Person of the Week: Christopher Swain

ByABC News
November 19, 2004, 2:55 PM

Nov. 19, 2004 — -- Christopher Swain, 36, has spent the past month swimming down the 60-mile-long Charles River -- from northeast Massachusetts to Boston Bay -- to focus attention on the plight of the river.

"I have a crazy dream," he said. "I want the Charles River to be swimmable. People think of it as a reeking beast of a waterway. They think, 'Oh, there's no way I'd go in there. I'd have to burn my clothes. I'd have to go straight to the hospital.' And I am here to say it doesn't have to be like that."

The story of the Charles River is much the same for many of the country's favorite rivers -- pesticides and other chemicals are destroying its ecosystem.

The frigid northeast temperatures haven't put a damper on Swain's spirit.

"Chilly today, 47 degrees I think," he said. "For 45 minutes I'll have a massive ice cream headache and then hopefully it will go away. Crazy."

While other people bike, ride and run for causes they care about, Swain has already swum down the Hudson River (315 miles), across Lake Champlain (129 miles) and through all 1,200 miles of the Columbia River, which rises in British Columbia and spills into the Pacific Ocean on the coast of Washington.

Because of the polluted waterways, Swain is risking his health to further his cause.

"The most contaminated piece of land for instance in the entire Western Hemisphere is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington," Swain said. "The Columbia River flows right through it, and I swam right through there, not because I'm totally insane, but because I wanted to say, 'We should do something here.' I had seven ear infections, four bad respiratory infections. Three different times I had infections in my lymph system, lymph nodes that swelled up to golf ball size."

To prevent parasites and bacteria from making him sick, he takes a break every 600 strokes -- he actually keeps count -- to gargle with hydrogen peroxide.

"I think I have swum into every old car, refrigerator, washer, dryer and tire that's ever been thrown into the river," he said.