Alex Kostich started swimming at a very young age and now at age 50 he still swims often and with passion, but he finds inspiration and adventures in many places and not just in the water. He won the Waikiki Roughwater Swim 3 times and captured 3 gold medals at 2 different Pan American Games and his resume is very colorful. But it is not just about winning and setting records for Kostich, and he talked with us about what drives him and what is still to come.
Slowtwitch: Alex, thank you so much for your time.
Alex Kostich: Thank you for having me!
ST: Recently you returned from Tahiti, but I believe that was a vacation.
Alex: Yes, I was fortunate enough to spend nearly 3 weeks diving and exploring the atolls of Tahiti in August…though my idea of a ‘vacation’ may not be what others have in mind when they go away. While I enjoy relaxing and taking some much-needed time off from consistent training, I also get very restless just sitting under a beach umbrella with a drink in my hand. I always have to be doing something or finding interesting challenges to enjoy.
ST: How did that all work with COVID19?
Alex: Tahiti is one of the few places we as Americans can go right now; but you have to take a COVID test within 3 days of boarding your flight, and you also have to have a follow-up negative test result 4 days after arriving. You just self-administer the test and return it to the front desk where you’re staying and they in turn take it to a lab. If you’re negative, you continue with your vacation uninterrupted. And if you’re positive for any reason, you are quarantined at your own expense for the 2-week period. This is why they also insist that you purchase trip insurance that covers pandemic-related situations including quarantine and repatriation of remains if necessary. It also goes without saying that you’re required to wear a mask on the flight and obey the states rules at your accommodations, etc.
ST: How were the rules in Tahiti compared to California?
Alex: It’s interesting, because the rules in Tahiti seemed very stringent and aligned with what we’ve been hearing and seeing in most of California. Wear masks in public settings, practice social distancing, hand sanitizer everywhere, plastic partitions and contactless registration at hotels. However I found the tourists who were mostly coming from France to be a lot more casual in their approach to social distancing and masking etc. I think this is mostly attributable to the hoops we had to jump through just to enter French Polynesia. Negative testing within 3 days of departure and negative test results 3 days after landing. By the time we were free and clear in Tahiti, I think most people felt like we were safe within the bubble of Covid-free tourists and locals.
ST: As an accomplished open water swimmer you have seen and won many unique events including the famed Wakiki Roughwater one. How did that all get started? Were you a swimmer early on?
Alex: I was a member of the US National team for 6 years and had a rewarding collegiate career at Stanford. When I graduated in 1992, I wasn’t ready to give up a sport which brought me so much joy in life-and I briefly took up triathlons for a while before ultimately settling on long distance open water swimming.
ST: What other sports did you do as a kid?
Alex: Nothing! I had no time or talent, but let’s not talk about that, to pursue anything else as I was training 2 hours every morning and 3 hours in the afternoons after school. To this day, I can’t throw or catch a ball, or do anything that requires balance or coordination. It’s why I stick to swimming, but we don’t need to dwell on that!
ST: So how early did you start swimming and was that encouraged by the parents?
Alex: My parents were both avid swimmers in their native Yugoslavia, and in fact defected to come to this country in 1965 as a result of some opportunities that swimming provided to them. My dad threw me into the pool before I could walk, and the sport has been a cornerstone of my life ever since. I’m not sure what my life would be like without swimming!
ST: Is the Waikiki Roughwater Swim the race you have done most often?
Alex: Yes, I did that race for the first time in 1993 and I have not missed a year since. Well, this year due to COVID the race was cancelled, so sadly it’s the first Labor Day weekend I’m not in Hawaii since the early 90’s!
ST: What was the longest swim you have done to date?
Alex: I’ve swum around Bora Bora, which was about 15.5 miles. I loved finishing that swim, because I still remember how tasty the bag of Pepperidge Farm oversized chocolate chip cookies tasted. I ate the entire bag.
ST: How long did that take? Both the swim and the bag of cookies?
Alex: The swim took around 3 hours and 45 minutes; and I think the bag of cookies lasted less than 3 minutes and 45 seconds. When you finish an endurance event like that, you’re desperate to just intake calories and I distinctly remember sitting on the beach in the sand having crawled up on shore and devouring the bag like Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. Bits of crumbs were flying everywhere, and I just stuffed one after another into my mouth until they were all gone!
