You can tell a lot about people by what's on their bucket lists.
For 29-year old Bryan Stiffler of Bedford, the bucket list includes swimming the English Channel, and it's something he's getting ready to cross off.
Stiffler began swimming competitively in seventh grade at the Garver YMCA in Roaring Spring. As a freshman and sophomore in high school, he was a team of one representing the Bisons, often swimming by himself against the clock as part of local dual meets. He went on to compete for Mercersburg Academy and the University of Mary Washington, earning both scholastic and collegiate All-American honors.
Now, seven years out of college, the Omni Bedford Springs Director of Catering is back in YMCA pools, training for one of the most adventurous open water swims in the world.
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous," he laughed, after reading some of the literature about the English Channel, "but it's more excitement than fear to be part of this incredible feat."
Unlike his early high school swim days, this feat will be shared by five teammates from three other cities: Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.
They will swim in one-hour shifts from Dover to France, each likely taking two or more turns in the potentially cold, choppy, creature-infested waters. The effort will be documented and certified by the Channel Swimming Association under very stringent guidelines for unassisted swims. While a boat will accompany the swimmers, they may not receive any help during their quest; they may not wear wet suits; and they may not swim until conditions are deemed acceptable, if not entirely safe.
The team may be forced to swim overnight, and they are warned of the potential hazards of jellyfish, sharks, rip tides, storms at seas and even freight ships; even so, Stiffler and company are determined.
Not only are these swimmers training for a once-in-a-lifetime challenge, they are doing it for charity. Each has pledged to raise $10,000 (that's $60k total) to be donated to cancer research through the Swim Across America organization.
So with a coach advising them via Skype from Australia, Stiffler and his teammates train independently in their respective home towns, working toward the 21-mile swim. Their Southern Hemisphere mentor finds it hard to understand why northeast U.S. swimmers need to train in the calm, climate-controlled environment of indoor pools, so Stiffler tries to explain that Central Pa. waters have been blocked with ice. However, he is planning on a few open-water training swims in Pittsburgh's rivers and off of Long Island, N.Y., in preparation for the Channel challenge.
Still, there is no guarantee that Mother Nature and the forces of the sea will cooperate. The swimmers will be on stand-by for up to one September week, hoping to get the go-ahead to enter the water.
"I'm most worried about not being able to swim due to conditions," Stiffler said. "It's not so much about the training, but about the experience. The money will go to research regardless, but it would be a disappointment to go there and not be able to do it."
In recent years, Stiffler has made international journeys to India and Spain, but never with a goal like the one he has for this fall. Still not sure how swimmers' passports are processed as they enter France via the English Channel, Stiffler's infectious humor and adventurous spirit are rivaled only by his compassion to make a difference in the fight against cancer and his determination to complete this challenge of a lifetime:
"I don't know if I'm adventurous or a little nuts."
Donations toward Bryan Stiffler's English Channel Swim are accepted online: www.swimacrossamerica.org/goto/bryanstiffler.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.