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Romano: Record-breaking swim just adds to the adventure for this retired judge

Robert Beach in the water during his second leg of the relay.
Robert Beach in the water during his second leg of the relay.
Published Aug. 29, 2015

The concessions of age are many. For the judge, it meant trading one indulgence (liquor) for another (ice cream). It meant his new idea of late-night fun was standing on the balcony of his high rise condominium in downtown St. Petersburg, and watching revelers walk in and out of bars on Beach Drive below.

Still, the intrusion of years could not fully dull the urge to achieve. To conquer. To take on a challenge for no other reason than to prove it could be done.

This is what drove Judge Robert Beach to the Catalina Channel near San Diego on Aug. 20. This was the conquest he could not resist.

To join a team of six octogenarians to swim a 22-mile relay across the channel and eclipse the age record set by a group of 70-year-olds a few years earlier.

"Kids,'' Beach said in mock horror. "These kids bragging about swimming their relay. We figured, "We'll go kick their asses.' ''

Beach, a month removed from his 85th birthday, pauses an appropriate beat.

"And there are probably some 90-year-olds out there who were thinking the same thing, and just waiting for us to finish.''

• • •

Retirement was never a destination for Beach, it was more like a pit stop. An excuse to clear his calendar so he could get around to some unfinished business.

Like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Or increasing the stamps in his passport to more than 100 countries across all seven continents. It was driving around campsites in the western U.S., while swimming in lakes and rivers and sleeping in his vintage Porsche.

Technically, he stepped down from the bench in 1993 after 25 years as a circuit judge, but Beach still puts on his robes five to 10 days a month as a senior judge filling in wherever needed. Mostly, he gets up daily at 5 a.m. to put in a 4,000-meter workout in the pool.

Swimming is his passion. His touchstone. In some ways, his salvation.

He swam as a freshman in high school in Santa Monica, Calif., in the 1940s, but gave it up after running into some disciplinary problems.

He didn't return to the sport until he had hitchhiked to Florida, put himself through the University of Tampa and Stetson University College of Law while working as a bartender, and was appointed to the Pinellas-Pasco circuit by Gov. Claude Kirk in 1968.

By then, he was in his late 30s, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and unable to go up a flight of stairs without losing his breath.

It was swimming that got him back in shape, and the pool became his personal haven.

"It's prolonged my life, I'm sure of that,'' Beach said. "Because of swimming, I didn't just grow old and deteriorate while watching TV.

"It's gotten me through some personal problems in my life, like my divorce. I've made some of my best law decisions right there in the pool. I've got all this time by myself, nobody is interrupting me and I'll be thinking about some case and decide, 'That's what I'm going to do.' It's a great influence, emotionally and physically.''

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• • •

Six men in swim suits. The youngest, a retired gynecologist, was 80. Beach was the oldest at 85. Some knew each other well; most had never met before agreeing to join the relay. They came from California, Arizona, Oregon, Texas and, in Beach's case, Florida.

Each was recruited for their reputation, and each had to prove himself worthy of a spot on the team.

"I had some trepidation,'' Beach said. "My biggest fear is I might get cramps or, for some other reason, I might not make it. Because it's not just me that loses out, it's the whole team that loses out.''

The rules, as spelled out by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, was that each man had to pull his own weight. No one could pick up another's slack.

In this case, that meant each swimmer went into the water for one-hour shifts. They would be guided by a kayak on one side and a paddleboard on the other, with a charter boat trailing behind.

The strongest swimmers would go first; the weakest would be last. Beach was No. 3. With the trek beginning at 11 p.m., that meant his first shift came at 1 a.m.

By the time he got through, estimating that he went two miles, Beach knew the record was in their grasp. He rested in a bunk on the boat, and was back in the water for his second shift at 7 a.m.

Hours later, the coast was within reach and the other five swimmers got in the water to trail their leader to landfall where a celebration awaited.

They put on printed T-shirts recognizing their accomplishment:

The Old Men and the Sea.

• • •

Beach, who has won world masters swimming championships, swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco and narrowly missed crossing the English Channel, called this his swan song.

And then he chuckled. There's no chance he's quitting anytime soon.

In fact, he already has his next idea in mind. He wants a dog. An Akita, to be exact. He hasn't had a dog in more than 40 years, and figures he could use the company. Also, the protection. Sleeping alone in a Porsche on the side of the road probably isn't the safest idea for an 85-year-old, semi-retired judge anyway.

"You know,'' he said, "it's a crazy world out there.''

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