“Non mollare.” — Don’t give up. As we ring in the New Year with resolutions full of challenge and optimism, the advice of an octogenarian who has swum the Strait of Messina 23 times is as good as it gets. Add to that, he was 49 years old when he attempted it for the first time. Reggio Calabria native Elio Musco, Dr. Musco to his patients, practices what he preaches, and swimming the Strait of Messina at its narrowest point is just the tip of the iceberg.
ELIO MUSCO, NEUROPSYCHIATRIST AND GERONTOLOGIST
You see, Dr. Musco is a medical doctor, expert in the fields of neuropsychiatry and gerontology. He studies the relationship between behavior, emotion and cognition as it relates to brain function in older people. Not my idea of your stereotypical athlete. And in fact, he started to swim seriously rather late in life, turning to workouts in the pool in an effort to alleviate a shoulder problem.
The good doctor was no stranger to the Strait of Messina, having been born and raised in Reggio Calabria, the largest city in Calabria, the region that sits at the very end of the Italian peninsula facing Sicily and the waters of the Strait. Dr. Musco crossed that sea countless times in a ferry to attend medical school at the University of Messina, and early in his career he brought his skills back to the Province of Reggio Calabria where he practiced medicine in the Aspromonte Mountains. And yes, from the Aspromonte massif at the tip of the Italian boot, beautiful views of the strait, the mountains of Sicily and on clear days, the peak of Mt. Etna can be had.
Dr. Musco went on to further his medical studies in Tuscany with numerous specializations at the universities of Florence and Siena. His career path landed him in the Department of Geriatric Psychiatry and Rehabilitation at Florence’s Fraticini Hospital, as well as at the University of Florence where he taught psychogeriatrics. So what better example can a geriatric specialist set for his patients than to be active himself in what the Italians euphemistically call la terza età (old age or literally, the third age)? But swimming the Strait of Messina? Couldn’t he have just done a little power walking?
SWIMMING THE STRAIT OF MESSINA
Today, 49 is the new 29, and I haven’t heard the word “middle-aged” in years. But in 1982, pushing 50 wasn’t looked on as a time to start anew, but an age in which to begin the fight against the inevitable decline. Based on studies and experience, Dr. Musco thought differently, and seeing as he hadn’t ever been one of those doctors who told his patients to stop smoking or eat less with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and Perugia candy wrappers in his trashcan, he began crossing the strait under his own power on the eve of his fifth decade—45’58” in a European swimsuit without the assistance of flippers.
The Strait of Messina is the body of water smack in the middle of the Mediterranean that divides mainland Italy from the island of Sicily and connects the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north and the Ionian Sea to the south. In ancient times, it was called the Strait of Scylla and Charybdis, referring to the strong tidal currents as characterized by Greek legend. In ocean swimming, it’s hard to give precise distances due to variances of currents, wind and waves, but the shortest course between Sicily and mainland Italy is 3.2 kilometers or a smidge under 2 miles, from Punta Faro, the most northeast point of the island, to Cannitello, a district in the town of Villa San Giovanni just north of Reggio.
The first documented successful swim was in 1930, and the traversate (crossings) multiplied rapidly from that event, eventually followed by double traversate, competitive crossings, organized groups, different points of departure, swims in various strokes, in wetsuits, with flippers and without. Every swim must be accompanied and led by a knowledgeable team with a local fisherman who knows the currents. The record for a single crossing is 30’06” for men and 36’07” for women.
SWIMMING THE STRAIT OF MESSINA ON THE DIAGONAL
For his 50th birthday Musco reasoned that the shortest distance had practically become a swimming pool with so many swimmers doing the same stretch, so he decided to swim the Strait of Messina for the first time on the diagonal, 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the lighthouse at the Port of Messina to the beach of Catona, the northernmost district of Reggio Calabria—2.04’38”.
Musco continued to cross the Strait to the tune of 23 times. For example, at age 71 he embarked on another route, also about 12 kilometers, but from Messina to the beach of Reggio Calabria—2.46’18”. Always barefoot.
He would do other swims, including the Strait of Messina roundtrip, from the Aeolian Island of Vulcano to Milazzo in northeast Sicily (22.5 kilometers or 14 miles), and numerous traversate from the Island of Elba in Tuscany, such as an 11-hour crossing to Punta Ala of Castiglione della Pescaia in the Province of Grosseto. And another 15-hour, 30-kilometer (19-mile) crossing from Elba to the Tuscan coast. Hey, why didn’t Napoleon just swim away from his exile?
MEETING ELIO MUSCO
I happened to meet Dr. Musco in my favorite shop on Reggio Calabria’s Corso Garibaldi, Pizzimenti Specialità Tipiche Calabresi, a delightful store filled with typical Calabrian specialties owned by the Pizzimenti brothers. Musco was in town for his monthly fix, taking away what he could carry and deciding on his order for Tuscan delivery. You can take the boy out of Calabria, but you can’t take Calabria out of the boy. (Side note, Musco is a fan of Calabria’s one and only bergamot.)