ST: What event or accomplishment are you most proud of?
Alex: This is a difficult question, as I have been lucky to have so many incredible experiences and swims throughout the years that are all so different and mean so much-and yet I try and be humble in my daily life so addressing moments that I’m ‘proud’ of seem contrary to my nature. But I would say that I treasure the 3 gold medals I won at 2 different Pan American Games representing my country (1987, 1991), but also the recent Guinness World Record I achieved last year becoming the first person to swim around Pitcairn Island. Growing up I was fascinated by the Guinness Book of World Records and to think that I have a tiny spot in there now makes me very proud-while remaining humble, I guess. I should also add that my history with the Waikiki Roughwater Swim is something I feel is an evolving accomplishment, decades in the making so far. While I have won the race 3 times, I have participated for 27 years and have so many great memories and friendships forged over the course of that event’s history.
ST: Can you talk about weekly training now and how different it is from when you raced more?
Alex: For the most part, I’ve been training consistently my entire life because I know if I allow myself to get grossly out of shape, it may never come back the way I want it to! So even after shoulder surgery I found ways to exercise in the 3 months I was recovering and I’ll generally allow at least 2 hours a day for swimming, a run/swim combo, or all of the above and some dryland weight training. But 2 hours is my minimum although the intensity will vary based on my mood, how late I was up the night before, and how much pressure I’m facing at work! Often times, when I least want to get out of bed at 5:30am and train, it’s when I have the best and most unexpected workouts. I rarely take a ‘rest day’ where I do nothing-unless I’m on vacation or traveling. My rest day is more of an active rest day where I might be swimming 2 hours but generally just keep my heartrate pretty low or going for an easy 8-mile jog followed by some sit-ups and push-ups. It’s always a good feeling to exercise even if you’re not exerting yourself or driving towards some particular goal.
Compared to my years as a professional athlete, or more full-time athlete, I probably train just a little bit less-but with far less intensity. I can’t maintain the type of aggressive training schedule I did as a teenager or 20-something-my body just wouldn’t recover. At 50, I really rely on listening to my body and backing off when I feel an injury coming on. After rotator cuff surgery last year (my first one), I realized that getting out of shape is more a state of mind. With 3 months of idle time and limited use of my arm, it was the longest period of time that I haven’t consistently swum 40-60,000m a week but I would do PT, I would go running, I would spin on a stationary bike and when I got back in the pool 3 months later it only took me about 2-3 weeks to get back to the intervals and pace I would keep before my surgery.
ST: Tell us about your swim PRs.
Alex: Well, when I swam competitively for the US National Team my best time in the 1500m freestyle was 15:17. I did that as an 18-year-old. 32 years later I'd probably be capable of maybe 17:15 or so. I would think-although there is a very good reason why I've stepped away from pool swimming and focused entirely on open water and long distance. I don't want the heartache of comparing myself to my lost youth!
One of the things I've greatly enjoyed about my open water swimming career is that it's impossible to compare myself to my previous times or younger abilities because the conditions change for each race-even if it's the same swim course year after year (my times are never comparable due to the changing conditions).
The Waikiki Swim in Hawaii is a perfect example of this. Due to currents, there are years I do the 2.4 mile swim in 46 minutes and there has been a year where it's taken me just over an hour. I've also been able to remain competitive with swimmers half my age because experience does count for something in ocean swimming. The ability to navigate direction in big swells comes with years of doing it, as does recognizing currents and adapting to different temperatures and conditions. I may no longer possess the speed I did in my prime, but I've often been just as competitive relying on my knowledge. These days, that unexpected set of waves coming up from behind me is actually an advantage rather than a near-drowning experience!
ST: I know you have done the Nautica Malibu Tri as part of a relay, but what about other triathlons?
