John Muenzer had just been stung 15 or 20 times. Under the English Channel’s brisk 57-degree waters, a massive swarm of jellyfish stood between him and his finish line. “You’re not going to have a weather window to complete your swim if you don’t get through here now,” the nearby boat captain yelled to him. He had trained over two years for this. It wasn’t ending this way. He couldn’t go back home and tell his family of nine that he gave up on his dream because of a few prickles and some burning pain. So he put his head down and kept going.
That was in 2009, when he crossed the English Channel at 47 years old. Last week, just two months shy of his 61th birthday, Loveland resident Muenzer completed open water swimming’s Grand Slam—the oldest to ever do it, and only the 27th all time.
It wasn’t always swimming for the Maumee, Ohio, native who became known across the globe as “Marathon Muenzer.” “I was at that time [in 1976] a real little guy. Maybe 100 pounds, and I was trying to play football as a freshman,” Muenzer says. As the Olympics aired, though, he became enthralled with what Olympic legend Mark Spitz was doing in the pool. After his freshman year, he became a competitive swimmer and later earned a full-ride athletic scholarship to the University of Toledo. He found moderate success in competition, but something was lacking—until the summer of 1980, when his path crossed with someone he never dreamed of meeting.
Doc Counsilman is widely considered one of the greatest and most innovative swimming coaches of all time. He coached Mark Spitz in his collegiate days and led the U.S. men’s swimming team to 12 wins in 13 events at the very same 1976 Olympics that Muenzer watched as a teen. A chance opportunity turned into Muenzer training for three months under the man who had taught his idol.
“He catapulted me to swimming at the level of an All-American that summer,” Muenzer said. “I came back and was all of a sudden a real contender in the Mid-American Conference. I literally went from being a mid-level swimmer to being in the finals of every event.”
During his college career, Muenzer grew from his short stature to a massive 6-foot-5. He was getting faster and faster by the day. But it was too late; he was a senior. He had run out of time. To this day, he still feels he could’ve made it to a higher level if he had just one more year. He remembers an afternoon chatting with Doc, who told him despite his immense talent, he likely wouldn’t make the Olympics at this rate.
“But then he said, ‘You know what, though, I think you could be really good at long distance swimming.’ And I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ ” Muenzer says.
His first big breakthrough in the record books was crushing the record for swimming from Point Pelee, Canada, to Cedar Point, Ohio, in 1983, swimming over 36 miles in just 24 hours and 12 minutes. After that, he retired from competitive swimming, moved to Kansas for work and didn’t re-enter the field until 2007, when he sat his family down and told them of his Grand Slam dreams.
The Grand Slam for Open Water Swimming requires prospective challengers to take on Tampa Bay, the English Channel, a lap around Manhattan Island, and the Catalina Channel. Altogether, that’s more than 93 miles—hard to train for at any age, much less at 45.
“There were so many mornings I just wanted to lay in bed and not go. It was like I had to fight myself to swing my feet out of bed,” Muenzer says. His training regimen is above even a pro-athlete level—when swim dates are approaching, it’s eight hours of swimming a day, eight hours of working his logistics job in West Chester, spending as much time as he can with his seven children (who range in age from 14 to 36) and then whatever amount of sleep is possible. He hasn’t swam under 20,000 yards in a week since 1984, and during crunch time usually swims 14,000 in just one day.
April 18, 2009, rolled around, and it was time for his first Grand Slam attempt. Muenzer figured he’d tackle Tampa Bay first as a warmup for the English Channel—“the granddaddy of all open water swimming,” as he referrs to it. He was surrounded by countless other swimmers attempting the same feat, and started on his journey. Then the waves hit. Four foot waves, for eight hours, head on, into every competitor. One by one, the field started to decrease as swimmers pulled out, unable to complete the trek. Muenzer considered the same option.
“I was throwing up everywhere,” Muenzer said. “It took a lot out of me, physically and mentally. But I thought to myself, what happens if I get to the English Channel and the conditions are bad? Am I going to quit there too? I can’t. I can’t stop. I can’t stop. I can’t stop.”
He reached the other side of Tampa Bay in 12 hours and 7 minutes. Just a few weeks later, on July 12, he completed the English Channel, despite the jellyfish incident and a dolphin ramming him in the middle of his voyage. Muenzer felt like he was on top of the world. Then disaster struck.
The late-2000s recession he had managed to avoid for years finally came calling after he arrived home from the cliffs of Dover. His business took a turn for the worse, and he lost everything. Despite his family’s economic misfortune and eventual bankruptcy, he made sure to swim several miles a day. It kept him going, “even through the hard times.” In 2015, he finally felt confident enough to give Manhattan Island a try and spent the year preparing for an August 2016 swim. Then, on March 16, his son Dan was killed in a motorcycle accident.
