Peter Attia’s Got Grit

Of all the people in the open water swimming world, few have the rare grit and determination of Dr. Peter Attia.

The co-founder and President of the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI) has succeeded in everything in his life through a combination of grit and deliberate practice (that he eloquently describes here). He has a growing influence over the nutrition assumptions, thinking and perspectives of many influence-makers and individuals from all walks of life through his Eating Academy blog and the NuSI.While his successes have ranged from medicine (at the Stanford Medical School and John Hopkins Hospital) and education (as a calculus teacher) to science (at NuSI) and business (McKinsey & Company), his achievement that most made a significant impact on us and one that clearly demonstrated his nearly undescribable level of grit was his first swim across the Catalina Channel. To put his Catalina Channel crossing in 2005 in perspective, it is important to understand that Dr. Attia grew up wanting to become a boxer and only took up swimming at the age of 31. “In medical school, I didn’t even know how to swim. I couldn’t swim one lap of the pool.”

Soon after taking up swimming, he set his sights on crossing the 20.2-mile Catalina Channel. Within a year of his aquatic emergence, Dr. Attia successfully swam from Catalina Island to the California mainland in 10 hours 34 minutes in 2005. He later participated in a number of successful relay and solo marathon swims including crossings of the Catalina Channel in in both directions, the first two-way crossing of the Maui Channel, and a Lake Tahoe crossing.

But his first crossing of the Catalina Channel was an example of the grit that Dr. Attia is known for. Living and working at the time in Maryland over 2,300 miles away from the Pacific Ocean, Dr. Attia spent his time working out in a short-course pool with a tepid water temperature at 82ºF (27.7ºC) and a warm-water lake in Virginia (84-86ºF). Prior to a week of training in La Jolla Cove near San Diego, the good doctor had no experience in rough ocean water of any kind. But in his mind, Dr. Attia was preparing for a 20-mile channel crossing as best he knew given his current work situation.

I had a week in La Jolla to acclimate before the swim. I flew from Baltimore after being up 3 straight nights on transplant call and doing 14 straight kidney transplants to Los Angeles and then drove straight to the Cove. I had a week to swim 2-4 miles per day in the ocean which was shocking. I had prepared with cold baths and showers to compensate for the pool and lake in Virginia that I did my training in.”

So Dr. Attia drive back up to Los Angeles directly to the San Pedro harbor to meet his Greg Elliot, his escort pilot, and crew. He immediately embarks on the voyage to Santa Catalina Island. A land-locked pool swimmer with a bit of warm-water lake swimming under his cap, even with the best intentions, is suddenly enveloped by the dynamic nature of the largest ocean on Earth. Up and down, and up and down, the escort goes with the salty air and stiff breeze augmenting the ambiance of the open water. By the time, Dr. Attia reaches Santa Catalina Island after 3 hours on the Pacific Ocean for the first time of his life, he is sick. Sick to his stomach.

But typical of his character, Dr. Attia starts to dig deep. He is committed to this crossing and he is not about to bail on his attempt due to queasiness. After months of training in chlorinated water over a black line, he was standing on his escort boat getting greased down as the boat sits off the shoreline of Catalina near midnight. Dark as can be except for the urban illumination of Los Angeles in the distance, Dr. Attia was enveloped in blackness. As the escort boat rocked back and forth, he dove from the boat and realized how much different the cold water of the Pacific Ocean is than his home pool in Baltimore.

It is a shock to his system, both physiological and psychological. “I would be lying if I did not admit that it is kind of spooky to be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean swimming when it is pitch black and you cannot really see anything.”

But it is at this very moment and for nearly 11 hours and 30,000 strokes thereafter where Dr. Attia embodied the concept of grit. In school and in residency, he was always compared to his schoolmates and medical school colleagues. In business, he was always judged on his commercial acumen and track record of success. In sports, Dr. Attia always faced competition where there were clear winners and losers. His grades, his salary or the scoreboard told the ultimate story.

Think of it as a boxing match. If the ocean is my opponent tonight, just get into the groove.”

However, his ocean swim presented an entirely different set of metrics. The comparative parameters were no longer man-versus-man, but man-versus-nature. Dr. Attia now faced a battle where he could not outsmart, out-negotiate or out swim his opponent. No, in the Catalina Channel, Mother Nature was favored. But Dr. Attia had grit and he showed it the entire distance from Catalina Island near midnight to the California mainland on a foggy California late morning over 10 hours later.

While he always trained doing circle pattern in the pool, avoiding other swimmers, he found himself swimming with a pod of two dozen dolphins that swam alongside him for several hours – and thinking about sharks. “The pain was so blunted by the sights and sounds of the ocean at night,” Dr. Attia recalls. “With the starlight and the half-moon, the visibility must have been about 30 feet, and it was so totally engaging, especially with the dolphins.”

But as his stroke and pace slowed, his core body temperature dropped 4ºF, and his metabolism was shocked to the point that he compared it to the equivalent of being hit by a car. But despite the difficulty of swimming amid the waves, currents, marine life and cold, Dr. Attia showed that determination and doggedness – his core grit – was the key element to his success, both on land and in the water.

Of any achievement in life, that is the one I’m most proud of. I took my first swimming lesson in April 2004 and in October 2005, I tried this crazy stunt! I was lucky to make it. The Channel was very gracious that night, but it was my proudest athletic moment.”

Grit. Dr. Attia has it and he showed it that morning in 2005.

I think with a lot of hard I think you can accomplish just about anything you want.”

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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