Swimmer Completes Trip Down the Amazon

Slovenian Martin Strel finished swimming the length of the Amazon River Sunday, a feat that took more than 60 days. He avoided piranha and anaconda, but not the furious storms that roil the giant waterway.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're not sure if the subject of this next story is a good health care plan, but he could use one. Braving crocodiles, parasites and exhaustion, long-distance swimmer Martin Strel completed his swim down the Amazon River. He's 52 years old, a native of Slovenia, and he began in the headwaters of Peru on February 1st. He ended yesterday in the Brazilian city of Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon.

From Rio de Janeiro now, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on the swim that's poised to enter the Guinness Book of World Records.

JULIE MCCARTHY: It was an epic of endurance.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

MCCARTHY: Martin Strel and his bear-like physique conquered the Amazon, covering an average of 50 miles, or 30,000 strokes a day, for 66 days straight. An escort boat nearby where navigators hunched over depth charts, served as his eyes and ears in the tea-colored waters of the world's most voluminous river.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: The Slovenian swimmer says he was lucky to have escaped encounters with piranha, anaconda and the dreaded toothpick fish that swims into body cavities to suck blood. But he was not spared the storms of the Amazon, and he powered through water that churned like whirlpools.

(Soundbite of applause)

MCCARTHY: Residents along the length of the 3,274-mile swim down the Amazon celebrated Strel. Local chieftains joined dancing beauties on the docks of river towns to greet the wetsuit-clad swimmer affectionately known here as fish man.

But navigator Matthew Mohlke says one landing was distinctly unwelcoming. Mohlke says the team had fashioned a mask out of a pillowcase for Martin to shield his badly sunburned face while swimming. He donned a sombrero to protect his head.

Mr. MATTHEW MOHLKE: And the moment Martin pulls up in his pillowcase mask and a sombrero, everyone onshore scatters - the men, women and children running all over the place frantically. A group of men came and they were going to defend the village, and apparently there was a long-lost legend that sometime in the future a white demon would come from the mountains as a sign of the apocalypse. And they took Martin's arrival into the village literally.

MCCARTHY: With the 22-member crew battling illness, Martin himself contracted a larvae infection. Matthew Mohlke says seven machine gun-toting men protected the boat from pirates.

Mr. MOHLKE: It's not just a fairy tale. There's pirates out here, and what they do is they wait until you get into the narrows, maybe seven or eight canoes will come along, storm you with guns and take over.

MCCARTHY: Cramps, high blood pressure and chronic insomnia plagued the 52-year old swimmer, pain he knew from swimming the Danube, the Mississippi and the Yangtze rivers. But his son, Borut, said that tidal burrs near the mouth of the Amazon made the swim different, creating competing currents so strong that Martin was moving backwards.

Mr. BORUT STREL (Son of Martin Strel): And that made him crazy in his head because he's not able to continue during the day. And swimming in the Amazon at night is crazy, crazy dangerous.

MCCARTHY: But at night, the tides were with him and Borut says his father, obsessed with finishing, plunged into the black waters.

Mr. STREL: He's been taking risks for the last 10 years, swimming this crazy river. And he's still alive. I'd simply say that nature and rivers accepted him, and he became part of the nature.

MCCARTHY: Martin Strel was pulled from the water yesterday and bundled into an ambulance where medics were on hand to check what his team says were signs of serious physical stress.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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