my body. Sure, there is antidote but that should be administered within 15-20 minutes of the sting. Literally, all the fuses were blown out in my brain in the water, I still have no recollection of the last 4 of the 10 hours and 40 minutes I spent in the North Channel", he tells matter-of-factly. And what was his reaction to the doctor's summery? "I asked him when can I start again."
The doctor replied that may be the next year, meaning this August. "There was this training camp in Ireland in May. I've just gotten back. I've qualified. I swam six hours in the water. Not only I returned but I returned stronger. As the main organizer, Padraig Mallon said when I finished the 6-hour swim: 'The Pocket Rocket is back!' Yes, I'm back and ready for the crossing. I don't care about the jellyfish. I'm only interested in the crossing." Which he will attempt to accomplish alone. Naturally, he's alone in the water but he's alone on dry land as well. He travels alone as he trains alone. As he does everything else on his own.
Oddly enough, he doesn't point at this crossing as his most unfavorable swimming experience ever. That was the Catalina Channel crossing in 2015. "I had to swim all the way against the tides in strong wind. The waves were choppy, I was struggling all the way. The last 2-3 hours were plain horrible. It took me almost 11 hours to complete the 33k."
"To put it into perspective, just 12 days earlier he needed 12 hours and two minutes to finish the 54k Molokai Channel Crossing, which earned him a new World Record (he is still the record holder for Molokai channel). No wonder why he lists this swim as his most favorite and memorable." "There are three crossings that I loved where everything came together. The Molokai Channel in Hawaii, the Cook Strait in New Zealand and the Tsugaru Strait in Japan." None of those are easy and short swims but Attila is used to the pain. "Usually, it starts to hurt after 6-7 hours. But pain is part of this. You cannot be a crybaby when you want to swim 50k. Either you can take it or you can't. Many people think that we feel no pain on our level. Sure we do. But we can take it. We don't swim 30-40k with a smile on our faces. Plus, I welcome pain because it means that I'm alive, I know that I'm alive. I don't care, show me pain what you got, let's work together. This feeling lasts only a couple of minutes after the finish line. I get out of the water, I feel great and then, bam. I can't lift my arm and I'm down on my knees. Yet this is very clean and spotless: I gave all I had and this is where it took me. I relied on nobody else, nobody helped me, I crossed the finish line on my own."
When we met at a cafe in downtown Budapest, he just finished his second training for the day. I asked who his training partner was. "I don't have one. I train alone. I go to the pool on Margit Island, I buy the entry ticket as anybody else and when I'm at the pool, I politely ask the other swimmers whether I can join them. And I swim usually for 4 hours, around 11-12k. After that I have a dryland training for the better part of 90 minutes and if the weather permits, I hop on my bike for two hours. Did you know, by the way, that I swim as a member of a bicycle club?", Attila asks me. I admit that I did not know that. “ I wanted to join a local swimming club but I couldn't." Because...? "There would have been too many members, I was told", he laughs. And that is only the tip of the iceberg of his lonely journey to make his dreams come true.
"I have no manager, no physician, no massuer (except for few times when a friend of mine helps me out), no PR people. From time to time another friend helps me with my airplane reservations or car hire but I do all my bookings, I travel alone, I manage my homepage and FB on my own", he explains. "All I have is myself, my life partner and my limited financial resources. Yes, I have sponsors but..." But...? "It is still very challenging. Don't get me wrong, amongst Hungarian sportsmen I cannot complain. However, the money I get in Hungary, I spend it abroad. This puts every cent in a different light." Yet that's not his biggest problem, not at all. "I have no official relationship with the Hungarian Swimming Association, I get no official support or recognition from them but I don't really mind. I have no lanes, I have to pay for my own trainings, I have to travel on a limited budget, but it's all okay. I accepted it. This situation is what it is. My only problem currently is acclimatization."
The rivers and lakes of Hungary are getting warmer and warmer and by early May there's not one natural body of water with a temperature low enough for him. "In the fall and winter I can travel to Lake Velence, it's only an hour from my home. It rarely freezes and it's cold enough to swim in it. But I have the North Channel crossing and it's nearly impossible to train for weeks and months in 18-22-24-degree water than jump into the 11-12-degree Channel and swim a new record." That's his goal. Not only a glorious comeback from last year's life-threatening experience but a new record. "Sure, what else is there? It's not my goal to just simply finish. I'm stronger and in good shape. I just need cold water to keep this strong condition." Hungary has many lakes, just as Austria does, but none of them are cold enough and the Danube is not suitable for swimming due to strong currents and the questionable water quality. "I'll need to find a cold lake that is close to Hungary and offers affordable accommodation."
