Dongho Choi, a Montgomery resident who taught himself to swim at age 41 by reading a book, recently attempted to swim around Manhattan Island while rasing money for the Library.
By Barbara A. Preston
Dongho Choi enters the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library in Rocky Hill with a huge smile to greet a few of his biggest fans. With his bookish eyeglasses and khaki pants, he could be an Asian-American version of the mild-mannered Clark Kent.
In regular life, Choi is a corporate IT guy. But look deeper, and you will see “The Man in the Arena,” the subject of a great speech by Theodore Roosevelt. In this story, the “arena” is the murky inner harbor around Manhattan. “The man” is Choi, who taught himself to swim 10 years ago by reading a book. Recently, he attempted to navigate the 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island while raising more than $2,500 for the Montgomery / Rocky Hill branch of the Somerset County Library System.
The challenge, known as The 20 Bridges Swim, is organized annually by New York Open Water (NYOW) — a nonprofit organization that conducts open swim and kayaking programs and events while advocating for better stewardship of New York’s natural water resources. It a part of the Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming, which includes the 21-mile English Channel and the 20.2-mile Catalina Channel events.
Choi, 51, and 11 other swimmers jumped off City Pier A in Battery Park into the Hudson River on Saturday, July 22. From there, they swam up the East River, on to and up the Harlem River, then left and down the Hudson River toward the Battery Park finish line.
His face marred by sun and sweat, Choi strove valiantly for 7.5 hours. Just after the George Washington Bridge, bridge number 20, he says he began to experience shortness of breath and could no longer easily make his strokes. He slowed down, assessing his body, analyzing his aches and pain. Swimmers have been known to lose from 10 to 20 pounds while completing a marathon swim. A couple triathletes had drowned in the inner harbor in years past, and their swims where much shorter distances. After completing 22-plus miles, at about 3 pm, Choi stopped.
“It was a decision I had to make,” Choi says, the smile leaving his face. “I made the decision on my own. I didn’t make it, but I had a fantastic swim and enjoyed every stroke. Most of all I’m grateful to my family, friends, and supporters. It is a wonderful feeling to be among people who care.”
Brenda Fallon, a Rocky Hill resident and president of the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library Foundation Trustees, had invited Choi to the library to thank him. “I followed you all day during the race,” Fallon told him, “and I am so proud of you. What an amazing endeavor! Thank you so much for making Mary Jacobs Library a part your personal effort in this event,” she said. “I can’t thank you enough for bringing this enthusiasm to our community. You have my sincere appreciation and respect.”
Choi wanted to use his swim to raise awareness for the library because he said he has many happy memories of the place. “When our children were little, we visited every week,” he said. “Now the library needs to renovate its space and modernize its services to better provide its outstanding educational resources and special programs to every member, from seniors to toddlers.”
Friends of the Library President Crissy Blanos of Montgomery said Choi has “spent himself in a worthy cause, and succeeded in his goal to raise support for our library. To us, he is a hero.”
As President Roosevelt said in his great speech: “There is no effort without error and shortcoming.” The person who really counts in the world is the doer who “at best knows the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Choi was born in 1965 in Jeonju, South Korea. He earned a degree in Electronics Engineering from Chonbuk National University then moved to New Jersey in 1994 to earn an Information Systems degree from New Jersey Institute of Technology, and a master’s in Technology Management from Stevens Institute of Technology. He is now a director of IT at L’Oreal in Clark. Choi and his wife Hyangsun (Michelle) settled in Montgomery, where they raised two children: Nicholas graduated from Montgomery High School (MHS) in 2014 (University of Illinois); and Kelsey is MHS Class of 2016 (Fashion Institute of Technology).
At age 41, Choi developed an interest in swimming. He had joined his local gym— Princeton Wellness and Fitness Center. “When I saw the pool, I decided to learn to swim,” he said. “I went to Barnes & Noble and got a book called Total Immersion (by Terry Laughlin) and read it like a bible. I would read a little, then practice, then read more, and practice again until I learned.
“I learned to swim by reading a book,” he said, as if it even surprises him.
Choi is now a swim instructor at the Princeton Fitness and Wellness Center on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at the Montgomery location and all day Saturday at the Plainsboro site. Through his swim friends, Choi began to develop an interest in marathon swimming.
Choi trained for 18 months at “pools here and there,” completing 1,000 miles in order to attempt the Manhattan Island swim, where he had the added challenge of surface currents, wind-chop, jellyfish, and heavy boat traffic. The olive-colored water, in which a swimmer cannot see the bottom, has also caused swimmers to “trip out.” The mental challenge is as grueling as the physical.
To keep positive thoughts in his mind, Choi prepped with watching Chariots of Fire — the 1981 historical British film about the 1924 Olympics. “I like to use one of (Champion runner) Eric Liddell’s quotes during my swim: ‘I believe God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.’ And when I swim I feel his pleasure as well,” Choi says. “l am a Christian. I also prepare to bring lots of memories and people that I can unpack when my swim gets harder. My family is always in my heart so they swim with me in spirit.”
Choi is unsure whether he will attempt the 20 Bridges Swim again. It may “look like a solitary sport, but it takes a team,” he says. Team Choi includes his daughter and two good friends. “I will have to consult with them, and especially with my wife,” he says with a smile. “She may not like it. At the end of the day, it’s just a swim.”
Published in the Montgomery News, September 2017