Homeless Man Heals Through Swimming

By: 
Kirt Ramirez
ROBERTO VAZQUEZ on one of his laps around Naples Island.

Roberto Vazquez was never a great swimmer, but he’s getting better.

He never imagined swimming around Naples Island. But that’s what he’s done more than 30 times over the past year and he plans to reach his goal of 40 laps altogether by August 1, a distance of more than 100 miles.

Not only is Vazquez conquering his fear of cold, deep water and related panic attacks; he also is homeless.

Vazquez, 53, was born in East Los Angeles and grew up in Long Beach since age six. As a double major, double minor student at Long Beach City College and Cal State Dominguez Hills, he earned two bachelor degrees in Communications and Labor Studies from the university and received a professional certificate in Post Graduate Studies.

He taught as a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District for five years, but lost his on-call employment opportunities when classes were canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With limited income, he was living in an apartment in Glendale with his then-girlfriend, who also lost her job. Eventually, they split up. Vazquez packed his things, put them in storage and moved into his car. He slept in his vehicle and couch surfed when he could.

“I left a toxic relationship, a job that was not going anywhere and a city that I didn’t want to live in,” he said. “In the long run, it was good for me to leave all that behind.”

He ended up back in Long Beach and has reflected on his life ever since.

“I don’t regret one bit of it,” Vazquez said of his homelessness. “I wouldn’t change anything. I’m probably happier than I’ve been in many years.”

Vazquez chose to tackle his water-related anxieties, which stemmed from two childhood incidents.

He said he believes he almost drowned at age 10 when “everything turned red” while boogie boarding. He got to safety and recovered.

Then in his sophomore year at Wilson High School, he tried out for the celebrated water polo team but quit after the first day of tryouts. The coach at the time, Rick Jones, saw Vazquez struggling in the water and stopped the tryouts so he could recover, Vazquez said.

“I damn near drowned,” recalled Vazquez. “It was embarrassing and humiliating to experience that in front of my peers.”

He added, “I never went back. I quit that day. It’s haunted me all these decades.”

A friend, who works as a local lifeguard, provided Vazquez with an old pair of lifeguard trunks last July, now faded pink.

“I said ‘What are these, girls’ trunks?’” Vazquez asked of the once-red trunks.

Challenged to swim out to a nearby buoy in the area of Division and Bayshore, Vazquez accepted the challenge, got in the water, and made it out to the buoy and back.

“That’s where it started,” Vazquez said.

“It was then I realized I wanted to keep doing this. I’ve been swimming every day since.”

One day he crossed paths with Shari Barth, the widow of legendary Ironman triathlete and Wilson High School swim coach Klaus Barth at a local AM/PM. The two exchanged kind words and Vazquez told her what a great man her husband was.

Vazquez never had him as a coach but was his pupil in a remedial math class. Vazquez said he and the teacher never had a personal conversation, however.

Having had a panic attack while swimming last summer, Vazquez said he asked God to make Barth his “Guardian Spirit.”

Vazquez said he is not religious but that he believes in a “Higher Power.”

One day he struggled in the water and had an emotional experience. He said the sound of Barth’s voice came from the shore, bellowing out to him: “Roberto, the pain goes away. What you achieve lasts forever.”

“I started bawling right there in the water,” Vazquez said, as he broke down. “And I can’t tell that to anyone without crying.”

He said the voice was loud and clear.

“It was like he was standing there, arms crossed, with a German accent. I don’t believe in ghosts. I knew he wasn’t standing there, intellectually, but ever since then, I don’t want to be a quitter. Klaus was tough, never a quitter.”

Vazquez added of his swimming accomplishments, “I want to emphasize, I didn’t do it all alone. I had help from my Higher Power and Klaus Barth.”

Vazquez said he thanks God and Barth. He also appreciates the people he has met along the way.

When the water was much colder during the winter, Vazquez said strangers would offer him a wet suit, but that he declined.

“They said, ‘Aren’t you cold?’ and I said, “You know what? I don’t want to think about it.”

Vazquez would rather deal with his fear of the cold water.

“I really want Klaus’s wife and kids to know, I talk to him every day. I want to say ‘Thank you coach.’”

It takes Vazquez 3 ½ to 4 hours to swim around Naples Island. He swims slowly, using his own techniques.

“That’s how long it takes me because I don’t have the technique or the experience,” he said.

An avid reader, Vazquez also believes in the love of fate philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the poetry of Charles Bukowski, who was quoted in part, “If you’re going to try, go all the way.”

Vazquez stated: “If you want to change, if you want to heal, you have to be willing to do certain things or pay a certain price. This means being brutally honest; admitting faults, recognizing failures, lost opportunities and wasted talents … and you can’t care anymore about what others see, say, think, or do. It’s that simple and that difficult, all at once.

“It has been probably the most difficult, the most humiliating, the most loneliest year in my life, and I wouldn’t change it – not one bit, because it had to happen for me to feel, and be, as free as I feel today; without the shame or fears or worries I had before this ‘streak’ started.

“I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the water. That’s a lot of time to think of all the things you’ve done wrong in life, your faults, what you could have been.”

Vazquez plans to find new work and housing after Aug. 1.

Wes Edwards, who was a friend and colleague of Barth, met Vazquez last year and saw his ritual of writing Barth’s name in the sand before swimming.

Edwards spoke highly of Barth.

“He was an incredibly motivating coach and I admire him,” he said.

Barth died of brain cancer in 2006 but fought until the end. His death made headlines.

“‘You can do it,’ was his whole message in life, including beating cancer,” Edwards said. “He lived six years longer than his prognosis.”

Edwards added, “He kept swimming, kept training. Anyone in Long Beach during that era would know who Klaus was. You would see bumper stickers that said ‘Live Like Klaus.’”

Regarding Vazquez’s efforts, “I’ve done that swim before myself and it takes a lot of will power to do it,” Edwards said. “People do that swim (2.8 miles), but to do it as much as Rob, he’s devoted for doing it.”

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