Regardless of all this, all the hardship, all the financial strains, all the everyday struggles that don't make his life any easier, more people are envious of him than one would or could understand. "Most of the people think that my life is a holiday. Sure enough, I've been swimming marathons for almost 30 years now all over the world. I can swim under conditions that are suitable only for a very small and select group of people. And in order to do that, I traveled a lot from New Zealand to Hawaii, from Japan to California but none of these journeys can be seen as holidays. The natural circumstances of many crossings I finished are so bad that usually there's a window of a couple of weeks when swimming is even possible. In 2017, I was supposed to spend three weeks in New Zealand to swim across the Cook Strait. The weather was so bad that they had to postpone the crossing. We'll let you know when you can fly back, they told me. But my budget didn't allow me to fly back to Hungary and little bit later fly back again to New Zealand, so I stayed, moving every week to more affordable accommodations. I spent almost two months there when eventually they let me swim."
He was the last one to swim in 2017 and of the 106 people who finished the 26k crossing, he came in 6th with 6 hours and 57 minutes. The only crossing that he needs to finish to become a member of this very exclusive club of Oceans Seven is the North Channel. "Swimming is very simple. Either you can or you can't swim. This is a pure sport, the purest there is. You have to decide whom you want to beat: yourself or nature. When I screw up something, I cannot point a finger that it was his fault, her fault, their fault. No, I'm responsible for my swimming, my accomplishments. I have these tasks in front of me that I want to fulfill. And I will." I keep wondering whether he gets tired from time to time. "Hell, yeah. But a task gets completed when you finished it not when you get tired."
But what he does is so much more than a series of "tasks": it couldn't be done without a passionate love for swimming. "For me, Hawaii is the perfect place on Earth. Everything is there I can ask for and when I stand on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, I can feel its pull, you know? The ocean calls me, draws me in and I cannot resist this brutal force. I don't want to resist it. I swim because I simply love it and when I swim, I can achieve a perfect balance between myself and nature. There's this spiritual equilibrium that I seek every time I swim and getting there, reaching it is simply beyond words. I become one with my surroundings, with my environment and that is priceless." It could be put in many other ways but his determination is harder than a natural diamond. "Sure, I have enemies but I don't have to look hard to find one close to me all the time. It's myself since I'm the only one who can become between me and reaching my dream. Listen, I get up every morning for my dreams. Not to train, not work out, not to swim or bike but to reach my dream for which I'm willing to die a little. Yeah, sure, the road is hard but the road is everything. It's an exhilarating ride all the time, it truly is. During a longer swim, I face decisions from start to finish. And it is plain fantastic, having to make decisions on the spot. It's like an instant lottery ticket. You know, a scratch off. I instantly get to know whether I won or not. A good decision can make a swim, a bad one can harm it pretty deeply. Yet, meanwhile I'm forced to make these decisions, I strive to reach the balance I told you about. The balance that cannot be achieved on land. Only in the open water."
10-Quick-Questions for Attila
25 or 50 - 50
Favorite distance in the pool - 400 IM, 400 freestyle, 200m butterfly since these are the hardest and toughest ones
Favorite style - Freestyle, butterfly
River or lake - Lake
Freshwater or saltwater - Saltwater
Cold or warm water - Cold
With or without neo - Without, I can't stand it
With or without earplugs - With
One cap or two - One
Longest swim - 80k
More Information about the Oceans Seven Swims
The Oceans Seven is a marathon swimming challenge consisting of seven channel swims:
English Channel - 33.8 km between England and France
Catalina Channel - 32.3 km between Catalina Island and the California mainland
Strait of Gibraltar - 14.4 km between Spain and Morocco
North Channel - 34.5 km between Ireland and Scotland
Kaiwi Channel - 42 km between Molokai and Oahu
Cook Strait - 22.5 km between the North and South Island of New Zealand
Tsugaru Strait - 19.5 km between Honshu and Hokkaido, Japan
Interview: Lyman Zerga
Pictures: Copyright by Attila Mányoki
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