Aaron Houston: He Swims and Swims and Swims

Many people make resolutions and set goals to start the new year.

Aaron Houston, a 62-year-old Benicia father and grandfather, has set a personal goal more ambitious than most. He plans to swim the English Channel.

Actually, his plans may have to wait until 2025 because all the English pilot boats that escort swimmers across the famous channel were unavailable for the next two years. So the retired financial systems manager has had to shift tactics and focus on a short-term goal for himself.

In April, in an open water event near Phoenix, he will swim across four different lakes over four successive days, totaling more than 41 miles in the water.

A former high school and college swimmer and water polo player, the six-foot, 200-pounder describes himself as “an average-looking dude.” If that’s true, it’s the only thing that’s average about him. Because, when the man is in the water, he’s a total stud.

Early in a training cycle, when he’s building up his conditioning, he logs about 12 miles a week of swimming, bringing his long, powerful strokes to James Lemos or Cunningham pool in Vallejo. But when his training routine gets more serious, his distance doubles to 25 miles a week, most of which takes place in the rough, frigid waters of San Francisco Bay.

Check out these bay training swims of his:

  • Starting at Berkeley Marina, going almost to Treasure Island, turning right to the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge and then back to Berkeley, about eight hours and 16 miles in all.
  • From Aquatic Park in San Francisco to Alcatraz Island and back, and from Aquatic Park to the south span of the Golden Gate Bridge and back.
  • From the rolling waters near the Golden Gate, around Angel Island and back.

Always, he swims with an escort boat and at times with other like-minded swimmers in training.

Occasionally harbor seals join in the fun too. “One of them started to play with me once,” Houston recalled with a laugh. “It was nudging my feet, following me around almost like a puppy dog.”

His greatest achievement to date occurred last September when he swam the 22-mile Catalina Channel in southern California, considered to be one of the epic feats in the sport of open water swimming. Leaving Catalina Island at 10 pm, he swam for hours through darkness, dealing constantly with rolling currents and waves before finally reaching land in Palos Verdes by noon the next day.

Fourteen hours in the ocean and no wetsuit (and none for his bay swims either). The water temperature dropped from 70 degrees at the start to 63 degrees by the end.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he said. “At the end it got very hard, very difficult physically. I was in some pain there at the end.” His shoulder tendons were strained to the max, and then some, causing him to take two full months off to let his body heal.

Catalina, like all open water swims, was a team effort.

The team included a 56-foot pilot boat with captain and crew; two official on-board observers; a pair of kayakers taking turns rowing beside him; and three close friends videoing the event and swimming alongside to keep his pace up and make sure he took regular liquid nourishment.

Houston, who has an easy-going, self-effacing sense of humor, refers to himself as “an old senior guy.” “I’m like anyone else my age,” he said. “When I get out of bed in the morning I always have to take inventory to see what parts are working that day.”

Nevertheless, it being the time for new year’s resolutions about eating healthier and getting into better shape, we asked the “old senior guy” how he motivates himself.

He said, “I do two things. First, I try to turn off the noise inside my head. You know, that I can’t do this, that I’m crazy, that I’m too old. All that. Then I visualize afterward. I visualize sitting in the sauna in the club, talking with some buddies, relaxing, having a good time. I visualize how good it will feel when I’m done.”

Aaron Houston with wife and grandkids in front of a Christmas tree