Swimming for the Third Boat

Alumnus Darren Miller swims grueling open-water marathons for Team Forever, which assists families struggling to afford the cost of infant cardiothoracic surgery.

A competitive high school swimmer, Darren Miller came to Penn State Altoona in 2001 with plans to continue his swimming career in college. A back injury got in the way, so when he moved to the University Park campus, Miller helped coach its  swimming club team, Big Cat Aquatics. After graduating in 2005 with a degree in broadcast journalism, Miller moved back to the Murrysville, Pennsylvania, area and now works for PNC Bank as Private Client Group Manager.

To replace swimming, Miller took up running. He completed his first marathon in June 2008 and decided to give ultra-running a try. He signed up for a fifty-mile race in Ohio and chose to run it despite a fractured metatarsal in his right foot. As a result, he ended up in a walking boot for six months. So in July 2009, Miller asked himself, “Now what? I love this running but I can’t run, so I need to fill this addiction in my life.” And then he read Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox, and his life changed forever.

Darren Miller comforts Team Forever child.

Darren Miller comforts Team Forever child

Darren Miller, Penn State alumnus and open-water marathon swimmer, holds 11-month-old baby Faith who is in need of a heart transplant at the UPMC Children’s Hospital, Pittsburgh. 

Image: Dan Speicher Photography

"No matter what I am going through or how hard it is, it can’t be more difficult than what families have gone through in losing their children. So I swim to help them.”—Darren Miller

Discovering the open water

More of a sprint swimmer in high school and college than a distance swimmer, Miller nonetheless was inspired by Cox’s swimming of the English Channel and her story of enacting political change between Russia and the United States in the 1980s.

“Three chapters into that book, I knew I wanted to do open-water marathon swimming,” Miller says. He pitched the idea to his friend Cathy Cartieri Mehl, whose father had died in the late 1990s after open-heart surgery, as a way to honor his memory. He told her, “pay for me to go over and swim the Channel and we’ll raise money in honor of your father for a specific cause.” Mehl wanted to support heart-related issues; Miller wanted to help children. So, together they created Team Forever and the Forever Fund in December 2009, a nonprofit that assists families struggling to afford the costs associated with infant cardiothoracic surgery at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

After successfully swimming the English Channel, Miller again thought, “Now what?” And then he came across the Ocean’s Seven Challenge, a group of seven long-distance swims scattered across the globe: the North Channel, the Cook Strait, the Molokai Channel, the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Tsugaru Strait and the Strait of Gibraltar. The idea had taken root, and all Miller needed was the training and the funding.

After Miller spoke at a Greensburg Rotary meeting about his English Channel swim, Peter Dochinez from the Trustmont Group approached him. “He said that he donates money to charities without knowing what the money really goes toward, so he wanted to support me and Team Forever," Miller recalls. "And they were my sponsor for the final six of the seven swims.”

Darren Miller poses in front of the American flag.

Swimming for Team Forever

After successfully swimming the English Channel, Darren Miller took on the Ocean's Seven Challenge, a group of seven long distance swims scattered across the the globe. Here, he poses for Team Forever, the charity he swims for.

Image: Dan Speicher Photography

"Every breath is a gift. I want to talk about leveraging every breath in your body to see what you can accomplish, what you’re really made of."—Darren Miller

The final six swims

Swim number two was the Catalina Channel, just south of Los Angeles, in August 2011. It is unique because it is a night swim, due to less boat traffic and calmer water. Wearing just a speedo, cap, and goggles, per Channel Swimming Association regulations, Darren entered the water at 11:45 p.m. and swam for about twenty miles, finishing in nine hours and fifteen minutes. “For a period of seven hours, it was pitch black," Miller says. "Starting in the dark and watching the sun rise over the ocean is amazing; it gives you a feeling I can’t put into words. For the last mile, I swam with a pod of dolphins. It was incredible.”

Swimming for hours upon hours, with only a support boat and kayak as company, what did Miller think about? “That’s the number one question I get,” he says. “It’s all about the power of visualization out there. I call that the ‘third boat.’ You have your support boat, you have a kayak in the water, and you have a rowboat that nobody sees. That’s my family, friends that I have lost—they motivate and inspire me.”

Miller was greatly influenced by his grandparents, and he sees them in the boat as well. “My grandparents were a huge motivation in my life; they didn’t have the best education, but they did what they could. When they passed away, they didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but what they did have was the admiration and respect of everyone around them in their town," noting that his grandmother died suddenly while volunteering at church.

“Whenever I feel like I can’t take another stroke, I look over and I see them all. I can’t imagine telling my two friends who are now six feet under, ‘Oh, life is too hard.’ That’s the main thing that drives me: thinking that no matter what I am going through or how hard it is, it can’t be more difficult than what families have gone through in losing their children. So I swim to help them.”

