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Professor swims into record book ... again

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Lt. Col. Tim Lawrence takes to challenges like a fish to water. 

The long-distance swimmer extraordinaire swam the English Channel in 1999, was the first American to swim the 41 nautical miles around Britain's Jersey Island in 2002, was the first American to swim from the island of Vis to Split, Croatia, and was the first American to swim the 14.8 nautical miles from Jersey Island to France on July 22, 2006. 

"This is my last swim," Lawrence said after reaching his French destination. 

However, another unconquered body of water changed his mind. The Air Force Academy's Space Systems Research Center director teamed with German Air Force civil servant and former Academy aeronautics instructor Peter Zabel to swim approximately 42 miles from Santa Barbara Island to Rocky Point Beach in Los Angeles in 31 hours, 25 minutes. The feat ensured their place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first tandem to successfully swim that channel. Lawrence hit the water Aug. 1 at 10:30 a.m. for his first three-hour shift. 

"It was a mixed bag," Lawrence said of the conditions. "The calmness of the water was ideal, one-to-three foot waves that were occasionally white capping. The water temperature was good, 64 degrees at the start and warmed up as we got closer to the end. Our only unknown that really hurt us was the current." 

Lawrence estimated the current was moving at one nautical mile per hour, while he was swimming at 1.5 nautical miles per hour. About three hours out, the tide turned, the current relented and they made progress. 

With 3.5 miles to go, a fatigued Zabel, who was distance swimming in open water for the first time, yelled to Lawrence during a transition, "I'm not going to swim any
more!" 

"I told him 'I've been at this 30 hours, I'm not going to quit this swim,'" Lawrence recalled. "I just dug deep, swam hard and we finished an hour and 25 minutes later." Lawrence swam a total of 16 hours, 25 minutes while Zabel swam 15 hours. 

"When you look at it strategically, it's self-defeating to think of swimming the entire distance," the 41- year old Lawrence said. "Since Peter had no experience, I told him to just think about lasting through his next three-hour relay." 

Two Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association observers were along to verify certain rules were followed. The swimmers could not be touched by humans. No floatation devices were allowed. The swimmers could not touch the boat. They were fed a very high energy carbohydrate drink every hour in a tightly sealed sports bottle thrown to them on a string. Lawrence dropped 10 pounds during the swim. The SBCSA will present Lawrence and Zabel with a medal during a November ceremony and enter the feat into the Guinness Book of World Records. 

Lawrence received an e-mail recently from the British Long Distance Swimming Association, challenging him and other Americans to a relay race with the British around an island twice, a distance of 84 miles. The Waterloo, Iowa, native is undecided whether to participate. 

"I hope my accomplishments can motivate the cadets," the astronautical engineering professor said. "That's what our job is, to create better officers. I tell them if they're going to enjoy life, they have to go for high challenges, which aren't necessarily achievable. You have to work hard, regardless." Lawrence's feat is more impressive when you consider, just four days earlier he completed, with his 68 year-old uncle, the nearly 500-mile, Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI. 

"Doing these things so close to each other may not have been smart," Lawrence admitted. "It came down to a mental thing. When I jumped in the water, I had cramps in my hamstrings and my calves, so I relied a lot more on my arms. Sometimes, if you really push yourself, you can do extraordinary things."