Ensenada — 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, forcing him to use a wheelchair.
Then the ocean 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 in triumph as he pulled himself onto a rocky Moroccan beach. Down the Baja California coast for 24 hours straight, with dolphins dancing nearby. He swam these and a dozen other long distances, one after another.
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.
Here in his hometown, they hailed him as El Tiburon Negro — the Black Shark, the name he had proudly 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 — blared a local newspaper headline after one swim.
But that was then.
Now, his trophies, medallions and plaques gather dust inside his tiny apartment in a gang-ridden slum. He supplements his meager income by spearing fish and octopuses on his swims. He sells the catches on the streets of this bustling port city, where he drives around in 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 the waters of Bahia de Todos Santos.
“History has passed by El Tiburon,” says Ruben Gonzalez Pena, 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 just 47. Just last year he swam the eight-mile stretch from Tijuana to Las Islas Coronado. He has spans yet to cross — Santa Catalina Island to the California mainland, Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, the Bering Strait. He still says he has the strength to conquer them all. What he needs, he says, is a sponsor, which is hard to come by in Mexico.
He could have ended up like many handicapped people, he said, begging for pesos on the street 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. In America, he says, people honor his exploits. Last year, he was nominated for the Hall of Fame of the National Spinal Cord Injury Assn. 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.”
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.
When the ambulance came 13 hours later, he was flat on his back, unable to move his polished white boots. His doctor, Joaquin Manuel Nava, said the accident had cracked several Vertebrae, and the broken bones severed his spinal cord when he assisted his friends.
For the next eight years Valencia retreated into his small bedroom, in a haze of marijuana smoke. He attempted suicide. He cursed God for rendering his legs useless.
One day, a bit of news inspired him to go outside: The friend who caused the accident had returned after fleeing to the U.S.
Valencia went out looking for him in his car. He pulled up to a red light, trembling with anticipation, and pointed a gun at his onetime friend. Enraged, he said, he screamed, “Remember me?” then fired a dozen shots. He 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 on his back 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, and the next.
Gonzalez Pena, a sportswear manufacturer and a family friend, encouraged him. The great U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, he told Valencia, had led the most powerful nation in the world from his wheelchair. Gonzalez Pena gave Valencia a wetsuit to provide buoyancy. Valencia could now 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, as did his love of the ocean. “I felt happy,” he said. “I felt free to go wherever I wanted.”
He sought help from the dean of local swimming instructors, Roberto Calderon, an oceanographer at the Autonomous University of Baja California. When Calderon took him for a long distance, open-water swim, Valencia stopped after one lap, overcome by the cold.
“I’m not going to help someone who’s going to fail,” Calderon said.
“I’ll do it with or without you,” Valencia replied.
He started training. Within a year he was doing 450 sit-ups and swimming four hours a day.
Admiring the graceful and 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 between the island and the city, said Calderon, who was there that day.
“It was a mystery whether anyone could do it,” he said.
Valencia swam nearly eight hours. For the first time, people saw his distinctive short and choppy 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 finally 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 he could spot schools of fish from high above the water in an airplane.
During the worst times, Marcos had never stopped urging Valencia to leave his room, telling him that his life was passing him by.
As a pilot for then-Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel, he 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, a wealthy businessman 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 him financial support for a swim from Europe to Africa.
A few months later, in October 1988, Valencia gazed out nervously at the Strait of Gibraltar, where the waters churn from the crosscurrents of the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea and where swimmers can be swept out into the open Atlantic.
“When I saw the strait, I said, ‘This is crazy. I can’t cross here,’ ” he said.
The Spanish fishermen who sometimes row alongside swimmers trying to cross the strait refused to do so for him, doubting that a paralyzed man could make it, said Ulises Cruz, an Ensenada reporter who covered Valencia’s trip.
Still, after six weeks of training, Valencia started his swim from Tarifa, Spain, toward Africa, 13 miles away. Five hours and 59 minutes later, he came ashore in Morocco, where people were stunned to see he couldn’t stand up. Marcos, who was in the boat they had finally managed to hire, jumped on top of him, and they embraced in the waves. Valencia scooped sand into a bag so he could take a bit of Africa home.
Valencia was the first paralyzed swimmer to swim the strait. Later, local singers in Tarifa wrote a song about the Mexican man whose legs failed him but who had courage and hope to spare.
When Valencia returned home, politicians and business associations showered him with honors. “He is a man admired and respected even by all the species of the sea that have often accompanied him,” declared one state official when the Baja California legislature gave Valencia a medal of honor.
He appeared on television talk shows. Female fans began to show up. Valencia flirted, showing off his muscular physique with a mischievous smile. He became a father and named his son Sergio Neptuno.
His legendary feats piled up. Once, while diving for lobsters, he had to fend off a moray eel and then three sea lions that tried to steal his catch. Valencia’s friend Armando Montano, an expert diver who witnessed the battle, said he was terrified. But Valencia acted like nothing special had happened, as if he owned the tough, underwater neighborhood. “The sea lions, they know him,” Montano said. “They surround him, but they don’t bite. It’s as if they accept him as one of their own.”
