How to be aquatic: Bryan Mineo’s journey from the lakes of Texas to the Pacific Ocean
by Mark McDermott
It began in on a hot summer day in a backyard pool in Bedford, Texas. The kid wouldn’t get out of the water.
His mother had come out to call him to dinner. He was hungry, but staying in the water was better. He liked to go upside down in a handstand or dive deep and swim along the floor almost effortlessly, the earthbound laws of gravity no longer applicable. He liked the way the sound flowed through water, the slow-motion thump of his own heartbeat, the long whoosh of his own breath, the way light speckled through the swaying blue of the pool water.
Bryan Mineo was four years old and he’d just come to a realization. He wanted to be in the water, always.
That day, his parents were forced to literally drag him out of the pool. But Mineo was from an aquatic people. His brother, Justin, who was four years older, would win a state championship and set Texas records in the breaststroke. Though Mineo swam competitively from the ages of 5 to 14, to him, it was never about speed. It was simply about being in the water.
At 18 he fell in love with a girl triathlete. As young men do, he slightly inflated his qualifications, to the point where she asked him to help coach her in the open water swim component of her race. They went to nearby Grapevine Lake so he could give her some pointers, but he failed to mention something to her. He’d never swum in open water.
“I thought swimming was swimming was swimming,” he said. “It was all the same, whether in a pool or a lake or the ocean.”
Mineo tried to play it cool as they arrived at the lake. But he was terrified. Once he jumped in and and started swimming, it got worse.
“Within seconds, I was absolutely panicked,” he remembered. “I had been dreading the day we’d go to the lake the whole week before. I’d been having dreams about it. I just knew I wasn’t prepared for it, and it was going to be difficult. Which made it worse than it was.”
They were 500 yards from shore when his friend saw Mineo’s face and realized he was in trouble. He could see her mouthing two words: “Just breathe.”
He closed his eyes and let out a long exhale, followed by a slow, deep inhale. Images of floating in his backyard pool as a child flashed through his head and calmed him. He closed his eyes and floated in the lake. Everything would be fine.
When they returned to shore, Mineo felt humbled, but also exhilarated. He’d faced fear in a way he’d never known it before. The love affair with the triathlete wouldn’t last, but he’d found the twin passions that would govern the rest of his life: open water swimming, and breath.
“I was inspired,” Mineo said. “Swimming had become a significant part of my identity, yet a singular experience in the water was able to completely humble me. I wasn’t born with any inherent fears, so I understood that my fear of the open water was a learned thing, thus could also be unlearned.”
He wanted to face his limitations directly. He began lake swimming daily. Somewhere in his mind, a nascent notion took root. He couldn’t quite articulate it, but from that day in Lake Grapevine forward, his life was oceanbound.
Love and water
Mineo wouldn’t find his way to the Pacific Ocean for a decade.
He attended Virginia Tech, studying film and literature, and moved to New York City to work as a video editor after graduation. After a few years in the city, he returned south, to Austin, Texas, a town with seven lakes. In Austin, he began lake swimming again, and he developed a serious yoga practice, which, like swimming, links movement and breath. Some triathlete friends started asking him for training help, and soon he was training athletes professionally as a swim coach. He launched Keep Austin Fit (a play on the city’s underground motto, “Keep Austin Weird”) and within a few years had expanded the business and moved it north with Keep Dallas Fit. When Diana Nyad completed her Cuba to Florida swim in 2013, Mineo was in the midst of training for his own ultimate test — swimming the English Channel.
“It’s not even about sports anymore,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “It’s about human potential, and she really set the bar. For me, that’s the most motivating thing. For me, it’s less about the swim than knowing I can do something, put my mind to something big and follow through.”
But while training he’d also made a discovery. When he took the physical to qualify for the 21-mile channel swim, a shocking diagnosis came back: he had ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease that causes vertebrae in the spine to fuse together.
“Suddenly it all made sense,” Mineo said.
He’d struggled with back pains and abnormally long recovery times since his early 20s. Now he knew why. He also knew why he felt so much better in water than on land.
“The water takes all that weight off your body,” Mineo said. “You are less than half your weight in the water. When I move in this very purposeful way, yoga and swimming, I feel best.”
In 2014, he and his then-wife, a professional triathlete whom he’d married the previous year, moved to California, largely to be near the ocean. But almost immediately after arrival, the marriage fell apart. In the messiness of a divorce, he had to abandon his English Channel quest. He had neither the money, nor the heart. He’d just arrived in the place he’d hoped to be all his life, but he knew almost no one, and for a few months was without a home.
Two things saved him. The first was the ocean.
Mineo vividly remembers the first ocean swim of his life. He went out at sunset, off the Topaz Jetty in Redondo, ducking under waves, shouting, exultant as he finally launched into the Pacific.
“It was the most liberating feeling I’d ever felt, diving, swimming out there,” he said.
He’s been in the ocean nearly every day since. He launched his business locally as The Swim Mechanic. It grew quickly, through word-of-mouth, his column in Triathlete magazine, and the popularity of a group swim he led every Saturday morning off Knob Hill in Redondo Beach. He got his first tattoos and found a life that seemed like it had always been waiting for him.
“I’d just lost all my money, both my dogs, and my place to live,” he said. “And it was the happiest I’d ever been.”
One day he was standing in line at a coffee shop with his parents, who’d come to console him and help him with the details of his divorce, and he saw someone he’d admired from afar since 2008. Rebecca Soni set world records in the breaststroke both in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and then had quietly, and somewhat mysteriously, bowed out of competitive swimming altogether. Although she kept a very low profile, Soni remained as big a celebrity as existed in Mineo’s world.
“I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s Rebecca Soni. I’m going to say hi to her,’” he recalled. “I’d had a celebrity crush on her since 2008.”