Alex: As I mentioned, I briefly did triathlons in my 20’s when I was living up in the Bay Area after graduating from Stanford. I did the Vineman half-ironman and a bunch of Olympic distances. When I moved to LA, it became harder and more dangerous to cycle, so I abandoned the bike in favor of marathons both swimming and running. Lately, due to the pandemic, the roads have been empty for a while so I venture out on a mountain bike several times a week for a 20-mile spin along Mulholland Drive. It’s lovely, and I really enjoy the change of scenery and it beats staring at a black line at the bottom of the pool! I am hoping to eventually spend lots of time in Kona - retirement or otherwise if we continue working from home indefinitely! At which point we’ll see if I still have it in me to pursue perhaps a one-time full IM finish. I think I’m capable, and I’d love to do it in my older age - just to say I did!
ST: These days do you still enter races or are you mostly seeking out adventures?
Alex: I always enter a series of races every year, because having these events motivates me on those early mornings I’d rather stay in bed. I like the structure that training for an event provides, so I will usually try and find a swim race in May and definitely the core ones I do every year in late summer. Waikiki Roughwater Swim, St. Croix 5-mile swim etc, but every now and then I think of something crazy or unusual that might be fun to do and I get obsessed with it until I do it. Last summer I really wanted to swim around Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay and it’s a cold-water swim. I wasn’t sure I’d complete it without getting hypothermic but that was part of the appeal. The knowing that I might not succeed, and I would really have to push my comfort-zone limits. so I trained in Long Beach in the ocean when it was colder to acclimate, and I ended up doing the swim happily on an unseasonably warm day for San Francisco. I believe the water was about 65 and it took about 2 hours.
ST: What was the scariest experience you had during one of your swims?
Alex: The scariest experience I ever had was in my first ocean race ever, here in Oceanside California. I had just moved to LA and was teaching swimming at a local health club and some of my swimmers invited me to come watch them compete. They urged me to enter the swim and I did, thinking I would win the nice trophies they had displayed on shore. It was only a mile-long event, but I wasn’t used to the crashing surf. At the very end of the race, I was in a comfortable lead and a set of waves crashed over me. I didn’t know what hit me; the power of the ocean was really formidable, and I was unprepared. I lost of bearings, swallowed a bunch of sand and seawater, and every time I came up for air another wave would crash on me and pull me under again, tossing me like a ragdoll. I ended up 2nd that day, but I was grateful to emerge from the ocean without drowning. It was a humbling experience…but I didn’t lose a race for years after that experience.
ST: Are you better now with crashing surf?
Alex: Yes, I believe I am a little more confident in big surf and I never swim into shore without looking over my shoulder for an incoming set behind me. Being humble in the ocean is also just good for survival skills. The power of the sea is formidable and unforgiving, and it’s best to always remember that! I wouldn’t say I’m ever scared in the ocean, but I am forever aware of its strength and unpredictability, and I think that has served me well in avoiding some potentially precarious situations.
ST: What about scary encounters on land?
Alex: Right before the pandemic, I took a trip to Botswana to photograph some wildlife on safari. I had been to Africa before, so I was relatively comfortable around wild animals in close proximity. But we encountered a herd of protective and ornery elephants. The matriarch of which had just given birth to a baby. Our guides got very close and the herd began flapping their ears, which is a sign of discontent. Suddenly, one of the largest elephants charged our vehicle and the others followed. We gunned the engine and sped off through the tall grass, but the thundering weight of those creatures behind us and the trumpet-like calls they made with their trunks were really an adrenaline rush! I think I would be much more willing to encounter a shark in the ocean than an elephant on land – even if I was in a car!
ST: I know you travel a bunch for your job and thus get to see unique places. Can you explain what you do?
Alex: I actually don’t travel very much for work at all these days COVID or not. I’m a senior vice president of marketing for a film production company here in Los Angeles, Participant Media. We’ve made several Oscar winners the last few years - Green Book, Roma, American Factory as well as films people might remember as being particularly influential or enjoyable such as Inconvenient Truth, The Help, and of course Contagion. I create the materials used to sell these films to potential distributors, or in some cases I’ll work to create the trailers, posters, tv spots, etc. for these films when they get released.
ST: That also means you get to go to fancy parties and events?
