He’s the star of Big River Man, the award-winning documentary that charted his record-breaking 3,274-mile swim along the length of the Amazon. But who is Martin Strel and what made him the world’s greatest endurance swimmer?
220 Triathlon caught up with Martin and his son, Borut, in Nashville, to discuss his triathlon history, horse burgers and whether he really does sleep when he’s swimming…
220: Is triathlon something you’re familiar with?
Strel: Triathlon is very popular in UK, both Olympic-distance and Ironman. I’ve not done an Ironman but I’ve done maybe 15, 20 Olympic-distance triathlons in Slovenia, Italy, Germany and Croatia. I’ve been watching Ironman Hawaii on the television recently also. I also remember the races between Dave Scott and Mark Allen.
And any famous Slovenian triathletes we should know about?
Miro Kregar, a Slovenian, came second at Ultraman in Hawaii in 2009. We’ve swam together many times, more than a hundred. I helped to teach him for this triathlon. For me triathlon is very interesting because of the swim. Obviously I can swim, cycling I’m okay at, but running is the problem because I’m too heavy. It’s more like walking than running! I like cross-country skiing, gymnastic exercises but running is too much for my knees, my body, because I’m over 100kg.
Are what tips would you give a triathlete about to embark on a swim?
You have to be a good swimmer. In OD you have to be good to stay in touch with the main group. Although running is the most important part, you need to start swimming very early. For cycling you can start later at 13. I was already a good swimmer at six or seven years old. Technique is learnt then. All the styles. You have learn to play in the water. Swim isn’t the most important in triathlon but you have to keep connection with the leaders.
When and what made you start swimming these ultra distances?
In 1979 I first swam more than 100km, and in 1992. I swam at a lot of oceans, lakes and rivers from the Danube to the Mississippi and Yangtze, every time something a little different for me. Up to the Amazon in 2007.
And how would you prepare, emotionally and physically, for something like the Amazon swim?
If you’d like to swim the Amazon, it’s not just important to swim – although you have to train a lot. I was in the water ten times a week, cross country training, hiking 30 hours per week – but to swim the Amazon you have to understand a lot of tropical diseases, the right medical knowledge and ship security. And you have to understand what is below the river because the Amazon is the most dangerous river in the world. Piranha, crocodiles and snakes. People, pirates andnature. Rain, storms and lightning. Everything was against me.
But the sun is a big killer. The sun was my first enemy believe me. You have to find protection against the sun, a special wetsuit and the mask [made out of a pillow] was an invention of my son, Borut, which helped me a lot. I spent 10-12 hours a day in the water so everyday was like an Ironman.
And what was the reaction from the indigenous tribes when they saw a 100kg European swim past?
Each day there were different tribes and it was hard to find some against you. But we met, maybe two or three times, some tribes who could kill you believe me. It was very close to shooting. It’s possible to find very dangerous tribes, but usually people were pretty friendly.
Do you feel you have a relationship with nature?
You have to understand nature very well. You have to talk with nature, to talk with the animals. There are bull sharks below the surface but it’s not possible to see them because the water is very muddy. So you have to find a connection. I can touch crocodiles, like the Australian Steve Irwin who died from a stingray, and a stingray also bit my son. You have to teach people everyday not to go deep into the jungle. Even on my adventure 22 people went into hospital, so I was very worried about my crew. And not just myself, so it was important finding the right swimming team with me everyday.
Is it true you sleep when you swim?
I can sleep and swim together yes. I didn’t know when I was younger but now I can say it’s true. My crew would say, “Don’t touch Martin when he’s swimming,” because when I’m asleep and someone wakes me up I get angry. So don’t touch me! Two, three minutes I sleep but not one hour at a time. But, for your mind, it’s a rest as it’s difficult to sleep after a day of swimming. I would manage two or three hours a night because you are sweating and thirsty. Your body, your face, everything is against you.
And how do you recover from such swims?
Recovery is very important. It’s not possible to swim [these distances] every year. Recovery is for the body and the mind. There are thousands of swimmers who can swim faster than me but for an adventure like this you need your mind to be right.
Most triathletes swear by a balanced diet but you eat horse burgers and seem to drink plenty of alcohol.
Horse burgers are healthy. In Slovenia they’re popular but not in the UK! My wine is very special and it’s low alcohol. I drink wine everyday but you’ll never see me drunk. I drink one bottle, maybe two when I swim but it’s very special wine made just for me. Like holy water its just wine! If you buy the wine in a Russian shop and drink two litres you could die! John Maringouin (the Big River Man director) made me out to be a heavy drinker but I was never drunk.
You make your own wine in Slovenia right?
If you come to Slovenia and drink with me you can see that’s it’s very, very healthy for the body. But that’s my idea and not the doctor’s! But half a bottle a day is very healthy but you have to eat well. When I was on the boat the right nutrition and the right cook was important. It was fresh food three times a day. A lot of fish! So it was healthy for everyone.
And how has your life changed since Big River Man?
I’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, Russia, UK, United States and South America with the film. This film is nice for me, it makes me very, very happy. I’m not so young. I’m 55 now and the story makes me proud. I can share everything now. I’ve met a lot of triathletes here in Nashville who came from Ironman qualification in Florida for Hawaii 2010 and we swim together. This is life. It made us stronger, made us happy. I visited primary schools in the US, in the UK. I showed them the Piranhas and the scars on my back!
There was also my connection with my son Borut, who shared the journey in the Amazon. Even though he’s my son I would like to congratulate him. That was a huge experience for him too.
What next after the Amazon? The Nile?!
Heh heh. I know the Nile very well because I swam World Cup competitions there. I have my health and my life and I’m blessed to still be healthy and active today. That is my pride, believe me.
It’s important to make myself available to speak to teach others who wish to learn how I do the swims and how I have the strength to continue (head to www.martinstreladventures.com to book Martin for a seminar). But, if I’m honest, my idea is still to prepare something new. After Amazon it’s difficult now to find something more than the Amazon! I have one idea but I will be keeping it quiet. I’d like to swim more because swimming is such a special, healthy sport. Especially for young people but also the older generations. That connection with water is important.
And you represent Slovenia as a tourism ambassador?
My message is ‘swim for peace, friendship and clean water’. After 9/11 I decided to go to swim the Mississippi in 2002. I am an ambassador and I present Slovenia pretty well, believe me! It’s a small country, one of the cleanest countries in world. We now have the Euro, airports. Sport is popular. I’m one of the sportsmen and how this big man swam the Amazon is one of the stories. I’ve worked very hard for 30 years at my swimming. I am still alive and this is very good news for me, believe me!
The Sundance Film Festival award winning Big River Man is out on DVD on Monday 18 January. Head to www.bigriverman.com for more on the film.
www.amazonswim.com has all the information on Martin’s Amazon swim.
Issue 244 of 220 Triathlon (out 9 February) has a full feature on Martin’s record-breaking endurance swim.