Ottersberg Overcame Big Obstacles to Complete English Channel Swim

by | Sep 1, 2004 | News Articles

September, 2004 Fit to be Tied Column

From the Pueblo Chieftain
by Gary Franchi


Ottersberg Overcame Big Obstacles to Complete English Channel Swim

So how would you feel if you had just accomplished what you consider your greatest athletic feat by successfully swimming the English Channel?

“I felt relieved; it was hard to believe,” noted former Puebloan John Ottersberg, who, as mentioned here last month, navigated the 23.69-mile course in 14 hours and 35 minutes. “It had been such a long process leading up to it since I decided to do it last year.”

Indeed, Ottersberg got inspired to attempt the feat a year ago when a fellow Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club teammate completed the swim. Right then and there, his mindset was in place.

“I had been swimming a lot already, but I knew I had to start thinking of building up my endurance and my time in the water,” Ottersberg explained.

It may be mind boggling to think of swimming a distance that, because of strong currents, usually amounts to traversing more than 30 miles in water. But a little understanding of the swimming mentality in California certainly helps.

California is a hotbed for open-water swimming. The Dolphin club that Ottersberg belongs to swims in San Francisco Bay, specifically in the waters of Aquatic Park, which varies during the year from around 50 degrees to about 61 degrees.

Hence, he normally swims in water that is colder than the English Channel, which was around 60 degrees on his attempt. Since it is sort of the club’s badge of courage to swim without wetsuits, John’s body was conditioned to such a cold temperature, and he pointed out that the water temperature on his epic adventure didn’t bother him.

“This (San Francisco Bay) is one of the best places to swim,” John said. “The temperatures are slightly colder than most and you can swim year-round.”

While Colorado has few opportunities for long-distance open-water events, California has tons of them of varying distances from as short as a mile to several miles. Dolphin club members have swam from Sausalito to San Francisco (6 miles), Candlestick Point to Aquatic Park (10 miles), the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge span (5.5 miles), Bay Bridge to Golden Gate Bridge (5 miles) and dozens of others.

Ottersberg’s longest swim until the English Channel was the 10K (6.2 miles) Pier to Pier in Santa Cruz that he completed in under three hours a couple of years ago. There have been several shorter swims along the way, including victories the past two years in the 400-yard Polar Bear Swim through the 40-degree Lake Tahoe waters, without a wetsuit.

Being a member of such a team provides a support group that gets into your blood. When your swim partners are constantly training for big events, you are inspired to do the same.

Still, you have to put in the training and you have to be mentally tough to succesfully swim from Dover, England to Calais, France. While the Channel swims are scheduled during what are called neap tides when there is the least amount of water, they still have enough currents to cause participants to swim in an “S” shape from being tossed about.

The 41-year-old, 6-foot-6 Ottersberg knew what he was up against and what he had to do to prepare himself. He swam about five days a week and gradually increased his long swim from two hours to close to 10 miles on July 10, giving him about three weeks of tapering before the Channel.

On the swim itself, fellow Dolphin club members were in the boat that accompanied him. They included his coach and good friend Rick Avery as boat pilot and training partners Si Bunting and Candace Kelly.

John went against standard protocol that says swimmers should gain weight and wear lanolin for insulation against the cold water on such a long swim. He kept his normal weight and covered his body with Bag Balm, a salve that is known more for its use on farm animals and contains some lanolin.

But it wasn’t easy and the weather was not optimal. Ottersberg took in the necessary fuel (electrolytes, carbohydrate fluids, bananas, etc.), but he suffered a major setback around the 4-mile mark when he became ill and threw up because of the fumes from the motorized boat riding right next to him.

“It almost ended the swim for me, but I got a second wind about a half-hour or an hour after that and started feeling good again,” he explained.

At eight hours he suffered jellyfish stings that didn’t prove to be serious. And the last four miles, when he was extremely fatigued, were a real struggle. But he said he kept his head down and tried not to look at the shore since, in open-water swims, what might appear close can be an optical illusion.

The relief he felt at the finish was accompanied by the joy of having a big crowd waiting for him on the beach at 2 a.m., including his sister, Mary Vermersch, and her family, who live in Paris.

Ottersberg, one of 10 children of Bill and Margaret Ottersberg of Pueblo, is a product of Pueblo’s age-group swimming program. He started with the Pueblo Swim Club when he was about 10 years old and needed therapy for a broken leg. He went on to swim for Coach Keith Townsend at Central High School, where his specialty was the backstroke.

He attended the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, which is part of the Graduate Theological Union. He completed a master’s degree in Theology when in the seminary for the Jesuit religious order despite deciding not to get ordained. While there, he swam at the Cal-Berkeley campus although his school was not part of the Cal system.

When not swimming in the Bay at the Dolphin club, he swims with a masters swim team that uses the facilities at the Jesuit University at the University of San Francisco. Over the years, he has done some running, cycling and tennis playing, but swimming has always been his favorite form of exercise.

It’s also where he achieved what he considers his greatest athletic accomplishment.


Emily Borrego, currently Pueblo’s top female triathlete, led a group of four Pueblo-area runners who completed the American Discovery Trail Marathon held on Labor Day. Borrego, 35, was the seventh overall female finisher and won her age division with a sterling time of 3:48:47. Other locals were Humberto Paredes, 36, 3:49:05; Cathy Osban, 35, 4:21:25; and Gary Hermes, 40, 4:27:04.

Three runners with local ties earned medals for placing in the top three of their age divisions in the Triple Crown of Running in the Colorado Springs area. The series included the Garden of the Gods 10-Mile Run, the Summer Roundup 12K and the Pikes Peak Ascent (or the ascent half of the full marathon). Former Puebloan Paul Koch, 36, of Colorado Springs won his age division by a whopping 38 minutes while Brian Ropp, 40, of Pueblo West and Jessie Quintana, 60, took third in their brackets. Others completing the Triple Crown were Jay Goodman, Diane Lopez, Rebecca Medina, Diane Reno and Louise Samora.

Upcoming Area Races

  • Saturday – Autumn Color Run, 13.1M/10K/5K, 9 a.m., Cottonwood Lake in Buena Vista (395-6612).
  • Oct. 23 – Harvest Poker Run (Prediction Series race), 5M, 5 p.m., Lovell Park in Pueblo West (564-9303).
  • Nov. 20 – Atalanta Women’s Run, 5K Run/Walk, 9 a.m., Pueblo City Park (564-9303).
  • Nov. 27 – Temple Canyon Run (Prediction Series race), 4M, 9 a.m., Cañon City (784-6514).
  • Dec. 4 – Rock Canyon Half-Marathon, 13.1M, 9 a.m., City Park (564-9303).

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