PITTSBURGH – Most people spend their summers swimming at the local pool or lake. But Darren Miller has spent the warmest months swimming in some of the world’s largest, most hostile bodies of water, surrounded by jellyfish and sharks – none of which are the inflatable kind.
Miller has become impervious to the ocean’s terrors since he completed the “Ocean’s Seven,” which consists of seven long-distance, open-water swims. It’s a feat only five other people have accomplished. What’s his motivation? He does it all for charity.
Miller was three years old when he learned to swim at the North Park public swimming pool in Pittsburgh’s suburbs. But during his family’s summer vacations to Rehoboth Beach, Del., he approached the ocean with some skepticism.
It’s funny, when I was younger, I never wanted the water to go above my waist. As a mainlander, you have a different fear of the ocean than those that grew up around the salt water.
As he grew older, he conquered his fear and started to swim regularly -- anywhere he could. He competed in sprint races during high school and college. He also swam in lakes and Pittsburgh’s three rivers with such frequency that local boat captains now know him by name and are not alarmed when they see him swimming in the Allegheny River.
A novel about swimming the English Channel and a friend’s loss inspired Miller’s first major swim. Miller, who was hired by PNC in 2009, formed a partnership that same year with his friend, Cathy Cartieri Mehl. They agreed she would fund his trip and he would swim the English Channel in honor of her father who passed away from heart surgery complications.
Through this commitment, the Forever Fund was born in December 2009. Money raised from Miller’s swim would support families with infants in need of cardiothoracic surgery at a local children’s hospital. Since 2009, the fund has raised almost $100,000.
Once Miller crossed the English Channel in just over 12 hours, he was hooked on long-distance swimming. His next challenge would be to conquer the rest of Ocean’s Seven -- seven open-water swims -- in support of the Forever Fund. For the remaining six swims, he was sponsored by Peter Dochinez of a local financial group.
After the English Channel swim, he trained for one year to get ready for the final six. The mental training was just as vital as physical. With no open water in Pittsburgh, he trained creatively to simulate long hours in the ocean. His routine included cold showers for years, keeping the house temperature in the mid-50s and soaking in ice baths to mimic signs of hypothermia.
Marathon swimming rules permitted Miller to only wear swim trunks, cap and goggles. He took very short breaks – 15-20 seconds of rest every 30 minutes -- to eat and drink while treading water.
Miller said he is often asked what he thinks about when on these swims for hours at a time.
Visually you can see my support boat and the kayak, but I always find my third boat, only visible to me. On that third boat, I see my grandparents, who were very influential in my life, and other friends and family that have passed – telling me to keep going forward, no matter what I faced.
The biggest threats were hypothermia and other sea creatures. Before he crossed the Cook Strait, the body of water between the north and south islands of New Zealand, there was a great white shark attack reported near his route.
“Two days before the Molokai swim in Hawaii, I couldn’t sleep,” Miller recalls. “One day per month, box jellyfish, which can kill with a single sting, surface in the area and sure enough it was going to be the day of my swim.”
Along his route, three Portuguese Man of War stung him a few times in the face. “There was nothing I was enduring which compared to the pain those families faced losing a child in the hospital.”
He completed the Ocean’s Seven in August 2013 with a successful swim of the North Channel in Scotland. Steven Munatones of Open Water Swimming says Miller is first person in the world to complete the grueling swims on the first try. Other attempts are often thwarted due to weather.
Since completing the challenge, Miller became a motivational speaker, discussing his endurance athletics and a decade of financial sales. At PNC, he is currently a fixed income specialist, working with municipalities and their advisors to invest funds from a bond issuance.
He speaks throughout the year to audiences of five to 5,000 people, with 20 percent of the fee going back to the Forever Fund. His main message: “Put every breath into what you do no matter what it is, and never take anything for granted.”
In 2014, he founded the Three Rivers Marathon swim, an invitation-only event for elite swimmers. In August 2015, five swimmers from around the world completed a 10,000 meter (6.2 miles) swim in in each of Pittsburgh’s three rivers: the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny. Miller is looking to have upwards of 15 swimmers competing in 2016.
I focus on volunteerism and leveraging our passions to find a way to help benefit others with the gifts we have been given. I want people to know that you don’t have to swim the English Channel to make a difference in the world.
Darren Miler completed the 125-mile Ocean’s Seven in 75 hours and 13 minutes:
1. July 2010: English Channel (time: 12 hours, 4 minutes)
2. August 2011: Catalina Channel (09:15)
3. October 2011: Molokai Channel (12:12)
4. May 2012: Strait of Gibraltar (03:44)
5. July 2012: Tsugaru Channel (15:55)
6. March 2013: Cook Strait (10:42)
7. August 2013: North Channel (11:16)
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