by Dave Murphy
Every August Bank Holiday, an annual rite of passage takes place in Wales. Sturdy young men and women, and some aged ones as well, come from near and far to a peaty bog where aroma lies thick upon the senses. They compete in a tradition that has been honored since 1976, the World Bog Snorkelling Championship. This year there’s an interloper or so some say. Michael Phelps, winner of 16 Olympic medals in more traditional forms of athletic swimming, insists that he’s simply looking for a new challenge. Some longtime residents of the area say different.
At pubs and gathering spots, the tone of discussion is dark, and not easily shared with writers who have come for a visit. If you’re a Murphy however, there’s a longer and deeper connection to the land and those who love it. And while this particular visit was brief, I came away with enough to know there is no black and white, no pure right or wrong. There is only an uncertain portent of what will come this summer at Waen Rhydd, and marshy grass and decaying leaves, and the quiet cold water.
I should probably set a few things straight. The English spell snorkeling with two “Ls” for some reason. Also, my own third nephew – Conor Murphy from County Armagh across the sea from Wales – won the championship back-to-back in 2008 and 2009. A minute and thirty-eight seconds, straight down a 60-foot trench and back. And he beat 170 others and won a hundred dollars to boot. So there is that, and a sense of familial pride. Conor’s not your average swamp creature though, he’s a triathlete who only did bog as a lark for a couple years. So I guess that’s the other thing, where conflict comes and sticks to the sticking-place.
I didn’t take this assignment because I have any particular horse in the race. I told Graydon I was tired and spent after Bombay. I do know marshes and watery ways however, as the incessant texts and emails reminded. I grew up an easy walk from a New England wetlands, and my father has long maintained a summer home at the edge of a Cape Cod marsh that runs directly to the ocean. On high tides the sea comes right up to the edge of the property near a comfortable deck, a good place to drink wine and swat mosquitoes. But tromping through the muck doesn’t make me part of the local set at Llanwrtyd Wells. I knew I’d need to go to the source. I needed to talk to Phelps in person.
He wasn’t easy to find, hadn’t been at his beloved Meadowbrook facility in Baltimore for weeks. I landed at Southampton and rented a Fiat 500 which is a great little car until you get lost and stop caring about great little cars. But I arrived in Hampshire nonetheless, still late afternoon and a splitting headache from the flight. An 18th century stone cottage stood at the edge of Pennington Marsh and further out was Michael, churning through the reeds. It was the first time I had seen him since I wrote the bong expose for Vanity Fair, the one that put his Kelloggs endorsement in the crapper. Still, he grinned at me like he does, teeth chattering and skin nearly blue under bits of grass and dirt, and we headed back to the cottage to talk.
Bog snorkelling as we know it, is a recent cultural phenomenon with its banging pie plates and cowbells and spectators in bright costumes, and even mountain bikes plunging headlong into the glorious stench. Its history however is long and serpentine. Owain Glyndwr’s ancient anarchists used marsh reeds to take in air as they hid from the King’s soldiers, and the Celtic people remain a mysterious and insular lot with their polytheism and worship of nature, their poets and shape-shifters.
Michael changed into dry clothes and we were fed a hearty muskrat stew prepared by his lady friend Elin, a singer with a local pub band. And afterward we sat by the fire with a good dark ale and finally talked about motivation and purpose. “I swim,” he said, “it’s what I do and what I have always done. Lately I’ve been bothered by chlorine. After all these years.” And he just shrugged as if there were nothing else about it. And stared with a sense of melancholy into the fire. And Elin came and put a quiet hand on his shoulder, each of us alone with our thoughts.
We had bangers and eggs and rashers in the morning and Elin went into town for a band rehearsal and Michael walked out to the marsh and I caught up on sleep. Those English fry-up breakfasts can send you right back into a torpor and I didn’t mind at all. And later, got ready for yet another flight back, and walked out to say so long.
Michael was powering through the pickerel weed and marl with that inimitable butterfly stroke and I yelled ,“you do know they only allow the dog paddle or two arms straight out in front?” And he laughed and I knew he shared a kindred spirit with the good people of Waen Rhydd. Michael’s quest has always been elusive, like Hemingway on the plains of the Serengeti. And I looked over my shoulder as I walked away, and saw the kid who swam from one end of Baltimore to the other. Come Bank Day in August, the locals will witness something to remember. Michael flipped at the end of the trench and pushed off from the muddy bank, and headed for home.