“Just 10 laps a day. I could hardly move, much less swim. I was forcing myself. That was my goal, to do 10 laps a day, because I didn’t want to even be there,” Muenzer says, his voice trembling. “And as we navigated the loss into the following year, I honestly believe I heard Dan say, ‘Hey, Dad, you gotta get back on the horse, man.’ ”
Two years of training later, he successfully circumnavigated Manhattan Island in August 2018. He doesn’t think he swam that one as well as the other two; he describes it as limping to the finish line, actually. But he did it for Dan. And now there was just one left. And then a global pandemic hit and caused a four-year delay. Muenzer started to worry. Was he running out of time, again?
The pandemic sure didn’t make his preparation any easier. During his pandemic-era training, he was waking up at 4 a.m. just to work out. He first did his daily swims at St. Xavier’s pool until it closed down. Then he turned to the great outdoors—specifically, East Fork State Park, which made for a great practice zone since nobody was around. He couldn’t swim in it very long, however, since it was winter and the water temperatures were below 40 degrees. His only goal was to keep his stroke. Eventually, as restrictions lifted, his training shifted to wherever he could find a place to swim, whether that be the local Five Seasons Sports Club or out-of-state destinations like Lake Michigan or the San Francisco Bay. Thankfully, local Covington company MegaCorp Logistics underwrote most of his swim costs, allowing him to focus solely on his training.
With seven miles a day just before work becoming his daily routine, it was the hardest he’d ever trained for a swim. He was shooting for a 12-hour finish. “I can honestly say that coming down the stretch, I wasn’t having any fun,” Muenzer said. “[I’m] starting to get to 61. This is a brutal experience. The training was honestly unbearable.”
Finally, the date of his last marathon swim had arrived. His Catalina Channel journey mostly took place during the night in pitch-black waters with, once again, four-foot waves hitting him, but this time with zero vision—making it difficult to stay on course. The darkness certainly didn’t help his mental state, knowing that the California waters of the Catalina were infested with sharks, and he felt “very vulnerable” the entire passage. No swimmer has ever been attacked by a shark during a Catalina crossing, but he couldn’t stop himself from imagining what it’d be like to be the first.
“I would think of my son or my mom and dad just to, y’know, get me through the situation,” Muenzer says. “But as I was swimming, I just kept visualizing a shark with his mouth open coming at me at 35 miles an hour.”
Eventually, as morning came, Muenzer could finally see the waters around him, filled with swordfish, tuna, and his old enemy: the jellyfish. He did his best to ignore the wildlife and began to hit his stride after the waves calmed down, then looked over to see a relay team making the same journey. He told himself he was going to try to keep pace with that relay team for the rest of the swim—and, somehow, he did. During the last 500 yards, his youngest child, Ray, jumped in the frigid waters to lead him into shore one last time (“the most important part of the swim, for me,” Muenzer says.) As he emerged and touched the stone wall to signal the achievement of his decades-long dream, he heard his time: 10 hours, 15 minutes, 47 seconds—two hours faster than he was shooting for, and his fastest swim on record. At nearly 61 years old, Muenzer had completed his Grand Slam with a flourish.
So what’s next for a guy like Muenzer? A goal 40 years in the making, achieved—where do you go after that? “I never stop setting goals. You’ve gotta set goals all the way to the end,” Muenzer says. “When you stop setting goals, your time left is limited. I really do believe that.”
Unsurprisingly, he’s already given it plenty of thought. At first, he thought about scuba diving, or maybe taking up horseback riding, but when a reporter from the scene asked him what’s next, he’d arrived at his perfect answer.
“I said ‘I’ll be a painter, a musician, maybe a gymnast, or a baseball player,’ and the reporter said ‘What?’ I told him, ‘Whatever my grandchildren are into, that’s what I’m into. I’m here to support them, and that’s how I’m living my life moving forward.’”
Of course, Muenzer’s not going to stop swimming, just to stay in shape. Or maybe—if you can believe it—just for fun, sometimes. Riding a bike, walking around the neighborhood with his wife, these are all things he hasn’t often gotten to enjoy often in pursuit of his goal. He calls it “getting a lot of hours back I haven’t had throughout my life. It’s really bizarre, actually.” It’s not hard to see why he thinks so. His son Ray is just now about to start high school, too, so he’s still got plenty of time left to be a dad.
Muenzer constantly reiterates how setting goals is the most important thing in the world, and how he achieved his dream against all odds by setting goals. “Even if it’s just running a 5K, set goals that are within your capabilities,” Muenzer says. “I tell my kids all the time: you can only watch so much television and live through other people’s lives. Why not try and make your own life?”