I met John Bulsza around 1984 when he joined our University of Western Ontario Masters swimming team. I remember him as a fast freestyle swimmer on our 4x50m relay team at the World Masters Games in Toronto. What was even more memorable, however, was the story he told me about Long Distance swimming. Apparently, for several years he had taken part in a 10-mile swim down the St. Clair river between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. The current is pretty strong in the river and he told me his time to complete the swim was about 2 hours. My mental response was "Yeah John, a real long-distance swim".
So then he told me about his "dream" which was to swim across the breadth of Lake Huron - some 30-plus miles. My mental response again was "Yeah, John"; however, he continued to talk about this dream for the next 6-or-more years - until he hurt his shoulder during training.
Then when I saw him in the pool one morning at 5:30 am in the winter of 1995, he told me that 1996 was going to be the year of his Lake Huron swim. I suggested that he should ensure that he followed the Safety Guidelines of Solo Swims of Ontario (SSO) - a non-profit government-mandated body that is responsible for the safety of all solo-swim attempts across Lake Ontario. So John applied to them and, for my enthusiasm, I was assigned as the Swim Master for his swim.
Training is only one part of a marathon swim and, once the training is complete, "organization" of crews and boats becomes the major challenge. With the need to find a 10-metre sail boat and a 10-metre power boat with GPS or Loran-C navigation and radar, "swimming" becomes the simple part of the effort.
Anyway, John's planning was just as difficult as most swimmers and his swim was On Again and Off Again more times than he cares to remember. But it eventually got underway with what turned out to be just a tremendous crew.
The swim started with beautifully clear sky at 8:30 am on the Saturday morning of the 31st August 1996, at the beach just to the north of the harbour at Port Sanilac in Michigan. By 6:00 pm of that day, I found sufficient stimulus and spare time to scratch-out three verses of a poem about the swim; however, things became so busy after that time that I didn't think anymore about the poem.
John completed the swim successfully in a time of 26 hours 49 minutes.
There were, however, a number of things about John and the swim that stuck in my mind and begged me to write the poem. The format of the three verses created during the swim, however, seemed inappropriate and I started from scratch.
In 1987, I had a surprise emotional experience at the end of my one-and-only Triathlon and had thought no more about it until I saw the winner finish the last event of the decathlon in the 1996 Olympic Games. So you can imagine how surprised I was when the same emotion overtook John at the completion of his Lake Huron swim.
And so the title of the poem . . .
There are some things in Nature of which we might talk
Of the size and the form of the dominant hawk
But teachers and leaders, according to plan,
Involve but a few . . . the occasional man.
Strong in his spirit and firm in his mind
A leader of men . . . just one of his kind.
That spirit shines forth in numerous ways
From social concerns to the riding of waves.
For those not yet born, even though they're conceived
He fights for their rights, he fights for their needs.
His passion is strong and his passion is deep
He's in touch with their needs through his work and his sleep.
This man had a dream, and for many a year
The breadth of Lake Huron to him became dear
Through thick and through thin he nurtured his dream
With phone calls and prayers he gathered his team.
The training was hard and the days they were long
To build and to taper until he felt strong
And a 16-k Test Swim he tackled as told
But mercy Oh Lord, was that water cold!
And so it would be after a few weeks delay
The swim from Port Sanilac would soon be away.
A beautiful day we met with delight
The crews were all set with everything right.
Honey Moon set sail pursuing Endless Love
Their skippers in sync, like hands in a glove.
Radar and radio watched day and night
Through coffee and waves Kent steered us right.
With electrolyte drinks and gruel for his fuel
Becky mixed foods to John's careful rules.
Some things must be done and they matter the most
But he's got to believe in his crew, grease and strokes.
Strokes in the dark with a luminous glare
Glo Sticks on trunks and the cool of the air.
The flare of a freighter that passes at night
With its cargo unknown for a Goderich site.
Thin links with the world through 'lectronic means
Coastguards and freighters, and radar screens
And all this technology surrounding each scene
Tied to the heart of one man's dream.
Sowing each grain of a bushel of seeds
Or praying in steps through the Rosary beads
Ordaining of Knights through a vigil of prayer
These actions confound us, even though we were there.
Counting of strokes seems somewhat insane
But it sets us a goal as we fight with our brain
Tedious tasks under which many men broke
As we traverse the lake with 30,000 more strokes
"This man is a wonder" we'd hear the crew say
As he stroked from his pacers and led them the way.
But no man's an island, though oft' times it seems
For we're all linked to God, to our Kings and our Queens.
Sleeping in shifts and forming a team
Drawn to the cause, drawn to the dream
Fritz, Dean and Peter; Bob, Paul and Jim
Kent, Sandra and Linda; Bill, Becky and Robin.
Roger and Gerry engaging in jest
While Fritz with his clip-board organized all the rest.
They laugh and they shout as they bounce on the foam
But my thoughts are contained as I struggle alone.
I've walked in that valley like others before
And I've looked for the light and I've searched for the door
I searched through the night and well into the day
And with Rosary beads I would think and would pray.
But this numbness of body and numbness of mind
This numbness is one of a different kind
Combing your mind in search of The One
Beliefs thrice denied before this challenge is done.
Now the progress was slow and, deprived of all sleep,
His energy lapsed; he looked limp and weak
But the shouts and the pacers drove him on to that dream
And his prayers they were many as he wanted to scream.
From the dreams and the hopes in the earlier days
To this day and a night of coursing through waves.
Can I hold on much more? Can I let it go now?
If there's a secret to find, then please tell me how.
Inching through water, going ever more slow
Red light in the distance and the harbour's green glow
And then came the dawn and the break of the day
We'd clearly made land close to Kettle Point bay.
While the daybreak was grand, there was haze on the land
And we struggled to see the trees and the sand
Then a speedboat set forth like a shot from the north
With Sandra and Linda to seek out our course.
As we drew to the shore a flotilla formed round
To encourage the conquest, their horns they did sound
For there's a strength in this body that we all can glean
For we all formed a part of the John Bulsza dream.
Gasping and tired he pulled for the shore
'Till stopped by his coach. His thoughts "What else, what more?"
Then his feet caught the feeling of silt and of sand
And he knew he was there, he knew he could stand.
Now there's a feeling few know, when you've strained and you've tried
And it hit him right there as he choked and he cried
He cried not in sorrow, he cried not in pain
But he slipped to his knees and he cried once again.
And as soon as it came, he'd cast it aside
For the sirens and shouts, they came far and wide.
Shouts from the water and cheers from the land
There was hugging and kissing and grasping of hands.
Through the cameras and flashes and news media chat
He sat and he mused upon Campbell's good hash.
Blankets and towels, and lost in his dreams
The haze of the conquest and all that it means.
The curious they lingered on the beach at Port Franks
As the news media folk rushed off with their "Thanks"
But the swimmer was tired and needed a shower
So for a cottage they headed within less than an hour.
So we met on the road at the end of the swim
His hair it was tousled, his body was thin
But with the wisdom of Dylan and the shake of a hand
He said "Well done mate, but come down slowly man!"
Now mentors and prophets can all have their way
But there's no man on earth can create such a day
For White Squall or Thunder or the dread' Water Spout
Can drive boats to the shore and put swimmers to rout.
So he conquered and he prayed, he did what few dream
He showed us the way, he showed what Life means
For in reaching his goals, oh Lord how he tried
But at the end of it all, he knelt and he cried.
© Bryan Finlay
John Bulsza | SSO Home Page | Huron Swim-List | Contact WebMaster
Created: 20th August 1999
Last Updated: 18th March 2003