Valencia swam the crocodile-infested river through the Sumidero Canyon in Chiapas. He nearly got Hypothermia on a 15-mile swim in the icy currents along the shoreline of his birthplace, the Isla de Cedros. When he tried a second crossing from Isla de Todos Santos to Ensenada, the rower in the support boat grew dehydrated trying to keep pace. Valencia went from his swim to a victory party. The rower was rushed to a hospital.
MARCOS died of a heart attack in 1994. At his funeral, Valencia said, pilots threw bouquets from their planes, and the sky rained flowers. Valencia vowed to keep a promise to his brother that he would swim 24 hours in open water.
One evening a year later, he jumped from a boat several miles off the coast. In the pitch-black ocean, creatures he couldn’t see jostled him. He heard the crew yell “shark.” He felt his body being tugged. He reached down to make sure his legs were still there. He swam on.
Alfred Mendoza, a reporter from Ensenada who went along on the support boat, said Valencia was relentless: “I went fishing, had dinner, went to sleep — and when I woke up, he was still swimming.”
Along the coast, people signaled their support by flashing their car headlights from the cliffs across the water.
Just before the 24-hour mark, Valencia saw a school of dolphins jumping out of the water. “I think they were telling me, ‘You made it. Don’t be afraid, we’re here to watch over you,’ ” he said.
At 24 hours, he was helped into the support boat. When the boat arrived at the Ensenada pier, a few hundred people greeted him, yelling, “Tiburon, Tiburon, rah-rah-rah.” But Marcos still needed to know, Valencia said.
A few months later, his family had his brother’s coffin disinterred to move Marcos into a newly purchased family crypt. Valencia said he opened the casket, placed some newspaper stories inside, and closed the lid. “I said, ‘Here you go, brother. Mission accomplished. Here are the news reports so you can read about how your little brother did it.’ ”
WITHOUT Marcos, his chief benefactor, Valencia’s life began to spiral downward. He fell into a deep Depression. The sponsorships dried up. During election season, politicians supported his swims in exchange for his endorsement. But sometimes he ended up 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 was no longer with his son’s mother, whom he had never married. He was now struggling to raise the boy on his own.
Some say Valencia was to blame for his troubles — that the fame had gone to his head, that he grew cocky, that he kept asking for more and more from his supporters, who grew tired of him. Some say he grew undisciplined, distracted by the fame and his many female fans.
Calderon, his first instructor, began to avoid him. One day, years later, the two encountered each other on a beach. Calderon said he hadn’t planned to renew the friendship. Then he saw Valencia dragging himself on the sand, stretching out his hand.
Calderon bent down. “We shook hands and made up,” he said. “He never gives up.”
THE sea has given Valencia so much. He still thinks it may have more to offer him.
One day, he believes, it may give him the ultimate gift: the use of his legs. Valencia has long been sure that if he earned enough money or gained enough recognition, he could get an operation that would fix his back. The black shark, he says, “was created to give the legs back to Sergio Valencia. To deliver me from this prison.”
Doctors from all over the world once were interested. Specialists from the former Soviet Union spent months with him in Mexico City. But in the end, Valencia says, they were more interested in drinking vodka than in helping him.
Once, a doctor in San Diego planned an operation, but then the doctor got sick and Valencia never heard from him again. Cuban doctors invited him to a clinic in Havana, but after five months of treatment they concluded that he would never walk again.
That’s what his Ensenada doctor, Manuel Nava, has told him. But then again, says the doctor, there have been significant medical advances in recent years.
VALENCIA still has his hope. And somehow he still finds a way to eke out a living and squeeze joy out of life. He and his 15-year-old son get by 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 long leg braces — fitted with cowboy boots — and hopping up three flights of stairs to her apartment. It takes him seven minutes of huffing, puffing and sweating. When she opened the door once he gave her a bouquet of roses.
“He’s got the biggest heart in the world. It’s impossible to know him without being affected by him,” said Conroy, the publisher of the local English-language newspaper, the Gringo Gazette.
Around town, people still call Valencia endearing names like Mi Tiburonazo or Tibu. At the landmark San Nicolas Hotel, owner Nico Saad built him a ramp and allows him to train in his Olympic-size pool. Like many, he believes Valencia’s talents are wasted.
“I admire the guy. He should be part of a program for the disabled where he can coach others,” said Saad, a former world-class water skier. “He’d be a great leader.”
But no one is giving him the opportunity to become one.
Valencia still swims at the beach outside Ensenada, where local fishermen carry him into the water. When no one can help, he drags himself into the sea. Before plunging in, he says a prayer, asking God to protect him.
At night he dreams. But he says the ocean doesn’t need to call him anymore. He has swum hundreds of miles, in the hope of taking one step.
“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, Times Staff Writer