Alex: Haha, well yes. The fancy parties and events are a by-product of working in the entertainment industry for sure. But I think a big misconception is that we lead these glamourous black-tie lives where we’re shuttling around town to various events in limousines, rubbing elbows with famous celebrities. The reality is that most days are spent toiling away in an office and having meetings - pre-Covid19 of course. Because this year we’re all working from home and hosting Zoom meetings for hours on end. It is highly competitive and stressful, but I would think that’s a reality in many corporate jobs. For me, the silver lining is being able to do what I love, since movies have always been a passion of mine and as demanding as the job can be at times, I am always grateful to be doing something I enjoy. I tend to look at the parties whether it’s the Oscars, or other awards-type events as the culmination of all the hard work throughout the year. So you work hard, and one or two nights a year you get to play hard!
That said-with the pandemic changing the face of social events for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t look like we will be going anywhere anytime soon-and that’s fine too. I have enjoyed the Oscars in years past from the couch in my home with an extra-large pizza delivered!
ST: Do you always get a swim in when on work trips?
Alex: It isn’t easy to find available pools or lap times the way I travel, but I always pack my suit and goggles and at the very least I’ll do a jog in the city where I’m staying or as a last resort, find the hotel gym treadmill or stationary bike.
ST: Is there a cold temp limit where you say it is better to stay dry?
Alex: Ha! I don’t enjoy cold water at all, but due to the pandemic we swimmers have all been forced to do some creative training in the ocean with our pools closed. I generally will not bother getting in the water if it’s below 60 and my threshold for an hour-long swim will be 65. Then again, I have a great Roka wetsuit which I love and if the pool closures continue indefinitely and winter sets in, I am not opposed to keeping it in the trunk of my car for spontaneous ocean swims in December!
ST: What events or adventures are still on your bucket list or have you actually managed to pretty much see what you wanted to see and experience?
Alex: There is so much to see and do, and so little time relatively speaking, in terms of our life span to do it all, but I try and live each day by doing one little thing or big thing that makes me feel the day was an accomplishment. I can’t always swim a race, or go on safari, but maybe baking the perfect loaf of bread, or capturing a photograph of a hummingbird outside my office. Something out of the ordinary, or inspiring, or exciting each day-it makes life worth living for me. So I really don’t have any regrets, like I should have done this 2 years ago! Because I probably just would have done it!
I guess my bucket list right now would consist of visiting Yemen, specifically the island of Socotra, when there is a safe way to do so. It is supposed to be beautiful, and the waters surrounding it are some of the most pristine aquamarine shades I’ve ever seen.
As I mentioned above, I would also love to attempt an Ironman in Kona some day. Perhaps in retirement when I can really dedicate myself to training full time. I know I can do the swim and I know I can run a marathon, but I need to get back on my road bike and get used to the Hawaiian humidity. But that is definitely something I would like to add to my resume before I depart this earth!
ST: You might have to do another IM to qualify for Kona.
Alex: Ah yes, of course. Thank you for keeping me honest. In that case, I might just pick an easy course and qualify and then call it a day. I’ll fly to Kona and watch from the side of the road. It’s too humid for me out there anyway!
ST: Ha ha easy course.
Alex: Isn't it? I thought Arizona was where people go to qualify for IM because the run is flat and the wind favorable - no? Is this fake news? Ok, I'd love to hear from readers where I should set my sights for an IM qualifier and let them know my idea is to do this sometime in my 60s, so not too soon at all!
ST: Is there is anything else to talk about, or add?
Alex: The idea of something new and challenging that I haven't done or seen before really excites me. I don't really have a theme in my life and anyone who might see my social media may wonder why there are posts mixed together about swim races, DIY marathons, exotic animals, cooking or baking results, or maybe just a pretty landscape. All of it, really, is what inspires me. And I think during this pandemic, we've all had to get really creative in how to stay motivated, engaged, and inspired while the world around us grows more uncertain. I feel very grateful to have the ability, health, and privilege to do the things I do. Even when mostly confined to my home these last 8 months. I think it's important to make the most of each day-but also to be thankful for the ability to do so and not take for granted some of life's simpler pleasures between the more exotic ones.
Image 3 © Mike Lewis / olavistaphotography.com