August 12, 2013

Amputee swims to Valcour Island


PLATTSBURGH — Tim Ayres left his lakeside Plattsburgh home one day last week and entered the waters of Lake Champlain.

His backstroke had soon carried him far from shore. But there was still a long way to go.

He was swimming to Valcour Island, about a mile away.

What makes it more remarkable is that Ayres is 68 years old and several years ago lost his left leg below the knee.

He swims with the strength of his arms alone.

“I used to be able to swim every way, but with one leg, I lose balance when I try other strokes,” he said.

So, Ayres stays with the elementary backstroke.


In 2006, Ayres suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm that required emergency surgery. Complications led to the removal of his lower left leg.

“You immediately go to therapy, and a doctor recommended I go to see a guy named Jay Rigsbee.”

Rigsbee had been in the Navy, where he was injured and received therapy. Then, he decided to become a therapist himself.

When Ayres met him, Rigsbee was working at CVPH Wellness Center at PARC, an institution for which Ayres has nothing but praise.

“At CVPH, I’ve always been treated the best. And I am an advocate for (the Wellness Center). The therapists, the people at the desk, the patients — everybody seems to be in a good mood there.”

Without the help he received there, Ayres said, his swim to Valcour Island would never have happened.


At the Wellness Center, Rigsbee provided the physical therapy that Ayres needed following his surgery and also addressed back problems that the man has suffered from since a skiing accident as a teenager.

About three months into the therapy, Rigsbee introduced swimming.

“He said, ‘Get your oldest leg, put it on, and meet me at the pool.’”

While Ayres had been an ardent swimmer before the surgery, at that point, he was worried.

“I thought I’d sink,” he recalled. “But the artificial leg floats — not well, but it floats.”

So Rigsbee started Ayres on some simple exercises with a pool flotation noodle.

Then, Ayres himself started to get more ambitious.

“One day I said, ‘I think I can swim to the end of the pool.’”

He could. The next day, he tried two laps. Soon, he was up to five.

And while the artificial leg did have some flotation, he could also simply swim without it — as he does when he takes a dip in Lake Champlain.


Now, Ayres typically swims 16 laps in the pool — half a mile — almost every day.

“Of course, I do miss days — New Year’s, for example, when the pool is closed and it’s a little cold to swim in the lake.”

Eventually, Ayres came up with the idea of swimming from his house to Valcour Island during the summer. However, the distance is greater — perhaps a mile. Furthermore, even half a mile in the lake is different from half a mile in the pool. He would have waves and weather to contend with.

As a test, he swam along the shore for several hundred yards to a neighbor’s dock.

“I was frozen when I got out,” he said.

However, he decided to continue with his plan anyway.

A neighbor, Chuck Converse, and his family would accompany him in their boat. The Converses are all strong swimmers. So, if Ayres ran into problems, they would be able to help him and get him into the boat.


Last Wednesday, Ayres set out. The waters of the lake were cobalt blue that day — a deep color that reminded him of autumn.

The lake was relatively flat, but as he got farther out, he found there were still waves. And as conditions became windier, the waves increased in size and force.

Ayres was about 400 yards out on Lake Champlain when a southeast wind came up. At that point, he thought about hailing the boat and climbing aboard.

“I decided to give it another 20 minutes — and it got worse.”

Because his motion is the backstroke, Ayres could not see waves coming at him, and he swallowed mouthful after mouthful of water.

“I think I drank most of Lake Champlain that day.”

However, even though the conditions were worsening, Ayres decided to press on.

Another challenge was vertigo. 

“When you swim on your back, dizziness is a serious problem.”

To combat the feeling, he would focus on a single house along the shore or on the white motorboat that his friends were driving. He tried not to look at the sky or the water.

And since he swims backstroke, he could not see where he was going — but that was also something of an advantage, since he could not see how far away his goal still was.

“People would look at the distance and say, ‘Are you crazy?’ But I am crazy!” Ayres said with a laugh.


As Ayers continued, Converse called out to him that Valcour Island was only 800 yards away.

“Only 800 yards?” thought the swimmer. It was still a long way to go.

“I think it’s 600 yards,” Converse corrected.

Ayres thought, “I’m going to do this. I’ve put this much time into it.”

The cold, at least, was not nearly the problem it was during his test swim; Ayres felt his excitement was such that he did not notice the temperature of the water.


Despite the wind, the waves and the vertigo, he pressed on — and reached his goal.

In the shallows at the shore of Valcour Island, he said, “I stood up on one leg and went, ‘Yay!’”

Then, his friends helped him into the boat, and he lay down on a seat, exhausted but thrilled that he had reached his goal.

As to why he had been so determined to swim to the island, he said: “I just thought, I live here, and Valcour Island is right there. Let me try it.”

His thinking was reminiscent of the famous mountain climber’s adage, “You climb the mountain because it’s there.”

“I don’t know why people climb mountains, but I understand better now,” he said.