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Big Man, Big Plans

Sumo Wrestler Kelly Gneiting Attempts to Swim the Santa Barbara Channel


Kelly Gneiting brands himself the “Man of Fat Steel.” A five-time U.S. Sumo Champion and the Guinness World Record holder for the heaviest person to complete a marathon, the 6-foot, 420-pound hospital statistician has striven much of his life to be taken seriously as a competitive athlete. Despite his wins and records, the former Greco-Roman wrestler and football player living in Arizona said people too often dismiss him as “a slob who blew in from Fatsville, with no real drive or passion other than eating a lot and breaking chairs and toilet seats.”

This Friday, September 13, Gneiting will attempt to swim across the Santa Barbara Channel, a 12.4-mile journey from Anacapa Island to Oxnard he expects will take 12-15 hours to complete. Since 1978, there have been only 21 recorded swims from island to mainland, the last one by Tom Ball in September 2012. He did it in 7 hours 39 minutes.

Kelly Gneiting says despite his weight he has "good" blood pressure, "perfect" cholesterol, and an "exceptional" resting heart rate.
Click to enlarge photo

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Kelly Gneiting says despite his weight he has “good” blood pressure, “perfect” cholesterol, and an “exceptional” resting heart rate.

Gneiting said if he succeeds, it’ll help prove what he’s always understood: “I believe I’m one of the world’s elite athletes,” he explained. “But nobody knows it.” Followed by a boatload of sumo buddies and a kayak laden with water and food, Gneiting will start the swim at 2 a.m. and perform the sidestroke through the frigid ocean waters, switching sides about every mile and a half when he gets tired.

Gneiting originally wanted to swim the English Channel, a high-profile pursuit synonymous with human strength and endurance, but found it impossible to book a boat and secure the proper insurance coverage because, as he said, no one wanted their name or company associated with a drowned fat man. He figured the shorter S.B. Channel crossing would convince the Brits to support a future English Channel swim; for this week’s endeavor, he received the endorsement of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association (SBCSA) and access to their insurance. The organization advises and sanctions long-distance Channel swimmers in the name of safety and proper record-keeping, and its president, Scott Zorning, has been coaching Gneiting on training routines, general prep, and the rules he must follow to make it in the books. He can’t wear a wet suit, for instance, or touch the support boat at any time.

Zorning said while his group doesn’t discriminate against swimmers’ size or body type, Gneiting’s weight was certainly a factor as they vetted the likelihood he’d finish the trip alive. And despite a common misconception to the contrary, Zorning said Gneiting’s mass may actually help him during the swim — he’ll be more buoyant and insulated from the cold water, not unlike other large marine mammals that traverse the channel every day. “I’d be more worried about a 105-pound guy,” Zorning explained. The biggest challenge facing Gneiting is the wind, Zorning continued, and because the water will be around 57 or 58 degrees, SBCSA spotters will call the whole things off if Gneiting shows the first signs of hypothermia, like slurred speech or a zig-zag path. He’ll also have to deal with stinging jellyfish and unpredictable currents. Zorning said he’s thankful a bunch of big men will be on the boat who can dead-lift Gneiting on board should something go wrong.

Gneiting, 43 years old, the father of five kids, and married for 19 years (his wife hates the idea of the Channel attempt and has asked him to double his life insurance policy), said he’s been gearing up for the crossing for about a year. His first three-mile swim in a lake left him shivering uncontrollably and so hungry that he rushed to the nearest convenience store and bought as much food as he could with all the money in his pockets. Since then, he’s worked up to 10-mile night swims every two weeks, staring up at the stars and periodically taking sips from water bottles he hangs under the bridge that spans the lake he practices in. He burns approximately 17,000 calories during each training session.

Should he make it from shore to shore, Gneiting — who said he passed a recent physical with flying colors — plans to climb Mt. Everest by 2015. He’s motivated to complete these publicized tests of mental and physical fortitude to convince the world that just because you’re big doesn’t mean you’re weak or lazy. “When people look at me, they just see fat,” Gneiting said. “They don’t see the durability factor I have — the passion, heart, and soul.”

Looking up to supersize sports icons like André the Giant and Rulon Gardner, Gneiting said it’s encouraging to train for sumo in Japan, where large guys like him are “cooler than heck,” but a letdown to return to the U.S., where “if you’re fat, you’re automatically unpopular.” So when he swims the Channel, Gneiting said, “most people won’t be able to fit that into their minds. … There will be the rare few who know how hard it was.”

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