Grant Howell’s 12,000-kilometre swimming journey began with the lure of a free Chinese dinner.
Forty years ago, Howell’s aquatic-minded co-workers at Syncrude coaxed him into the pool in Edmonton to swim laps.
“I had to stop to gasp for air three times before I got one length in,” says the 76-year-old. “Within about six weeks, I was able to do a klick (kilometre).
“And anybody can. I’m not an exceptional swimmer at all. It’s just staying with it.”
And a few months later, when a local Chinese restaurant offered free dinner to swimmers who could finish 125 kilometres in the pool to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the arrival of Chinese people in Canada, Howell had his first challenge.
He made the 125 kilometres, got the dinner, and kept swimming.
As hundreds of diligently logged swimming laps piled up, he dreamed of a new goal — swimming the length of Alberta’s border. He turned to University of Calgary’s geography department to find out what he was in for. The answer: 3,825 kilometres.
Red Deer, where he now lived, to London, England, was his next idea. But when he found out Victoria, B.C., to St. John’s, N.L., by way of the TransCanada Highway, was longer at 7,821 kilometres, he opted for the made-in-Canada goal and set his mind on swimming another 4,000 kilometres.
A trip with his wife to New Zealand a few years ago inspired his latest goal — Red Deer to Auckland. That’s a 12,075-kilometre journey — or in swimming terms, 483,000 lengths of a 25-metre pool.
On Tuesday, he will enter the harbour at Auckland — in spirit at least — and take his last few strokes to shore.
His feat will actually be accomplished at Michener Centre Pool, where he has swum countless laps over the past 30 years. He routinely logs 3.5- to four-kilometre swims three or four times a week. That’s about 150 lengths, or more than two hours of swimming each time.
“The only way to keep it interesting, for me, was to set goals — silly, little goals like swimming around Alberta and that sort of thing.
“All those little mind games keep you going. Otherwise, all you’re doing is swimming and turning, swimming and turning.”
Over the years, he has picked up a couple of dozen medals in swimming events. He still holds the Canadian record in the Canada 55+ Games in the 400-metre predicted swim.
The event involves predicting your time in the event, with penalties for being more than five seconds out. He nailed it with a perfect 0.0 in Whitehorse in 2004.
Another achievement was a silver medal in the 2005 World Masters three-kilometre swim in Sylvan Lake. He credits his achievement to his training in the chilly lake, so he was ready on race day.
In his age group, only a swimmer from Sudbury, Ont., was faster.
“The other guys were from Texas, Mexico, Belize and a Central American country. They got hypothermia in Sylvan Lake — so I got the silver,” he says with a laugh.
Howell encourages those looking for a way to keep active to consider swimming. A friend of his, Dr. Bob Diewold, described swimming as the “one activity that is cradle to grave.”
“You can swim for a long, long time. For me, I do it to stay active and for weight control,” says Howell, who retired from his job as City of Red Deer’s human resources manager in 2006.
“It’s a good aerobic activity and it’s great exercise. Your physiotherapists will tell you that and your doctor will tell you that.
“It’s also a social activity once you’re out of the pool. Seniors need relationships. Some people get themselves isolated and that’s not good.
“On a whole number of fronts, I just find it gratifying exercise. It’s good for both physical and mental health.”