As a young swimmer growing up in Seattle, Mark Lautman was challenged by his coaches to envision and strive for the highest of goals.
Among them: to win a World Championship medal.
A half-century (or so) later, he has done it.
If the story doesn’t give you chills, it certainly gave him a few.
In March, Lautman, an Albuquerque economic development consultant, traveled to Murmansk, Russia, for the 2019 World Ice Swimming Championships. He came home with two gold medals and a silver in his 70-and-older age group.
Swimming in a 25-meter pool carved out of the ice on a lake that borders the city, Lautman won his gold medals in the 50 breaststroke and the 100 breaststroke and took silver in the 50 freestyle.
The challenge, Lautman admits, came more from the conditions than the competition. There were no other competitors in his 70-and-over age group in the 100 breaststroke and only a handful in the other two events.
And Lautman was just a kid of 69 at the time, eligible to compete at 70-and-over because he would turn 70 before the year was out; he did so earlier this month.
But, hey, mission accomplished.
“Take on an event that sounds crazy and nobody wants to do, get rid of most of your competition that way and wait until you’re 70,” Lautman said in a phone interview of his successful World Championship quest.
“… Go someplace that’s north of the Arctic Circle in Russia and almost impossible to get to or get a visa for. … Swim In minus-2 Celsius, and you might be the only guy there. That’s pretty much what happened.”
This was only the latest in a long series of swimming adventures for Lautman and his younger brother, Scott, a Seattle resident who came home from Murmansk with age 65-69 gold medals in five events.
With each other and with friends, the Lautman have specialized in swims that begin in one continent and end in another.
They’ve swum across the Strait of Gibraltar, from Africa to Europe; the Bosporus, from Europe to Asia; the Panama Canal, from South America to Central America (well, almost).
A throw-in was the Strait of Magellan, which separates mainland Chile from Tierra del Fuego. “Really cold,”Lautman said, and good preparation for swims both past and future.
In the works is a North America-to-Asia crossing of the Bering Strait from Little Diomede Island, owned by the United States, to the Russia-owned Big Diomede — a swim that also would cross the international dateline.
The Lautman brothers once traveled to Alaska with the intention of making the Bering Strait swim but reconsidered after observing steady 45 mile-per-hour winds day after day.
“It blew so hard,” he said. “I’ve got videotape of it; it’s pretty amazing.”
Nonetheless, Lautman said, he and his brother, hoping for better conditions, are planning another attempt in summer 2020.
Another goal: crossing the Red Sea from Africa to Asia.
“That’s problematic,” he said, “because you’d have to swim to (war-torn) Yemen. We haven’t started to even plan that one yet.”
Plans for the Murmansk trip began with a phone call from Seattle to Albuquerque.
“Scott calls me and says, ‘Do you still have that goal burned into your subconscious about being on the podium at the World Swimming Championships?’ I said, ‘Yeah, probably. Somewhere I’ve thought about it but I’d kind of let it go.”
Murmansk and the Ice Swimming Championships, Scott Lautman said, might be the answer.
And so it was.
Lautman was shocked, in a good way, by how professional the Ice Swimming Championships turned out to be.
“They must have spent a million bucks on the event,” he said. “This was like the Olympics. They build a big stage out in front of the hotel, and they had buses. They had these really heavy gold medals, and all the Russian press was there. It was surreal.”
Surreal as the concept of swimming in sub-freezing water may seem, Lautman said, it works — provided certain measures are taken.
“Everybody has to take an EKG,” he said. “They don’t let you dive in (at the start). You have to lower yourself in. (Otherwise), truly, you’d stop breathing.”
There was no backstroke competition, he said, because it would have been too easy for swimmers in the outside lane to drift out under the ice of Lake Semyonovskoye.
Having accomplished what he set out to do, would he brave those freezing waters again?
“Yeah, I’d do it again,” he said. “You end up being really good friends with these people from all over the world.”
In fact, some of his new Russian friends, he said, plan to make the Bering Strait swim with the Lautmans next summer.
And if that thought doesn’t give you chills, well …