|"Gather!" Nejib Belhedi told summer campers at the Sacramento State Aquatic Center. |
And they did; some called him "swimmer guy," but I'm not sure they know who he is.
Yesterday Nejib Belhedi kissed me solemnly on both cheeks, bear-hugging me as tight as he could, given we were bobbing in 25 feet of water in Lake Natoma.
He thanked me for my help and swam back to shore. I wished him safe travels and continued swimming upstream.
By today he should be flying to Nome, Alaska, preparing to swim the 2.4 miles between Little Diomede (the United States) and Big Diomede (Russia) islands in the Bering Strait. The water should be about 40 degrees, says Steven Breiter, handling his publicity.
With logistics worked out, Nejib should make the swim sometime next week.
(Lynne Cox, famous for her extreme endurance swims, made this route in 1987; Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev credited her swim, and lengthy delicate negotiations to make it possible, for easing U.S.-Soviet tensions leading to glasnost.)
Nejib Belhedi is a world wonder whom I wouldn't have known without facebook™©, specifically the group page in which swimmers around the world describe their swims that day. Nejib posts early and often, ebullient descriptions of swims from far away, accompanied by many many photos. And many many exclamation points!!!
I don't always understand what's going on in the photos, partly because his posts appear to have been translated from French or Arabic and the result is quaintly peculiar to me. His joy, though, is clear. So is his mission; peace.
|Fox 40 reporter Alisa Becerra gets ready to interview Nejib Belhedi at Lake |
Natoma. Expedition manager Carol Breiter (right) stands by for questions.
Nejib plans to bring the voices and words and pictures from children in his native Tunisia in North Africa, on the Mediterranean Sea, to the children of the Bering Sea. Tunisia is the tragic but fiery birthplace for the so-called Arab Spring.
This is one of several swims Nejib has made to wage peace and to encourage Tunisian children to take to the sea.
In 2011 he swam the Tunisian coastline, 1,400 kilometers, stage by stage, for peace and encouragement. The World Open Water Swimming Association named his feat that year's Performance of the Year.
Nejib swam the English Channel in 1993 in 16 hours and 35 minutes on the highest tide of the year, 6.75 meters. The Belhedi Award now goes to the fastest English Channel crossing on the highest tide. (Information from a wiki site called Open Water Pedia.)
|Cindi Dulgar, associate director of the Sac State Aquatic Center, pilots|
The Fox 40 TV crew alongside Nejib on his swim. Carol Breiter photo.
Except in this one the background looked weirdly familiar.
The narrator introduced Nejib, announced the date June 30 and said, "His course is going to take him up the lake, Lake Natoma in Sacramento, California." The narrator noted Nejib's planned 4,400-meter swim that day.
"wait a minute," I posted on the group page. "you swam lake natoma and i missed the chance to meet you?!"
Soon Carol Breiter called me to say Nejib is still in the neighborhood, and would I like to meet him? She's the general manager of Nejib's Bering Strait expedition, and a swimmer and English Channel coach from Sacramento.
(I'm guessing the video narrator was her husband Steven, the publicity and logistics manager for this trek. I'm also guessing he misspoke, meaning July 30. I forgot to ask him yesterday.)
After a couple of attempts — Nejib was on the road with his team the last week, swimming in Lake Tahoe and then Aquatic Park in San Francisco — I finally got to meet him yesterday.
|Nejib gets ready to jump in at Nimbus Flat after an interview.|
Whatever he's got, he should bottle and sell it.
"Gather!" he calls to children who have arrived for day camp at the aquatic center. Children run to him; I don't know whether someone has told them who he is. They pose for a photo.
He gestures and hugs and laughs and approaches perfect strangers with great glee, revealing how reserved we tend to be in this part of the world.
I have commented briefly on his posts before, and he has called me his dear friend since. With a great hug he greeted me again this way, his great walrus mustache rising above a big smile.
"Come, we are together in this now," he said.
Soon, sure enough, I was helping hold up a backdrop while the news reporter did a live tease for the lengthier broadcast later. Then I was in the stern of a canoe, paddling alongside Nejib on a swim to demonstrate a mid-swim feeding for the TV crew. Nejib's neoprene cap bore the red crescent and star of the Tunisian flag.
Carol and Steven switched places in the canoe to keep piloting Nejib, while Cindi Dulgar of the aquatic center took me back on her boat with the TV crew.
Then I joined my swim buddy Doug for a swim of Burroughs Island, about 1.3 miles round trip.
Nejib and his crew were returning on our way out. I veered over to say goodbye.
"Come, I kiss you," said Nejib. I looked up at Carol and Steven, not sure what I heard.
"It's the custom," said Carol. "Go with it."
|Carol Breiter photo|