His eyes were lively and his movements were energetic. A touch of black still peaked out from under his white hair and beard. The collar of his warm-up jacket turned out over his brown blazer. As his daily routine includes one and a half to two hours a day in the pool, he’s comfortable in exercise clothing.
Giuseppe Pizzimenti introduced me to this local legend, lean and full of vitality. How old do you think he is? No, 84 was not a number I would have hazarded. Surprisingly, he was still swimming the Strait of Messina a couple of years ago and hopes to give it another go. Unfortunately, he tore a tendon on his last diagonal swim from Messina to Reggio. A big wave caught his arm at the wrong moment. He felt it, but didn’t realize the extent of the damage due to the cold water and continued on to complete the course.
OVERCOMING OBSTACLES IN LONG-DISTANCE OCEAN SWIMMING
Dr. Musco told me of the challenges experienced with long-distance, deepwater swimming. Controlling oneself from the temptation to stop can be difficult amidst the monotony, uncertainty, the lack of any reference point and being in the prone position for so long. He has swum in water that reached depths of 1,500 meters or almost 5,000 feet, and looking down into an unending blackness is unnerving.
The cold can be discouraging, but it’s the mind that has to triumph throughout the endeavor, to “convivere con la sofferenza” or live with the suffering. Learning to “stare nel corpo,” to feel and understand one’s body, and to coalesce with the water and the currents, brings about a sense of security, which can free up an energy that bolsters the swimmer to extend physical limits.
Of course, your body has to be physically prepared. In addition to swimming in the pool every day, Musco also bicycles, lifts weights and does calisthenics. Before a swim, he eats nuts, oatmeal, raisins and drinks green tea. During the swim, crackers with tahini, peanut butter and marmalade without sugar. Lots of water goes without saying, and stopping every hour to eat and drink whether or not he feels hunger or thirst is essential. I was curious as to Dr. Musco’s normal diet. Interestingly, he hasn’t eaten meat since 1976, when he took part in a study and decided he liked the way he felt. Milk products and sugar are also not a regular part of his diet, but like any good Italian, he enjoys his pasta.
SWIMMING THE STRAIT OF MESSINA AND BEYOND — THE GOOD DOCTOR’S MESSAGE
Dr. Musco’s accomplishments in the water serve as a message of hope to all those living under the concept that they must passively submit to physical deterioration with the passing of the years. Together with Franca Porciani, another gerontologist as well as a journalist, Musco has recently published the book Restare giovani si può (Remaining Young Is Possible) that proposes a strategy for learning how to live well in one’s terza età. He doesn’t mention swimming the Strait of Messina or any other deepwater activity, so there’s hope for the average Giuseppe.
The book sheds light on several common misconceptions with regard to how the brain functions and cites interesting recent discoveries, such as: Neurons that make up the brain’s gray matter can actually regenerate with the right stimuli and so can the pathways between them. In addition, as a person ages, the tendency develops to use both sides of the brain unlike the division of tasks between the left and right hemispheres in the brains of younger people. This compensatory factor helps keep older people sharp and can, at times, give them an edge. Look at all the great work produced through the epochs by those over 60!
In short, aging doesn’t seem so grim after meeting Dr. Musco and reading his book. And just as the power of thought can help a swimmer overcome the most challenging of feats, positive thinking, a sense of humor, maintaining curiosity, believing in one’s dreams, learning how to relax and to pass time alone, improving social communication, and yes, a little bit of exercise can contribute to living well into one’s mature years. Much of what has helped Dr. Musco survive in his deep water serves his patients when they find themselves in theirs.
The moral of the story for the New Year? Keep on truckin’. Or non mollare, but make sure you also have a plan.
Thinking of swimming the Strait of Messina? Several organizations arrange group crossings during the warmer months. Detailed information in Italian on the history of swimming the Strait of Messina can be found on the Baia di grotta website, together with a list of the Albo d’oro or Golden Book of the records and winners of competitive events.
The blogpost’s cover photo pictures the Strait of Messina as seen from Scilla with the two pylons at the shortest point: Cannitello in Calabria on the upper left of the photo and Punta Faro on Sicily to the right.
Other stories of Southern Italians on my blog include MuSaBa: Not Just a Museum, The Ceramics of Seminara – In the Studio of Enzo Ferraro, Textile Artist Domenico Caruso, An Artist in Amantea, My Italy Blog – Has It Been Two Years Already? and My Friend, the Duchess.
Read more about the beautiful land in the toe of the Italian boot in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating southern Italian region.
Looking to visit Calabria and see the Strait of Messina for yourself? Check out the itinerary of my Calabria tour.
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