Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2008 | People

Taking the Plunge: John Heineman

By Ashley Haugo
John Heineman

With each labored stroke forward, the cold sea countered with an equal force backward. The swimmer stroked; the sea swelled. After a 12-hour, 40-minute battle against thrashing waves, stinging jellyfish, and hypothermia, John Heineman collapsed on the warm sand of the French coast. Heineman, 07BA, of Grinnell, had just completed one of the world's most difficult endurance feats — swimming the English Channel. He didn't do it for fame (even though only about one-fifth of the 6,000 swimmers who've ever attempted to navigate the channel have actually succeeded). He did it for fortune. Well, sort of.

While studying biology and political science at the UI, Heineman had worked at Iowa City's Free Medical Clinic, where he saw firsthand the importance of affordable, accessible health care. To help advance the clinic's mission, Heineman stroked his way across the English Channel from Shakespeare Beach, England, to Cape Gris Nez, France, to raise $19,228. That's almost $1,000 for each of the 21 nautical miles — and enough to cover about 75 percent of the clinic's medication bills for a year. Branded the Mount Everest of swimming, the Channel crossing is not for the faint-hearted. To survive in the 60-degree water, swimmers have to apply a thick layer of grease to preserve their body heat. They also have to navigate through some of the world's busiest shipping lanes, dodging tankers, ferries, and yachts. No wonder the event's organizers strongly recommend that participants take out life insurance.

As he gasped and shivered on the French beach for a few minutes before heading back (by boat) to England, Heineman offered up a small prayer to his guardian angels. Later, he would post on his blog ( this understated comment about his grueling struggle: "It was a good day's work."