Miller goes out on a number of speaking engagements and when he talks with youth, he says, “You may think you are going to live another fifty years. But if you left this place tonight, and you got hit by a tractor trailer and today was your last day, could you honestly face yourself and say ‘I’ve given my life, I’ve given everything I have’? That is what I challenge myself, and everyone, to do.”

"Watching the sun rise over the ocean is amazing; it gives you a feeling I can’t put into words. For the last mile, I swam with a pod of dolphins. It was incredible.”—Darren Miller

The longest swim

The third swim in the Ocean’s Seven was the Molokai Channel, from Molokai to Oahu, Hawaii. At twenty-seven miles, it is the longest of the seven swims. Tiger sharks are plentiful, as are box jellyfish, which are lethal to humans. One day per month, the jellyfish surface. As luck would have it, that date coincided with Miller’s swim. In the first hour, Miller took a Portuguese Man of War right in the face. “It felt like someone put an iron right on my face,” Miller recalls. “I was screaming, trying to rip this thing off. My dad took the deer spotter light to try to see what was going on, and the pilot knocked it out of his hand so that the light wouldn’t attract sharks.”

Despite the painful start, at the halfway point Miller was told that he was an hour under the record. With setting the record a real possibility, Miller swam on and broke the record by forty-one minutes.

The Strait of Gibraltar, the shortest of the seven, was the fourth swim. He accomplished it in three hours and forty-four minutes. While most of Miller’s swims were solo, he had the pleasure of swimming this one with three friends. “The swim is between Europe and Africa, and saying you swam between two continents is pretty cool. Finishing up on African soil was just amazing.”

The most difficult swim for Miller was his fifth, the Tsugaru Channel between Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan. “We were expecting a seven- or eight-hour swim, but after seven or eight hours, I realized I was nowhere near Hokkaido,” Miller says. “It is a very fickle body of water, very unpredictable. The gentleman from Ireland who finished the Ocean’s Seven first, had tried to complete this swim three times. He was a little depressed because he didn’t think it was possible to get across this body of water, but I crossed it on my first try.” Three days later, the Irishman made it across.

“The Strait of Gibraltar swim is between Europe and Africa, and saying you swam between two continents is pretty cool."—Darren Miller 

Miller, too, had his doubts about making it across. “After eight or nine hours, I was just being eaten alive by this water, with two- to three-foot chops. It was brutal,” Miller recalls. “At around thirteen hours, a shark swam right next to me. Finally, after sixteen hours, I got there. If you don’t quit, eventually you’ll get there.”

Two weeks prior to Miller taking on his sixth swim—the Cook Strait between north and south islands in New Zealand, a 49-year-old film director was killed by great white sharks about ten miles from Miller’s route. His family and friends were worried about this news, but Miller was not dissuaded. Miller swam with a friend, but toward the end sprinted ahead of him. It was beginning to get dark, and Miller suddenly realized he was alone in the darkened waters known to be inhabited by great whites. “The gentleman, who’s like the Michael Jordan of open-water swimming and who runs the race down there, comes at me shouting because they couldn’t figure out where I was. He grabbed me, put a blinker on my butt and told me to ‘swim faster than you’ve ever swum before,’” Miller says. “I thought, ‘Yes, sir!’ and touched the rock wall at ten hours and forty-two minutes.”

Miller arrived on site two weeks prior to the swim. “The first two weeks, all I did each morning and night was get in, swim for half an hour, and then submerge myself for an hour. I basically put myself in a hypothermic state, every day, twice a day,” says Miller. Despite getting stung by some “gnarly jellyfish,” after eleven hours and sixteen minutes, Miller touched Scotland, and completed the Ocean’s Seven. “It was just one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to get it all done,” he said.

Miller is the first person to complete all of the Ocean’s Seven Challenge swims on the first try. Overall, he was the fourth to complete the competition, and the first American male.

Miller notes that, although he accomplished the seven swims in a three-year period, it was really four years with training. “I trained myself as much as I could in the water, swimming anywhere I could,” he says. “But the mental training was just as important. I knew if I could sit in a tub of ice and mentally zone out for twenty-minute periods until I couldn’t take it anymore, I could do it. That’s the most excruciating pain possible.”

Next up for Miller is pursuing his master’s degree in sports psychology, more professional speaking engagements, and writing a book. “Graduating with a degree in broadcast journalism, I’d love to write about my mission. Swimming was just the ‘middleman’ for me. I didn’t care if it was running, swimming, cycling, climbing, whatever. I just needed a way to continue to fund my charity work, to give to others. And for me, it had to be doing something extreme,” he says. “The book isn’t going to be about swimming per se, but about pushing yourself, because every breath is a gift. I want to talk about leveraging every breath in your body to see what you can accomplish, what you’re really made of. I know I’m definitely making a positive difference, and I believe that’s what I was put here for.”

Feature photo credit: Dan Speicher Photography