ENSENADA, Mexico — The marathon swimmer churned a solitary path through the chilly current, his wave-sculpted shoulders and arms dragging his lifeless legs through the sea off Baja California.
Thirty years ago, a car accident severed Sergio Valencia’s spine; he has used a wheelchair ever since.
The ocean then called to him in a dream. In the ocean, a voice told him, you will find freedom.
So Sergio Valencia swam:
From Isla de Todos Santos to Playa Hermosa in Ensenada, becoming the first to cross the 12-mile stretch. Across the Strait of Gibraltar, waving a Mexican flag as he pulled himself onto a rocky Moroccan beach. Down the Baja California coast for 24 consecutive hours, with dolphins dancing nearby. He swam these and a dozen other long distances.
Musicians wrote songs about him. Leaders praised him. Once, he says, he met Cuban President Fidel Castro, who joked that he couldn’t let Valencia coach in Havana because everyone would be able to swim to Miami.
In his hometown, they hailed him as El Tiburon Negro — the Black Shark, the name he proudly had given himself. Businesses built ramps for his wheelchair, helping spread his message to respect the disabled. The governor awarded him a monthly stipend for his training.
“El Tiburon Ataca de Nuevo” — The Shark Attacks Again — a local newspaper headline blared after one swim.
But that was then.
His trophies, medallions and plaques now gather dust inside his tiny apartment in a gang-ridden slum. He supplements his meager income by spearing fish and octopus. He sells the catches on the streets of this port city, where he drives a battered 1991 Cadillac with 275,000 miles on it, using a crutch to prod the gas and brake pedals.
His only regular audience when he swims now is the sea lions and dolphins with whom he shares Bahia de Todos Santos.
“History has passed by El Tiburon,” said Ruben Gonzalez Peña, a local businessman who was one of Valencia’s first patrons. “He accomplished tremendous feats that normal people could never attain. He was a person with great willpower. Now he’s too old. … He should set up a stand and sell oranges and peanuts.”
Valencia dismisses such talk. He is 47. He swam the 8-mile stretch from Tijuana to Las Islas Coronado last year. He has spans yet to cross — Santa Catalina Island to the California mainland, Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, the Bering Strait. He says he has the strength. What he needs, he says, is a sponsor, which is hard to find in Mexico.
He could have ended up like many disabled people, he said, begging for pesos on the corner. Instead, he became an inspiration and role model — and should not be forgotten.
In a rich country like the United States, Valencia can’t help thinking, he would have a more dignified life, with a decent apartment, perhaps a coaching job. Americans honor exploits, he says. He was nominated last year for the Hall of Fame of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association in Maryland.
“I don’t want handouts. I demand only what I deserve. … That’s what they don’t understand,” he said of his countrymen. “But they would understand if they saw the risks I take and the dangers I face.”
Out of despair, a dream
One night in 1977, a friend was driving Valencia and some girlfriends down the winding Tecate-Ensenada highway when he veered off the road and the car flipped. Valencia, who thought he was fine, helped pull two girls to safety.
He couldn’t move when the ambulance arrived 13 hours later. His doctor, Joaquin Manuel Nava, said Valencia had cracked several Vertebrae, and the broken bones severed his spinal cord as he helped his friends.
Valencia retreated to his small bedroom for eight years, in a haze of marijuana smoke. He attempted suicide. He cursed God for rendering his legs useless.
One day, he heard the friend who caused the accident had returned after fleeing to the United States. Valencia fired a dozen shots at him, but missed. He wasn’t arrested, and the vengeful impulse passed, he said. When he sees the man now, he just thinks, “I’ll leave it to God.”
In 1985, in the depths of his Depression, came the dream, promising, “In the ocean, you will find peace in your soul.”
The next day, he persuaded a friend to carry him into the water, where he splashed about to keep from sinking. His eyes stung. He swallowed water. He turned onto his back. He found he could float. He returned the next day, and the next.
Gonzalez Peña, a sportswear manufacturer and family friend, encouraged him. The great U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, he told Valencia, had led the world’s most powerful nation from his wheelchair. Peña gave Valencia a wetsuit to provide buoyancy. Valencia now could swim a crawl stroke without his legs pulling him down.
“I swallowed water, but not as much,” he said.
His life began to gain a sense of purpose. His confidence grew. “I felt happy,” he said. “I felt free to go wherever I wanted.”
He started training. Within a year he was doing 450 sit-ups and swimming four hours a day.
Admiring the graceful, constant movement of the sharks he saw, Valencia began to call himself the Black Shark, black for the color of his wetsuit.
One morning in 1988 he set off in a boat from a spit of barren land off Ensenada called Isla de Todos Santos. No one knew of anyone who had swum the 12-mile strait, said Roberto Calderon, an oceanographer at the Autonomous University of Baja California.
“It was a mystery whether anyone could do it,” he said.
Valencia swam nearly eight hours. For the first time, people saw his stroke. He didn’t so much glide as lunge across the water. And, yes, when his bent elbow peeked above the waterline, it did look a bit like a shark’s fin. When he arrived at the beach, the crowd that had gathered yelled “Viva El Tiburon” — long live the shark.
Among those cheering Valencia was his older brother, Marcos, a pilot — whose nickname was El Pelicano, the Pelican, because of how he could spot schools of fish from the air.
Marcos never had stopped urging Valencia to leave his room, telling him that life was passing him by.
As a pilot for then-Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel, Marcos began working relentlessly to help his brother’s swimming career, offering what spare money he had and searching for sponsors who had more.
Carlos Hussong, from one of Ensenada’s most prominent families, was so impressed by Valencia’s swim from Isla de Todos Santos to Ensenada that he offered financial support for a swim from Europe to Africa.
In October 1988, Valencia gazed nervously at the Strait of Gibraltar, a 13-mile span where the waters churn from the crosscurrents of the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea and where swimmers can be swept into the open Atlantic.
“When I saw the strait, I said, ‘This is crazy. I can’t cross here,’ ” he said.
After six weeks of training, Valencia set off from Tarifa, Spain. Five hours, 59 minutes later, he was in Morocco, where people were stunned to see he couldn’t stand. He was the first paralyzed person to swim the strait.
Local singers in Tarifa wrote a song about the Mexican man whose legs failed him but who had courage and hope to spare. Back home, politicians and business associations showered him with honors. Female fans began to show up. He became a father and named his son Sergio Neptuno.
Marcos died of a heart attack in 1994. Without him, Valencia’s life began to spiral downward. He fell into a deep depression. Sponsorships dried up. During election season, politicians supported his swims in exchange for his endorsement. But he sometimes was on the losing side — and sometimes the politicians didn’t follow through on their promises. Another accident caused by a drunk driver left him with four broken ribs and his car in flames.
He still finds a way to eke out a living and squeeze joy out of life. He and his 15-year-old son subsist on a $340 monthly government pension. Spearing fish fetches a few extra dollars.
Valencia courts his girlfriend, Nancy Conroy, a blond American, by wearing his leg braces — fitted with cowboy boots — and hopping up three flights of stairs to her apartment.
“He’s got the biggest heart in the world. It’s impossible to know him without being affected by him,” said Conroy, publisher of the local English-language newspaper, the Gringo Gazette.
Valencia still swims at the beach outside Ensenada. When no one can carry him, he drags himself into the sea.
At night he dreams. But he says the ocean doesn’t need to call him anymore.
“In my dreams now,” he said, “I’m always walking, with my girlfriend in one hand, and my son in the other.”
By Richard Marosi
Los Angeles Times
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company