Wise: Meditation in Motion

By: 
Roberto Vazquez

Hank Wise is aptly named. He is a wise, special man, quiet, strong and humble, precisely what’s needed to swim a distance of more than 20 miles.

Recently, Wise discussed his attempt for a record-setting eighth swim across the Catalina Channel, likely this month.

Hank Wise is a Wilson High and Stanford graduate.

He chooses his words carefully, reserved, guarded. Wise then stops and shares that his older brother, Greg, passed away this summer at age 66.

It’s still a fresh wound to his heart, one that will take time to heal. He credits his brother and explains Greg was with him, early in his long distance swimming career.

To understand Wise’s story, it’s important to know some of the history of the Catalina Channel event.

Steve Munatones is founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association. He says, “Fewer than 3% of Americans can swim 200 yards to save their life. Most humans cannot.”

He then adds, “This is one of the world’s great, extreme athletic feats. Fewer than 300 people have crossed since it started.”

The event began in 1926-27, then known as the Wrigley Ocean Marathon Race.

In the 1950s, the race included names like Florence Chadwick, Tom Park and Greta Andersen.

Later, in the 1970s, it was Dr. Penny Lee Dean, whom Wise met as a 12 or 13 year old, a meeting which left a lasting impression on Wise.

It’s an unforgiving race, one that allows for only a swimsuit, goggles and one swim cap.

Steve Munatones continues, “Water temperature fluctuates dramatically. When you hit a cold spot, you start shivering and you never know when it’s going to end,”

It’s that very fear of the unknown which defeats many swimmers.

“That fear of the unknown is always in the Channel swim. You don’t know when a shark is going to appear, when a jellyfish is going to hit you. You have to deal with all of these unknowns and that’s mentally taxing. It spooks a lot of people, even before they try.”

Wise, 53, is married to Kristin Moro Wise, a local artist. They have a son, Fox, who is 10.

He is very philosophical about endurance swimming and some of the challenges, including staying focused.

As he describes the importance of remaining focused, he brings up his father, the late Fred Wise.

The elder Wise was a pilot during WWII. “He flew 56 missions over the European theater. His plane is in the Smithsonian.”

Wise shares his method for staying focused over such a long distance, “In a way, like my Dad, I have a certain bunch of gauges on my mental dashboard.”

Wise’s team of experts includes Sean Lieppman and Darren Rosenberg.

Rosenberg, who handles transportation and support, has 40 years of sailing an Olson 30, a lightweight boat with a keel and an outboard engine, allowing for, “A clean, quiet swim for Hank.”

Sean Lieppman has known Wise since he was four years old and Wise was an assistant swim coach.

Lieppman navigated the last four swims for Wise, using a pedal kayak, adding, the preparation for a swim starts almost a year prior.

Tide tables and possible swell conditions help predict ocean currents and the start time, typically 2 AM, in order to avoid afternoon winds.

However, night swimming is known to cause impaired vision and depth perception issues for swimmers.

Fog, tides and swells are issues, too, particularly South and West swells which affect Southern California and must be considered, lest they add hours on to a swim.

These are just some of the issues the team faces.

Wise explains, describing the first hour as the most difficult of every long distance swim, one that requires a certain mental strength.

Wise says, “It’s a moving meditation, a harmony with nature,” adding, “You give yourself over to it. Mother Nature rules. I’m just trying to coexist.”

Steve Munatones says, “We need more people like Hank in the world. He’s dedicated, appreciative, humble and hungry. He doesn’t want people to know he set the record.”

Wise holds the Catalina Channel record for fastest swim by a male.

Wise actually holds three of the top ten fastest swims across Catalina Channel, a fact he never mentions during the interview.

Later, Wise confides, the experience is more than just a race. “This is a journey, an adventure. Nothing is a foregone conclusion. It takes some willfulness, a leap of faith you have to have.”

He says, “This is really a swim attempt and it’s not until my feet are firmly planted on the rocks that I’m done.”

Steve Munatones ends his interview, stating, “Hank’s achieving an extreme athletic endeavor, completing seven swims in seven attempts.”

He adds, “This unique, aquatic challenge is what drives him. He’s somebody we should celebrate.”

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