I first heard of Martin Strel on the documentary film festival circuit in early 2009. A film called Big River Man — about a Slovenian dude who played classical guitar for the Pope and swam the length of the world’s longest rivers — was making waves at Sundance and Edinburgh. I immediately felt called to see it.
Later that year, I found myself at a mystery screening in Berlin. One of those nights where you’re either blessed with an early showing of There Will Be Blood, or cursed with The Love Guru. On this particularly hot summer day, in a moment of pure kismet, the enthralling story of Martin Strel flickered onto the screen.
The film portrayed a man who loved life, beer, food, and wine. Like, really, really loved wine. But also accomplished feats of physical exertion that you only read about in obscure medical journals or comic books.
The Martin Strel I saw on screen that day wasn’t some über-fit Adonis you’d expect to see at the Olympics. He was a portly and fatherly guy who relished eating horse meat burgers and pounding pitchers of beer mid-swim. Here was a person who was able to push his limits in ways that seemed impossible, who also happened to be an average looking dad with a pot belly and a tall-boy in one hand.
Strel doesn’t swim for valor and accolades. He swims to highlight the natural world and our disservice to it. He has a mission to bring cultures together. He travels the world and swims for us to question our materialism. He swims for an earth that’s in trouble. He swims for us.
We talked with Strel about what it’s like being a marathon swimmer, how you avoid being eaten by sharks, crocodiles, and piranhas, and how anyone can keep moving for a dozen or more hours every day and live.
How old are you?
Sixty-two years old.
How many rivers have you swum?
I have swum the Danube, Mississippi, Paraná, Yangtze, and Amazon.
Your father was a driving force behind your love of the water. But not necessarily through positive means. Tell us about your first memories of swimming?