Swimming the Amazon – why did I do it?


There are people out there who do unusual things and challenges. For some a life’s goal is to finish the university, get a great job, raise a family or just stay healthy. But for some individuals a ‘normal life’ isn’t enough and they strive to achieve something extraordinary. One could argue that all the big ones have been done: first man to climb the Mount Everest: Sir Edmund Hillary, first man to the South Pole: Roald Amundsen, first man to walk on the moon: Neil Armstrong, and the first man to swim the Danube river, the Mississippi River, the Yangtze River and most famously the Amazon River? Martin Strel.

Martin, today nicknamed the Big River Man, is the only and he’ll likely be the last person to swim these rivers too. Wonder why?

Strel’s most intriguing swim is the Amazon River in 2007! 5268 km in 66 days! Can you imagine? Strel’s biggest fear on the Amazon expedition was the deadly bull shark, which have been seen as far upstream as Iquitos in Perú, although they’re most common in the delta. Very dangerous was also the candirú, also known as the vampire fish as it swims into any orifice (including the penis) where it drinks its victim’s blood, which is why Strel wore a wetsuit so he could urinate safely. And don’t forget the anacondas, deadly snakes, spiders and alligators. Relentless sun on the equator was his great enemy, too. On a positive note, he was accompanied by pink dolphins along the way and there were several sightings of the almost extinct manatee. Strel often says that dolphins saved his life and protected him from the bull sharks!

Although not tall, Strel is a colossus of a man with a couple of strapping biceps that are clearly responsible for getting him through his other record-breaking, big river swimming forays: 3,004km down the Danube in 2000, 3,797km down the Mississippi in 2002 and 4,003km down the Yangtze in 2004. All of these have been swum consecutively from start to finish with just overnight breaks. Endurance swimming at its most extreme, no one else has ever swum all these rivers.

Strel says he can cope with pain because his parents and school teachers dealt some regular beatings, and his army days during the Yugoslavian conflict must have added layers of resilience.

“When you’re swimming marathons you have pain everywhere,” Strel explains. “But you have to know how to deal with it and what to do. Many people simply have to stop at this point. I know what to do. Because I can hypnotise myself, swim and sleep in the water. My head doesn’t know that I’m swimming. It’s almost like meditation. I learnt to do this on the Danube river.

On the Amazon he also contracted a larvae infection, stomach amoebas and dysentery. The team was under constant threat of pirate attack. By the end of the expedition there were seven armed guards on
the main boat. Shortly after Strel and his team disembarked for the last time, the crew was assaulted by bandits.

Starting in Peru weighing 115kg, when he finished in Brazil 5268km later, 180cm Strel weighed 94kg and was taken to hospital because his blood pressure was so high he was at risk of a heart attack. But the
physical challenges weren’t as huge as the psychological ones. “Mental preparation is the most important,” says Strel who would rise before sunrise to swim for six hours, take half an hour’s lunch break then return to the murky water for another five or six hours. “I’m alone. There’s no competition. There’s fighting between nature. It’s not possible to be stronger than nature—and the sun too—but you must be close to it.” He made it, once and for ever!

So why does he put himself through this?
“My swimming is for peace, friendship and clean water. I swim with this message almost 22 years. I dedicated this project to the protection of the rainforest. Amazon is a wonderful place and we need to keep it alive.”

Today as he sits among his trophies, he is preparing a new swimming expedition which he does not want to unveil, helps operating his swimming adventure tour company with his son Borut Strel and speaks worldwide to motivate and inspire other people to follow their dreams.

Strels offer 4-day swimming tours at Slovenian lakes and river, 7-day Croatian island hopping and 4-day adventure at Lake Powell, Arizona. More about Strel Swimming Adventures at

More about Martin Strel at

Calorie intake: 8,000-9,000 calories per day
Weight before swim: 115kg
Weight after swim: 94kg
Diet during the swim: Soup, salad, chicken, fish, rice, beans, fruit, natural juices and honey
Alcohol drunk during the swim: One bottle of light rose wine and one beer a day
Distance swam: 5,268km (3,273 miles)
Distance per day: 79.8km (49.5 miles)
Consecutive days swimming: 66 (10 hours a day)
Total cost of expedition: More than £500,000

Written by Borut Strel, expedition leader


Celebrity swimmers

John Melton says:

Just Wow!

As an old boy of 60 now 69 I completed the cross chanel challenge in my swimming pool and got the “T” shirt badge for 88, 100. 150. miles with the ASA then the bronze Life Saving certificate as did with my son of 17 year old Killed by a jet ski in Puerto Rico.

Not as good as you though but I done it to raise money for the big”C” and MIND of which my wife passed away with