Swimmer focuses attention on Mississippi

Saturday, August 17, 2002

Cape Girardeau is inextricably linked with the Mississippi River. The river is the reason for the city's existence and the source of so much commerce and tourism.

But the idea of dipping so much as a toe into her polluted waters is inconceivable for some, never mind swimming all 2,340 miles of the river from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans.

So what an honor it was to have a man who's doing that, Martin Strel, in Cape Girardeau this week.

He will be the first person to swim the length of the river, only stopping to eat and sleep. A performance artist did it in segments between 1987 and 1997, but Strel is doing it between July 4 and Sept. 7.

Strel crossed parts of two continents and an ocean to come to this country and bring attention to pollution in the Mississippi. Of course, he's also here for the international notoriety and endorsements from several corporations.

He is from Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia bordered by Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary and several miles of Adriatic Sea shoreline. A professional marathon swimmer, he swam the Danube River in Europe two years ago.

His trip down the Mississippi has been more dangerous. On the northernmost part, he had to get through the locks and dams. In the last leg, the river is more swift and filled with debris. When Strel, 48, was near Cape Girardeau Tuesday, lightning struck a nearby buoy, literally knocking him out of the water.

And then there are the health issues: conjunctivitis in his eyes and a weird boil on his face. Not only does all the fecal matter from pastures and chemicals from farmland in several states run into the Mississippi, countless cities -- including Cape Girardeau -- dump their treated wastewater into the river.

So perhaps Strel welcomed the opportunity to get out of the water Tuesday for a reception at the Convention and Visitors Bureau. He climbed out at the floodwall around 3 p.m., walked over to the CVB office and presented the city with a crystal bowl from Slovenia.

The city -- represented by public information officer Tracey Glenn, assistant city manager Walter Denton and a CVB worker -- presented him with a certificate dubbing him an honorary captain in Girardot's Navy, an honorary group that recognizes distinguished visitors to the city. They also presented him and his crew, which includes his two grown children, with a few bottles of water and some canned sodas.

"They told me they would be stopping for lunch before they got here, and they didn't care what we did" at the reception, Glenn explained.

Strel's crew posted photos of the event on his Web site, www.martinstrel.com, including one of the certificate.

Perhaps when the chamber of commerce takes over operations of the CVB on Sept. 1, Cape Girardeau can upgrade its receptions for dignitaries who come to our fair city.

In the meantime, Strel is one of a kind. He deserves admiration and support for being an example of human ambition, strength and fortitude.

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