Press-Citizen: Casavant Completes 12.5-Mile Swim in Indian Ocean

Wednesday, March 7, 2012
By Emily Schettler
Iowa City Press-Citizen


When University of Iowa professor Tom Casavant first made plans to travel to Australia for a Career Development Award through the university, he never thought the trip would include a nearly 12.5-mile swim alongside sharks and other marine life in the Indian Ocean.

But on Feb. 25, he did just that.

Casavant, 52, of Iowa City, was one of about 2,200 swimmers to complete the Rottnest Channel Swim — a 20-kilometer race that runs from Cottesloe Beach in Perth across a shipping channel in the Indian Ocean to Rottnest Island.

The professor and director of the UI Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology is spending the semester working with researchers in the Plant Energy Biology Center at the University of Western Australia.

“I am developing expertise in plant energy that combined with my expertise in bioinformatics should allow me to more closely collaborate with faculty in the Civil and Environmental and Biochemical Engineering programs at Iowa in sustainable biofuels,” Casavant said. “They are very serious about sustainability here — both in energy and water.”

Casavant said the Rottnest course originally seemed insane. Still, the challenge of competing in an ocean race was compelling.

“I have always been a swimmer,” he said in an email to the Press-Citizen. “I started doing open races about three years ago when my daughter challenged me to a race in Minneapolis.”

As preparation, Casavant trained with a group of swimmers in Perth five or six days a week and completed additional ocean swims on weekend mornings. He competed in a 10K qualifying race in the Indian Ocean at the end of January.

Casavant finished the 20K in 6 hours and 55 minutes, which was near the middle of the pack, he said. The youngest swimmer was 14 and the oldest 79.

“Finishing was equally rewarding and relieving,” he said. “I had prepared for this race the best I could, but until you’ve actually done something like this, you really don’t know, so I had to be mentally prepared for the moment I might have to abandon.”

Casavant said he didn’t see any sharks, though there were a few false alarms.

“Near the start of the race when there were a lot of swimmers trying to find their support boats, people are calling out names. Someone yelled ‘Mark,’ and for a moment I thought someone had yelled, ‘shark,’” he said. “I never saw one. I stopped counting jellyfish stings at seven.”

Casavant estimated he was stung about 10 times during the race by blue bottle jellyfish, usually called stingers.

His wife, Karen, manned his support kayak, providing food and electrolytes as needed.

He, Karen and many of the people he spoke to had the same initial reaction to the race: Crazy.

“I was pretty shocked, that’s a pretty big commitment,” said Kyle Taylor, a 24-year-old UI graduate student who works and swims with Casavant in Iowa City. “The longest race we’d done before that together was a 5K in Chicago. He did beat me by a little. I have 20 years on him, but he still beat me.”

The experience is something Casavant won’t soon forget.

“When I first arrived in Perth and saw the Indian Ocean, I really had serious moments of fear about this,” he said. “I have made some great friends in my Australian training partners and without them I would have never developed enough confidence to actually dive in that morning.”