HAPpy People - Garrett Martin

May 16, 2017

By Christina Malango


Meet Garrett Martin – architect, teacher, swimmer, River Hugger, dreamer extraordinaire. In short, a pretty cool dude.

How did you encounter the River Huggers?  

One morning two summers ago I was riding my bike across the Hawthorne bridge into work, I looked down and saw a bunch of people in bathing suits and swim caps just getting out of the water. I’d known of a few people who had swum in the river but never knew there was an organized group! So I turned around, rode down there, and asked what was going on.


You swam as a kid and in college? And now as a master’s swimmer? When did you discover open water swimming and how did it change things for you?


I was a classic swim-team rat from age six all the way through college. It became the one thing I was actually pretty good at. When I was in junior high school in Sacramento, my swim team at the time would do these yearly swims across Folsom Lake, about four or five miles long. So that was the main introduction to open water. The main focus was still the pool though, and being obsessed with tenths of a second on the clock.


Then in college and grad school, I spent my summers working as an ocean lifeguard for L.A. County, mostly Venice and Santa Monica beaches. Swimming in the ocean became a daily habit, and—especially when the waves were up—made the pool seem so lifeless. I swam on and off after college, just to keep in shape but really didn’t get back into the open water thing until around 2006. My girlfriend (now wife) and I were backpacking through Europe and we stayed in San Sebastian Spain for about a week. I was really there to surf, but one day I found myself at the city’s flat-water beach, and just took off across the bay to this small island and back. It took me about two hours round trip, and was so indescribably…voluptuous…that I was hooked on open water.


You've done the Portland Bridge swim? That's a formidable undertaking. What was your motivation and how did you get through it?


At the time of the bridge swim I was swimming a lot—in the pool—and was in pretty much the best swimming shape I’d been in since I stopped competing in my 20’s (a LONG time ago!). I’d been getting into open water swimming, had just read about how an old high school teammate had participated in a world record length open water relay, and was feeling like I could hold a certain pace and just…go forever.


I’d never swum even half that distance non-stop, but I entered the Bridge swim thinking that if I ever got really tired, I could just roll on my back and let the current carry me downstream. WRONG! Little did I know at the time that the Willamette current is tidal, and can actually push you upstream. So I felt great for the first three or four miles, then my right shoulder started hurting, and the tide changed. Once you cross under the Fremont Bridge, you only have two bridges to go, but a good half the distance yet to swim. At that point I just wanted to be done with it, but was too stubborn to quit. So it was just one-stroke-after-another for the next 2 1/2 hours.


My wife and friend in the tandem support kayak were really great motivators, and kept me from going completely nuts. Somehow, the railroad bridge just a mile shy of the finish at the St. Johns bridge crossed overhead and I knew I’d make it. That was the longest last mile I’ve ever swum, though. I’d been leap-frogging a woman who I found out later had done many marathon swims. When we finished I told her how much my shoulder was hurting and she said, “what…you don’t know about liquid ibuprofen in your water bottle?” If only….


What do you think about when you swim?


I wish I could let my mind wander like some folks do, but I’m usually very focused and present in each stroke, kick, breath, everything.  That’s probably why I could never be a full-on marathon channel-swimmer. I’d just lose it mentally after awhile, with all that concentration.


You're an architect, right? What inspires you in architecture?


Yes, I’m currently working with Hacker Architects. As for inspiration, I believe that architecture—when done right—has the ability to do more than just provide shelter. It can soothe, inspire, comfort, and surprise. It can take an occupant’s needs or requirements for function, and celebrate those things, rather than just accommodate them. Especially in this ever-accelerating world of images and media, the physicality of architecture can become a refuge of calm, just through the skillful manipulation of light, air, and material. Kinda sounds like swimming, doesn’t it?


If you were to design a riverside swim center for the Willamette and the sky was the limit, what elements would you include?


As an architect and a swimmer I’ve been interested in this kind of project for a very long time. My master’s thesis envisioned a facility such as this for the Sacramento River, adjacent to its namesake city’s downtown, and I’ve sketched out some ideas for Portland for a few hypothetical design competitions years ago.


The biggest priority to me would be to completely blur the line between land (city) and water (river). This could be done with a simple staircase or a riverbank or a beach—just not a giant sea-wall like we have for most of our urban riverfront. I did this design idea once where the riverbank would slope or terrace gradually enough up from the river’s edge to allow someone to walk straight into the river with ease, whatever the water level. The slope would continue up away from the water, a park-like hillside, that would then seamlessly become the roof of the first line of buildings along the riverfront. So you could walk out of the water, climb the hill and find yourself on the roof of a cafe, or an apartment, or…whatever.


It’s looking like a lot of Portland landowners and developers are finally putting their minds toward bringing public spaces and buildings to the river. That’s very encouraging, but so far they’ve taken the shape of conventional boxy buildings that have more to do with Portland’s industrial past than the future.


I think that for something like this we can invest in a completely new kind of building-landscape hybrid, that a renewed city-river symbiosis deserves. An architecture firm called Snohetta did something very similar to this a few years ago in the design for the Oslo Opera House, so this kind of thing is not as far-fetched as one might think. 


Do you have a dream swim you'd love to do?


Tons! Since I joined this Facebook group called ‘Did you Swim Today?’ I’ve seen posts from swimmers around the world, swimming in some amazing places. There is a group in Sydney, Australia called ‘bold and beautiful’ who do these weekly ocean swims that seem so enchanting.


There is this guy who swims near Auckland, New Zealand whose photos always include this mesmerizing island in the background that doesn’t seem real. His descriptions of the water and weather are also poetically alluring.


There is a woman who swims in Hawaii at least three times a week whose photos are like the best oceanography documentaries you’ve ever seen. Such clear water, beautiful coral, colorful fish. They often swim with dolphins or sharks, hear the whales squeaking in the background. Imagine this is your daily routine. Lastly, there are some specialty swim tours in Croatia and the Bahamas that look pretty fun.

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