He somewhat sheepishly introduced himself, they talked briefly about swimming and exchanged numbers.
It began slowly, as a friendship, over the next year. He kept trying to convince her to join his Saturday morning group swim.
“No way,” she told him. “You are not getting me in a swimsuit.”
Soni swam competitively all her life and after winning two golds and a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics, she’d decided to end that chapter. The hyper-discipline elite competition required had nearly drained the joy of swimming from her life.
“I was almost boycotting swimming in my life, just in general,” she said. “I was done. It was a tie to the past, in a way.”
Finally, one Saturday morning she agreed to come along. As far as she was concerned, it was going to be a one-off.
“Just to make him shut up,” she said.
Something happened in the water. They immediately paired, swimming closely together in what one other member of the group called a “two-headed monster.”
“Our stroke cadence was in sync,” Mineo said. “I swear to god, we were breathing together, smiling. We were so in sync it was disgusting.”
“I don’t know if I was mirroring his stroke or he was mirroring mine, or just looking at each other, but it was stroke for stroke, breath for breath,” Soni said. “It was disgusting, I’ll give you that.”
They became a couple shortly thereafter. Beyond falling in love with each other, together, they became deeply immersed in a love for the ocean.
“She kind of saved me,” Mineo said. “Honestly, I was thinking of moving back to Texas. I stayed because of her.”
“He kind of opened my eyes to a different kind of swimming, where it’s all about enjoyment, not necessarily about how to make people faster,” Soni said. “He made swimming fun for me again.”
Their swimming life together, like the ocean, is different every day.
“What’s it like out there today? Whenever you are done, you are done. If you want to keep going, keep going. He not only got me back in the water, but created a whole new world,” Soni said. “It’s a fun side of the sport you forget when you train on a high level, where there is no expectation…You are the master of what you want to create, whether it’s swimming through the seaweed off PV, we talk about swimming from Redondo Beach to Torrance [Beach] and see if we encounter whales. It’s a different experience every day. It takes you back to the root of the sport, doing it for our own enjoyment.”
Fear and water
The Saturday group has grown from four or five people to as many as 50. Among its members are several who have either been introduced to open water swimming, or, like Soni, reintroduced to a love of the water.
Megan Tobin is a triathlete and experienced ocean swimmer. But she a wave caught her at the wrong angle and she was smacked into a sandbar, injuring her head and her neck. Even after she recovered her health, fear remained. She’d lost her confidence in the ocean.
Tobin heard about Mineo and signed up for a one-on-one session. She expected him to ease her back into the ocean. He didn’t.
“Bryan is not afraid, and he knows how to handle the ocean,” Tobin said. “So it wasn’t, ‘Oh, you are afraid, let’s talk, or let’s practice for a while…’ No, it was, ‘Let’s swim in big, giant waves.’ And I was like, ‘Oh no, he’s not taking it easy on me today.’ But really, one or two sessions with Bryan, and I felt completely confident again. He is so comfortable out there it rubs off on you. I know a lot of people have a lot of fears, whether it’s whatever else is out there, or the waves. I was injured, and he gave me the ocean back.”
Mineo also worked on the mechanics of her stroke, and adjusted how she held her head. Now she swims better than she did before the accident.
“He made what I thought were some minor tweaks and they made a huge difference, like when a chiropractor adjusts you and you feel like you have a whole new body,” she said. “The way my body feels in the water is entirely different, in a pool or in the ocean.”
Greg Huntoon, on the other hand, had never been an ocean swimmer. He’d grown up in Southern California and was a college baseball player, and continued to play ball for six or seven years afterwards. But as he grew older, in the process of balancing work, marriage, kids, he drifted into a sedentary life. To shake himself out of it, he decided to become a triathlete, and about two years ago started working out. But the swim portion scared him. He read a column by Mineo in Triathlete magazine and reached out.
They met by the Avenue A lifeguard tower in Redondo. “It was a murky day,” Huntoon said.” It felt like Loch Ness. You couldn’t see very far. I was like, ‘This is the day I’d chose to learn how to open water swim?’”
Mineo eased him in. They talked for 15 minutes on the beach, then swam out 200 yards, did some work on Huntoon’s stroke, and came back in and talked again. Huntoon’s fear dissipated like the morning’s marine layer. Now, he’s become one of the group’s leaders, and open water swimming has become more of a passion than triathlons. It’s become an organizing principal of his life and helped him get his health back.
“It’s such a deep part of my life experience now to get up at six on Saturdays and drive down to Redondo [from Beverly Hills], pull on a wetsuit, jump into freezing cold water and have a blast,” he said. “All because this hippie boy from Texas by way of New York. Had it not happened that way, I’m not sure what would have come of it, but I am now in that place — I can’t imagine not being there every Saturday morning.”
Mineo now has to confront his own final fears. The sting of pulling out of his English Channel swim lingers. So despite the challenge ankylosing spondylitis presents in training for long distance swimming, he intends to swim the 21-mile Catalina Channel this September.
“Catalina is my English Channel now,” he said.
To Mineo, it’s not really about swimming. “I’m not really a swimmer,” he said. “I’m good, not great. My girlfriend, she’s a swimmer. I’m just an ocean man.”
Like yoga, ocean swimming is almost spiritual practice for him, a way of monitoring his internal dialogue, of communing with something larger than himself, of breathing life deeply.
“Each of us is called to the water,” Mineo said. “Each of us have something to take from the ocean, and more importantly, something to give back to it. We all want to live a life of happiness and love. The ocean is simply a perpetual proponent to finding your unique happiness and love. How you choose to harness this energy is up to you. Remember, just breath.”
See TheSwimMechanic.com for more information and follow Mineo’s preperations for his Catalina Channel swim at EasyReaderNews.com. B