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Time Off with: Peter Attia

Jill and Peter Attia, after his marathon swim.

In the summer of 1980, Terry Fox, a bold young cancer patient who’d had his right leg amputated, ran part way across Canada to raise money for cancer research. The feat left a lasting impression on 7-year-old Peter Attia, a Toronto boy who made up his mind that he would one day take part in an endurance contest of his own.

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, Attia, now a surgery resident, swam across Catalina Channel, the body of water between Catalina Island and the California coast. He covered all 20.5 miles in 101/2 hours. He is only the 115th person ever to swim the channel.

With a glow stick pinned to his bathing suit, Attia entered the Pacific Ocean from Catalina Island, starting appropriately enough in Doctor’s Cove. It was just after midnight, the best time to begin in order to avoid shipping traffic and rough afternoon winds. A charter boat guided the way. His wife, Jill, a nurse practitioner in thoracic surgery, was part of the on-boat support crew, and three ocean-experienced kayakers took three-hour shifts by his side. A pod of about two dozen dolphins tagged along for several hours. That was a good sign because it meant that sharks were nowhere about.

“The pain was so blunted by the sights and sounds of the ocean at night,” Attia recalls. “With the starlight and the half-moon, the visibility must have been about 30 feet, and it was so totally engaging, especially with the dolphins.”

There are parallels between a surgery residency and open-water distance swimming. Both require patience, endurance, the ability to cope with unexpected conditions, and most of all, technique. “Swimming is really a technically driven sport. And surgery is very technical. You’re always practicing technique.”

Following the swim, the Attias caught the Red Eye back to Baltimore. The next morning, they were back at work at Hopkins Hospital. Jill, who had helped Peter with his intense training, now only had a few days to prepare for the Baltimore Marathon, which she ran that Saturday, coming in among the top finishers.

Peter, meanwhile, is determined to do more. He has in mind a double crossing of the mouth of the Potomac River. The Straits of Gibraltar. The English Channel. “And I want to do Catalina again. I want to do it 10 times—maybe a double crossing.”

But his true passion remains the late Terry Fox. His goal with the swim was to raise $10,000 for the Terry Fox Foundation and cancer research, one he believes he will surpass. “The swim is not that big a deal,” he insists. “Terry Fox—that’s what it’s all about.”

—Anne Bennett Swingle



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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