Following in his father’s swim strokes
Sporting a freshly shaved head, 11-year-old Ben Harmon couldn’t wait to dive into the glassy, 68-degree water of Donner Lake this past Sunday.
Unlike the previous morning, when the shore was lined with hundreds of swimmers and spectators for the start of Donner Lake Open Water Swim, Ben was attempting to swim the same 2.7-mile distance with only the support of his mother and father, Ken and Marcia Harmon of Danville, Calif.
Ben’s attempt to swim across Donner was perhaps the first significant step to becoming an open-water swimmer like his father, who holds the record for swimming the 22-mile length of Tahoe in 11 hours, 23 minutes and 5 seconds in 2005. Watching his father inspired him to train for the open water swim.
“They’re competitive,” Marcia said of her son and husband.
“When Ken swam the length of Tahoe he was famous and Ben said, ‘What’s the big deal? I can do that.’ So Ken responded, ‘Well do something.'”
Adding fuel to the fire was seeing 7-year-old Braxton Bilbrey swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco in 2006, making it on national news.
The family chose Donner Lake because it is the longest open water swim in Northern California and is special to the family. Ben hoped to race in the Donner Lake Swim with his dad, but age restrictions kept him out of the water.
“We were waiting till he was strong enough (to swim across Donner Lake),” Ken said.
Ben already has an impressive resume that rivals his father’s.
He swam the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim in Hawaii in the elite wave last September, winning the 10-and-under division. He then completed the swim leg of the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco in June and will be swimming the prestigious Tiburon Mile Open Water Swim in October.
His genes can only help him. Prior to being an open-water swimmer, Ken was a competitive water polo player and his mother was a college runner at Cal and competitive triathlete, winning the Escape from Alcatraz in 1989.
“It’s so exciting,” Marcia said. “‘I love the confidence it has given him. It transfers to school and other sports.”
Conditions on Sunday could not have been better for the duo, who swam beside Marcia’s support kayak.
“It was calm,” said Ken, who swam the 28th annual Donner Lake Open Water Swim the day before in rough conditions. “I wish it could have been like this yesterday.”
The pair made it across the lake in 1 hour, 26 minutes ” 4 minutes faster than anticipated.
“He just puts his head down and goes,” Marcia said after the crew arrived at West End Beach. “We got a big beaming smile after 35 minutes.”
Ben described the experience: “At the beginning I was really nervous. But as I started to swim I got into a rhythm and felt better.”
He felt so good he had enough energy to sprint to the finish, where he was cheered on by a few friends and family members.
“It was a little easier than I thought,” Ben said as he wrapped himself in a body-length jacket. “It felt shorter.”
The young swimmer trains five days a week, averaging 75 minutes a session at the Crow Canyon Country Club in Danville. He will have to increase his training and do more open water swims to prepare for Tahoe, Ken said.
At 4 feet 11 inches and 125 pounds, Ben looks nothing like the other children on his swim team, his mother said. But his appearance has only helped him in open water swimming, and he has become a role model for other junior swimmers.
“He’s their King Kong,” Marcia said. “He’s a big kid but he’s not lazy.”
Ben was able to train for the swim despite having surgery for a growth deficiency in his left leg this past December.
“We introduced him to water sports (at a young age) because of this issue,” Ken said.
His left leg was growing significantly faster than his right, and he had to have four titanium screws inserted below his knee to slow it’s growth.
If all goes well in the next year, Ben hopes to swim the width of Lake Tahoe from Dead Man’s Point to Sugar Pine Point next August. Completing the swim Sunday has motivated him to continue training.
“It shows me what I’m capable of and gets me ready for next year,” Ben said.
In a time when parents seem to push their children too far, Ken said it’s “up to Ben” what he chooses to pursue.
“I want to guide him,” Ken said. “But I think he’ll think a lot more about swimming the width of Tahoe (after swimming across Donner Lake).”
Ben said he completed the swim in honor of his swim coach, Dave Madden, also known as Pooh, who is battling cancer. Ben wears an orange band around his wrist with “Poohstrong” to honor him.
“He motivated me to do a swim like this,” Ben said. “It’s always been his dream to do an open water swim.”
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