Chicago Police Officer Nial Funchion swam the 24 miles from the waters off Catalina Island to the Southern California coast, completing the elite Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming.
Updated: September 18, 2013 6:05AM
Chicago Police Officer Nial Funchion’s life was in turmoil in 2007. He got divorced, lost his home and tore a shoulder muscle — keeping him from his lifelong passion: swimming.
Three years later, Funchion happened to speak with a former colleague, Officer Densey Cole, who’d become paralyzed in a car accident. Cole revealed he admired Funchion for swimming the English Channel in 1992. And that snapped Funchion out of what he called the darkest period of his life.
“When he told me I was his hero, I had to live up to that,” Funchion said. “My eyes started welling up. It was humbling.”
In 2010 — after that chance meeting with Cole — Funchion got back in the water and resumed his rigorous training. And on Tuesday, he swam the 24 miles from Catalina Island to California’s coast, completing the elite Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, which also included his 2012 swim around Manhattan Island and his English Channel conquest. The three swimming marathons totaled 73.5 miles.
Funchion, 47, was a swim team captain at the former Quigley South high school and later was a volunteer coach at St. Ignatius College Prep.
Funchion dedicated his latest swim to the Brotherhood for the Fallen, a Chicago organization that supports the families of officers killed in the line of duty.
Even though he’s sore from swimming for more than 12 hours in California through darkness, kelp, sharks, sea lions and jellyfish, he isn’t taking time to recuperate from his latest open-water feat.
On Thursday, he was preparing to fly from San Diego to London to help a friend in her quest to swim the English Channel.
“I’ve reached the top of the ladder and now I am reaching back,” he said.
Funchion said he and Ika Kovacikova, a student at Wellesley College near Boston, trained together this summer in Lake Michigan. They did regular six-mile legs, sometimes going out to the city’s offshore water cribs. They swam in heavy waves, the pre-dawn gloom and rain.
Funchion said he’ll ride in a boat next to Kovacikova in the English Channel and will jump in and swim with her when she needs a boost.
He knows how tough it is: he suffered from severe hypothermia when he crossed the English Channel two decades ago.
Danger always lurks: when he swam the Strait of Gibraltor in 2011, killer whales followed him and his three fellow swimmers much of the way, Funchion said.
“They didn’t tell us until the end,” he said.
Funchion is among about 70 swimmers to complete the Triple Crown.
Now, he’s trying to decide whether he’ll attempt Ocean’s Seven, which includes the Irish Channel, the Cook Strait in New Zealand, the Molokai Channel in Hawaii, the Tsugaru Strait in Japan and the three he’s already finished: Catalina Island, the English Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco. Only three people have completed all seven long-distance swims.
“Each swim has its own personality,” he said. “They’re like opponents. In this last one, I dug to a place I was afraid to go because I knew how painful it was. I don’t know what my next challenge is. But if I would die tomorrow, I would like her [Kovacikova] make it through and get her swim done.”