As Matías Ola looked out over the English Channel this week, just one day of calm seas lay between him and an astounding achievement. Should Ola successfully swim the 42-kilometre stretch of water that separates the United Kingdom and France, he will become the first Argentine to complete the so-called Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming.
The distinction is awarded to swimmers who traverse the English Channel, the Catalina Channel in California and the entirety of Manhattan Island in New York City.
“I [will] feel very content to achieve this,” Ola, 34, told the Times. “It’s strange, I feel so strange. I had started to swim in open waters since I was 27, and today I have the opportunity to have a title that an Argentine has never achieved. It’s unimaginable.”
Ola, a resident of Buenos Aires originally from Tucumán, first learned to swim at 21 years old to alleviate the effects of his asthma. At 27, he launched the project “Unir El Mundo” ("Unite the World"), which he describes as “sport solidarity project” meant to use swimming as a “tool of social inclusion.”
“I intended to show that I could unite the continents of the world by swimming,” Ola said. “I knew that swimming had helped me so much in my personal life, with my health, and allowed me to relate to myself in a whole other way.”
Yet for Ola, achieving the Triple Crown is but another pitstop in an even greater challenge. He intends to be the first South American to complete the Challenge of the Oceans Seven. A globe trotting swimming title, Oceans Seven includes two swims Ola has already completed: the Catalina Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar. The other swims consist of the English Channel, the Molokai Channel in Hawaii, the Cook Strait in Australia, Japan’s Tsugaru Strait, and the North Channel connecting Ireland and Scotland.
“I didn’t have the intention to chase the title of the Triple Crown,” Ola added, having swam the island of Manhattan last September. “They told me I only needed the English Channel to obtain this title, which is so valuable.”
Of all his brief yet illustrious career, Ola said swimming the icy waters of the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska proved one of his most difficult challenges.
“It was a very extreme swim,” Ola commented, applauding the support he and his fellow swimmers received from the Russian and US navies. “It was something so historic for us, so symbolic, to unite the world along with the great sacrifice of swimming in waters like those of the Bering Strait.
Yet every swim brings plenty of challenges for Ola, from jellyfish stings to the effect of salt water on the body.
“You begin to have scars from the stings of the jellyfish,” Ola laughed. “Right now I have scars on my skin, hands and some on my legs from the burns.”
At the moment, with unsuitable weather battering the English Channel, Ola awaits an all-clear before he can safely traverse the iconic waterway. In the meantime, he said he’s training every day, eating well and getting plenty of rest.
“We have to wait,” he said. “There’s a possible calm in the weather for Monday, the ninth, but we don’t have confirmation. It could be in whatever moment.”
Upon achieving the Triple Crown, Ola intends to return to Buenos Aires and work with his NGO Swim Argentina. The organisation, which hopes to connect Argentina with the international swimming community, will hold swimming classes along with offering scholarships to young people who lack the financial means to train or visit places with access to favourable waters.
To bring further attention to the NGO, Ola plans to swim across the Río de la Plata and back next year, a 100-kilometre feat he plans to trounce in 36 hours.
“I think people will be able to comprehend the magnitude of physical and mental strength that I bring to these swims,” Ola said of his future plan. “It should help them understand the social objective this NGO has.”