The only thing Ignacio Vaccaro needs to worry about is the weather. The wind might sabotage his intention of swimming across the channel at some point next week. This is because only a limited number of swimmers are permitted in the waters separating England and France. If the weather conditions are too poor in your allocated period, you might have to wait a year for your next opportunity. “I am definitely hoping that’s not a decision I’ll need to make, even if the only reason is that I’m a selfish athlete.”
Fortunately for him, the weather forecast looks good for the time being. “I’m properly prepared and I’m feeling better than ever”, reports the 38-year-old Vaccaro, born and raised in Argentina. I know I’m ready because I’ve already done a test-run from Medemblik to Stavoren – swimming for seven hours in a force 5 wind. I was able to complete the swim and I survived.”
Platinum card holder
At some point in 2016 he’d had enough. Working at least 30 weeks a year away from home, work weeks of at least 50 hours, sometimes even 80 hours. As a KLM platinum card holder he knew pretty much all the airports like the back of his hand but was rarely home. And then there’s his one-year-old son, which made his decision much easier. Ignacio Vaccaro resigns from his job at BTS Consultancy – where he had been employed since obtaining his doctorate at ERIM in 2010. He gets a job closer to home in Amsterdam working for one of his clients, Liberty Global, and cautiously takes up open water swimming.
Unfortunately, his new job ends up taking up just as much of his time as his previous job, so it’s not long before Vaccaro also bids this employer farewell and the swimming extravaganza can begin. “I felt like I was living at the office; sometimes it felt like my head was going to explode. I realised that something really had to change and luckily my wife agreed, because she too could see how miserable I was at work.”
Vaccaro reminisces: “When I was still working on my doctorate, I didn’t realise that my quality of life was quite good. I had time to go swimming, running, time for recreation. But once I entered the world of consultancy, the only thing in my life was work, work, work. I had four weeks of holidays each year but never even had the time to go on holidays. In those days I spoke more and more often about long-distance swimming with a colleague. He had already swum the Channel and we decided to go for an early morning outdoor swim together a couple of times a week. At that time I immediately registered for swimming the Channel. Not because I had a definite plan, but because the waiting list is at least two years and you never know.”
Vaccaro came to Rotterdam from Buenos Aires in 2001 to study IBA. Once he completed the programme, he stayed at Woudestein to obtain his PhD in Innovation Management, and subsequently moved to Amsterdam. As a teenager Vaccaro was a gifted swimmer, although he wasn’t quite fast enough in the pool to compete at the very top level. Since then he has lost his heart to swimming outdoors in open water. “What really attracts me to long-distance swimming is that you get into kind of a flow after a few hours of swimming. In this state you barely think about anything, you just move through the water, waves, wind, and sometimes rain. It’s hard to explain, but it has something to do with a kind of pain you learn to embrace. Just to be clear, you don’t have to swim to France to feel that. I’m doing that because it’s such an iconic swim that I want to do once in my life.”
Initially, everything didn’t go as planned after registering for the Channel swim. It was a shoulder injury in particular – the result of a somewhat overly enthusiastic self-conceived training regimen – that kept him out of the running for several months. “Yeah, that’s when it hits you that you’re 36, not 17.”
But since the previous spring he has regained his momentum. In September he participated in a 17-kilometre race in Lake Windemere in the Lake District and finished first. “The water temperature was about 16 degrees, and the second half of the swim was especially cold and windy. In spite of the win, I knew that to swim the Channel I would need some kind of professional coaching. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to make it.”
Swim in water at 3.2 degrees without a wetsuit
That coaching came in the shape of Marcel van der Togt. He is familiar to many people because he is Maarten van der Weijden’s trainer. “He gives me my weekly training regimen. My technique was good, but I had to improve my fitness level, put on weight, and I had to learn to deal with the cold better.” The weight issue was fairly easy to resolve: eat more and go to the gym a few times a week. To master the cold, Van der Togt recommended that Vaccaro take up what is referred to as ice swimming. That’s swimming in water no warmer than 5 degrees Celsius. “So since September last year, I swim every Saturday in an unheated pool that naturally gets colder every week. This ultimately led to my participation in the Dutch Open Swimming Championships in January. A one-kilometer swim in water at 3.2 degrees without a wetsuit.” He finished third.
“In water that cold you very quickly lose all feeling in your fingers and toes, and after a while the same thing happens to your hands, arms and cheeks. When you emerge from the water, the pain is indescribable. It sounds slightly masochistic, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to swim the Channel. The water in the channel is also pretty cold and your swim is only officially recognised if you do it without a wetsuit. All that is permitted is a swimming cap, swim goggles and swimming trunks.”
Better balance between work and leisure time
And now the moment of truth is rapidly approaching and the entire exercise is almost complete. “I enjoyed swimming so much during my sabbatical. But soon I’ll be back at work. My son is almost 3, and he thinks that mothers work all the time because fathers are always swimming. So that means I have to get back in the saddle.”
Just how and where he will resume working is uncertain, but it is beyond dispute that he will end up in the corporate sector again. “I’ll try to find a job that allows a better balance between work and leisure time, but you never know for sure beforehand how that will turn out. But it won’t be working seven days a week until three in the morning, even if the only reason is that I want to continue swimming. No, not as fanatically as now, but I do need a goal to work towards. So it might be swimming the IJsselmeer or from Spain to Africa. We’ll see. But first there’s the Channel.”