Long-distance dedication

Open-water star
By John Powers
Globe Staff / July 18, 2011

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There is swimming and then there is swimming. There is what Michael Phelps does and then there is what Eva Fabian does. Phelps races in an indoor pool with starting blocks, walls, and lane markers. Fabian races in oceans, harbors, lakes, and rivers with wind, waves, and jellyfish.

When Phelps competes in the world championships in Shanghai later this month, he’ll take the line inside the Oriental Sports Center. Fabian today will be 30 miles away at Jinshan City Beach. Phelps will cover a total of 2,600 meters in a half-dozen races. Fabian will do 10,000 meters in one gulp amid a pack of kicking feet and errant elbows.

“I’m going to use a quote from Jack Sparrow,’’ said the 17-year-old world 5K open-water champion from Keene, N.H., who’ll be looking to earn a spot in the 10K event at next summer’s London Olympics. “Bring me that horizon.’’

The horizon isn’t for everybody. Grant Hackett, who won two Olympic gold medals and four world titles in the 1,500 meters, was flattened when he competed in the 2008 open-water championships in Seville, Spain. “He had a big target on his head,’’ observed Australian teammate Ky Hurst, “and they swam all over him and he got swallowed up.’’ Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals in Beijing, wants no part of the bounding main. “Not a chance, no way,’’ he said. “I won’t do open water.’’

Ever since she was 5, splashing in Atlantic City’s briny with older brother Max, Fabian has loved the unchlorinated version of the sport, where conditions change in midrace and unregistered rivals often turn up. “We were in a race in Argentina and a sea lion began swimming with us,’’ she recalled. “That was amazing.’’

At least it wasn’t a Portuguese man-o’-war. Or a shark, which last year chewed up a bunch of tourists in the Red Sea off the Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh where the 2002 world championships were held. Even without the uninvited marine life, open-water swimming is a dangerous sport. “Help me, Cassius, or I sink!,’’ Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar called out as they crossed the troubled Tiber.

In the first modern Olympics in 1896, the swimming events were held in the Saronic Gulf off the Athenian port of Piraeus, where competitors slogged a mile through 12-foot waves in flesh-numbing cold. “My will to live completely overcame my desire to win,’’ Hungarian champion Alfred Hajos said later.

At last year’s World Cup finale in the United Arab Emirates, US star Fran Crippen vanished barely a quarter-mile from shore amid sauna-like water and was found dead two hours later. “I don’t think I ever swam in anything like those conditions before,’’ said Fabian, who was hospitalized after the race.

Crippen had been a big-brother mentor to Fabian on all of her trips with the American team. “One time he took my Harry Potter book and hung it from the ceiling,’’ she recalled. “It was the best practical joke ever.’’ So Crippen’s death was an especially devastating blow to her. “That’s where this is very personal,’’ said her father and coach, Jack, “so we don’t talk about it.’’

Crippen’s death spurred common-sense safety reforms that should have been obvious to the international federation years ago, but they haven’t made open-water swimming any less demanding and daunting. This is a sport in which 3 miles qualifies as a sprint, in which a 10K race takes as long as a marathon on land, and in which the 25K event consumes nearly six hours.

“It is an unbelievable event,’’ said Fabian, who finished 10th at the distance in the 2009 world championships in Rome, where the race was held in the lumpy Tyrrhenian Sea off the ancient Roman port of Ostia. “It is so difficult. But I’m glad I did it. 10K will never feel as long again.’’

Like marathoning, open-water swimming is much about personality and aptitude, which Fabian showed early. When she was 11, she signed up for a mile race in Atlantic City with her brother and father and left them well in her wake. “I did not expect her to be that far in front of me,’’ said Jack, who coaches the men’s and women’s teams at Keene State College. “I was just shocked. That was back when I was in shape and she destroyed me.’’

Distance was her identity, the longer the better. She might not have been a big-shouldered specimen, but Eva had the competitive essentials - the tenacity, the adaptability, and the drive. At 14, she made the US national team. At 15, she was competing in two events at the world championships. Last year, she won a global title. Her passport looks like a merchant mariner’s, stamped with countries from four continents.

Working on her own over the long haul suits her. “It helps me deal with schoolwork,’’ Fabian said. “I can focus on things for a lot longer.’’ Fabian and her brother were home-schooled, which amounted to being self-schooled. In between pool workouts that totaled between 15,000 and 20,000 yards a day, Fabian studied AP biology, world history, and music, and practiced violin. “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is my 25K,’’ she said. “The first movement is really long and technically pretty difficult.’’

The difference is that the concerto has sheet music. Open-water swimming is basically free-form and learning how to sight the course-marking buoys and draft off rivals is crucial. “Swimming in close quarters with people takes getting used to,’’ Fabian said.

So whenever she can train out of the pool, she does. Dublin Lake is only 12 miles from Keene. When she trained at Harvard’s Olympic-style pool with fellow world champion and Crimson grad Alex Meyer, they’d slip off to Walden Pond where Henry David Thoreau used to dodge snapping turtles. Before heading for the team training camp in Florida this month, Fabian trained for a couple of weeks in the Cayman Islands. “Now that I’ve been here, I’m going to be freezing when I go home,’’ she said. “Sometimes I miss the big, quiet hills.’’

There’s no substitute, though, for ocean work. In Fabian’s global debut in Rome, the swimmers were bounced around like flotsam. When she won the US title in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last month, conditions in the Atlantic were so rough that officials abandoned the race after the leaders finished and picked up the rest in a boat. So hot-weather training in Islamorada in the Florida Keys helped replicate the conditions that Fabian might encounter in Shanghai. “You try to be as prepared as possible for anything,’’ she said.

After the world championships, where Fabian can earn an Olympic ticket with a top-10 finish, she’ll compete in London’s test event next month in the Hyde Park Serpentine, then at the Pan American Games in Mexico. This season or next, she’ll be racing for the Yale varsity inside Payne Whitney Gymnasium, where the likes of Olympic champions Don Schollander, Steve Clark, and John Nelson once did laps.

Fabian’s role model, though, is likely to be recent grad Marilee Kiernan, who last year swam the English Channel and crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. Flip turns are fine, but some people have to have the horizon.

John Powers can be reached at