Atwater's Bird seeks swim goal

Rob Strickland can see Clark Bird's sly grin from a mile away, even in the dim morning light.

The two have been swimming together for more than a decade at Merced College's pool, chopping and gliding through the water before most of Merced has even rolled out of bed.

In all those years, rarely have they missed a morning swim. However, there is one Strickland wouldn't mind skipping.


Tenacious Tuesdays, as coined by Bird.

"He invented it," Strickland said, winded from just the thought. "It's a super-hard workout. Either fast intervals or a long swim with very little rests. Oh, and lots of butterfly.

"He revels in that. He gets a big ol' smile when its Tenacious Tuesday. But that's the Bird Man. In some sense, he's got a chip on his shoulder. He loves the challenge and loves to talk smack.

"He's just a tough guy."

Bird's mettle will be tested this Saturday when he attempts to swim the length of Lake Tahoe and join four others in the history book.

Several have completed a trans-Tahoe swim, but only four have successfully completed the 22.1-mile trek across Lake Tahoe without a wetsuit, according to several Tahoe-area publications.

Bird wants to be the fifth.

What's more, he wants to take down Patti Bauernfeind's record of 10 hours, 39 minutes, 38 seconds.

Bird will trudge into the water at Incline Village at 5 p.m., pointed toward the south shore's Camp Richardson.

"I will be happy if I finish," said Bird, a former standout water polo player and swimmer at Atwater High, Merced College and later UC Davis.

"But if I'm going to do it, I might as well go for it. I'll start off pacing myself to break that record. Depending on what happens, I'll make a decision hours into it as to whether that's going to happen."

Bird won't be alone.

In fact, he won't even be the marquee name in the water that night.

Danville's Ken Harmon, a familiar name in Lake Tahoe lore, is attempting to become the first person to accomplish a roundtrip swim without wetsuit -- 44.2 miles in all.

Harmon is one of the four to have completed the 22.1-mile swim and has become a motivating force in Bird's pursuit.

The two became fast friends on the Northern California open-water swimming circuit and regularly trade tips and news through e-mails and phone calls. Harmon's confidence, Bird says, is infectious.

Both Harmon and Bird's swims will help raise awareness and donations for three nonprofit organizations Harmon's associated with: Best Buddies International, The Down Syndrome Network of Northern Nevada and the Karen Gaffney Foundation. Bird will also swim in support of the Merced Skimmers, a local youth organization.

If that's not enough to keep Bird motivated, Strickland will be there to push his training partner. He plans to swim the first and last three hours. In between, he'll cheer Bird from a boat.

Bird has spent almost a year preparing for this challenge. With Strickland and others in tow, he's averaged 40,000 wet yards a week.

He and some friends competed in the 11.5-mile Trans Tahoe Relay in July, finishing 54th out of 160 teams.

Bird's even consulted a nutritionist -- Jennifer Hobbs, owner of Merced's Nutrition Solutions -- who discovered his diet was protein-deficient.

The culmination is a well-sculpted, slight, 6-foot human torpedo.

"It's been exhausting," Bird said of his training, which begins with a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call. "You just get completely worn out. In comparison to a run, the distance I'm doing is like an 84-mile run."

However, endurance isn't a concern. The elements are.

How long will it take his lungs to acclimate to the altitude? How cold will the surface water be? Will the lake be choppy? Does the forecast call for wind?

"It's a daunting task. All the unaccounted elements that we've never encountered in our training, it's definitely daunting," Strickland said. "But if anybody can do it, Clark Bird can do it. He's just mentally tough."

Every Tuesday he proves it.