The car accident that severed Sergio Valencia's spine 30 years ago couldn't crush his spirit. He found meaning in the sea, where his powerful swimming stroke dragged his paralyzed legs across the Strait of Gibraltar and several island-to-mainland spans off Baja California.
But despite finishing more than one dozen marathon distances, one dream always eluded him: swimming in America.
On Sunday, the disabled swimmer from Ensenada finally got the chance.
Under overcast skies in San Clemente, a crowd of family and friends sent him off with prayers and shouts of "good luck" as he swam alone through a set of gentle waves into the ocean. He started at North Beach, swam almost four miles to Dana Point and then headed back south to the San Clemente pier, where hundreds of people were gathering for the San Clemente Ocean Festival.
For Valencia, swimming in the U.S. marked the culmination of a lifetime of incredible feats, and he promised to complete the distance for his new audience north of the border. As always, he crossed himself, asking God to protect him, before pulling himself into the ocean.
"I've always wanted to swim in the United States," Valencia said in Spanish. "So Americans can see what I can do.... I'm going to burn the waters with my speed."
Valencia's feats were once celebrated in his hometown of Ensenada and beyond. He met presidents, and musicians wrote songs about the paralyzed man who has swum alongside sharks, crocodiles and sea lions. But Valencia, 47, has had a hard time lately.
He hoped that someday, his swimming would get him enough recognition so he could fund treatment for his back or enable him to get a coaching job helping other disabled people. But money and opportunities are scarce in Mexico, especially for the handicapped.
Valencia lives in a slum apartment and supplements his $340 government pension by selling the lobsters and octopus he catches on his practice swims in the Bahia de Todos Santos off Ensenada. After an article appeared about him in The Times in May, offers trickled in, including the opportunity to swim at the San Clemente Ocean Festival.
"He is electrifying," said Lloyd Darden, a retired plastics industry executive who helped mobilize a team of volunteers, including three state lifeguards and Bob Berwick, a friend who lent his boat, the Patriot, for supplies.
Moral support came from dozens of worshipers at Darden's congregation, Christ Lutheran Church of San Clemente. They came early for their weekly service on North Beach to cheer him on.
"He's an inspiration," said Pastor Margaret Duttera. "He wants to inspire other disabled people that there are no limits."
Ocean conditions were ideal. The water was 70 degrees and flat, and his short, choppy stroke plowed through it. Valencia, who wears a black wetsuit, calls himself the Black Shark, inspired by the fearsome animal's graceful swimming style.
"He is like a shark. Nothing fazes him," said Dick Deboer, the lifeguard supervisor at Doheny State Beach. A longtime competitive swimmer, Deboer said watching Valencia propel himself with his arms alone for such a long distance left him amazed.
"I couldn't imagine not being able to kick and having to drag your lower body along," Deboer said.
Valencia swam past North Beach, past Capistrano Beach, his arms churning as he passed multimillion-dollar homes atop the palisades and headed for the halfway point, a buoy 200 yards off Doheny State Beach. The 3 1/2 -mile swim had taken about two hours.
"He's charging. He's having a great swim," said Deboer, who got regular progress reports from fellow lifeguard Grant Shubin, who escorted Valencia in a paddleboat.
But Valencia was struggling. The previous night he had eaten a meal with green peppers that had given him stomach cramps. Valencia was vomiting in the water and the indigestion was slowing his progress.
But he made the turn at the buoy and headed to the pier.
Valencia trained for five months, doing dozens of push-ups and yoga exercises daily and swimming countless miles in an Olympic-sized pool and in the Bahia de Todos Santos.
The training paid off.
After five hours, the crowd at the pier spotted Valencia swimming toward shore, escorted by two paddleboats and a rescue boat. A team of lifeguards went out to greet him. Shubin and fellow lifeguard Anthony Terzo lifted Valencia and carried him to the sand. Hundreds of people -- many of whom had just completed their own swims and some of whom were teary-eyed -- stood on their beach towels and gave him an ovation.
Valencia wrapped his arms around family members and friends who waited in line to congratulate him. "Usted es nuestro heroe" (You are our hero), fellow swimmer Caroline Boullon told Valencia.
Joan Stauffer, who saw Valencia's start, said she made a point of being there for the finish. "I'm so proud of him. It just shows that anything is possible if you try hard enough."
Valencia, shivering from five hours in the ocean, was bundled in blankets. On stage, he grew teary-eyed and raised his hands triumphantly. Deboer, as a token of their new friendship, later promised to give Valencia a customized beach wheelchair with inflatable wheels.
Valencia hopes to return to the U.S. so he can find sponsors for more swims. Last year, he was a finalist for the Hall of Fame for the National Spinal Cord Injury Assn., and he said he believes he has much more to offer.
"I want to help disabled people overcome depression and achieve their goals," Valencia said. "Inside them is a shark. They just need to let it out and start fighting."