Darren Miller ocean swimming catalina

Surviving the Toughest Swim 

Words: Andrew Sporrer
Photo: Courtesy of Darren Miller

Meet the man who lost 80 pounds to complete the Ocean’s Seven.

“Every breath a gift.” From the outside, it might sound like a corny mantra. But for Darren Miller, one of only six people to have completed the Ocean’s Seven and the first ever to complete all seven swims on the first attempt, it’s not just a catch phrase he uses to promote a flourishing speaking career; it’s a lifestyle.

“I was a 265-pound meathead. I had some issues with alcohol and was just kind of lost,” Miller said of the decision to take on the personal challenge of swimming the Ocean’s Seven.

Things didn’t pan out for Miller the way he planned after graduating from college. Without direction and in need of a new challenge, Miller signed up for a marathon after training briefly with a friend. “That first marathon was a lesson in pain,” he said. “It was like a new way to experience life. This new extreme — and that’s my personality. I’m a very extreme person. Over the next year it was like, ‘What else can I do?’”

Miller ran another three marathons and lost 80 pounds before qualifying for Boston and signing up for his first 50-miler. Eventually though, Miller’s intense training caught up with him and he broke a metatarsal in his right foot. He finished that first ultra six weeks later, injuries and all — “another lesson in pain” as Miller joked, just part of the “hardening process.” But he needed a change.

Swim Lessons

“After I finished [the ultra] I picked up this book, Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox and was really interested,” Miller recalled. With new inspiration he asked himself, “How could I leverage my gift — being stubborn, being extreme — and use that for charity?”

“I had some issues with alcohol and was just kind of lost.”

That’s when Miller decided to swim the English Channel to benefit his newly founded Team Forever and the Forever Fund, a charity set up in the name of Anthony Frank Cartier, a friend’s father who had passed years earlier from heart disease. Every dollar Miller has raised from his swims through the Forever Fund has gone directly to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

When asked about the most difficult part of his journey so far, Miller responds, “Leveraging my passions in life to make a difference.” From the outside, it looks like Miller has done a great job of doing so, but to him, that “what’s next” mentality keeps him rocketing onward and upward, continuing to raise money for charity through crazy feats of endurance.

Training, logistically, for these huge, open-water swims has also been difficult. Living in Pittsburgh with an obvious lack of ocean access and trying to train for the Ocean’s Seven is “a message in itself right there,” Miller said. “Not having the resources to accomplish what it is you want, and just making it work.”

The mental and physical aspect of training for cold-water swims, like the brutally cold North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland, was also a big trial for Miller. He trained by sitting in a 300-gallon cattle trough filled with water, snow and ice as long as he could in the Pittsburgh winters. He took the cold-water training so seriously that he contacted local fire rescue and EMS organizations. “We would head to the local lake and they would chainsaw a hole in the ice — we would both use that as training. It was a win-win for both of us.”

Perseverance and the Third Boat

“I was expecting the Tsugaru Straight to be an 8-hour swim, and 8 hours in I was nowhere near where I was supposed to be,” Miller recalled when asked about the lowest moment he’s had during a swim.

He called out to his support boat: “How far?” “5 miles,” was the answer. An hour later: “How far?” “5 miles.” An hour later: “How far?” “5 miles.” “I hit that wall and the water started getting colder,” he says. “I started getting angry and I could see that third boat over there telling me to keep going, keep going.”

The third boat is Miller’s ace in the hole. His indefatigable “one more stroke.” Miller describes it as visualization of the heroes in his life on a boat beside him. Most notably, his grandparents, who worked tirelessly to give back to their community. “[They] taught me that it’s not what’s in your pocket book that matters, but how you help others. [They] were growing a garden and cooking food for people at their church. They did what they could and [now] I’m doing what I can.

“I think about that third boat and how I’m dishonoring them by not giving everything I have. I chose to dedicate my life [to swimming] for that period of time, and if I wasn’t giving everything, I wasn’t doing them justice.”

Back to the Tsugaru Straight. “I didn’t care. I was going to make it to Hokkaido, and after about 13 hours they told me, ‘You have to sprint if you’re to break this tide!’ That’s the last thing you want to hear after 13 hours of swimming.

“Everything is going south — the water temp is dropping, the air temp is dropping, the sun is setting, you’re really tired — and then [you have to] muster the energy to sprint in dark water.” Miller shakes his head. “I finished in 15 hours, 55 minutes — about twice as long as expected. That was the lowest point for me physically and also the highest. Finishing in those conditions was nuts.”

The Accomplished Motivator

Although he’s managed to accomplish so much, he continues to focus on new goals and now does speaking engagements to share his drive with others. “Motivating people to go outside their comfort zone and accomplish something that they’re passionate about,” Miller says when asked about his current inspiration. No doubt he draws greatly on his experiences as an open-water swimmer, lighting fires under the seats of corporate sales teams and students alike. “Every breath a gift.” What will you do with it? 

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