Ocean City Man Vies for World Ocean Swimming's 'Man of Year'
From Ocean City to American Samoa, Bruckner Chase is preaching the gospel of ocean awareness.
As a 9-year-old boy, Bruckner Chase came close to drowning.
“Someone pulled a kickboard out from under me and I went straight to the bottom of the pool,” the Bay Avenue resident recalls.
Chase was rescued and now, at 45, he is one of 12 nominees for World Ocean Water Swimming Association's Man of the Year — for his work in 2011 as an ambassador for ocean awareness. You can vote for Chase before Dec. 31 at openwaterswimming.com.
Over an energy drink and bagel at Yianni's Cafe in the Ocean City Community Cultural Center, Chase, a former marketing executive, spent an hour discussing the route that took him from near-drowned boy, scared of the water, to a man trying to make swimming a career and avocation.
Chances are, if you've so much as dipped a toe in Ocean City's swimming culture — ocean, bay, pool or otherwise — you've come across Chase. With a movie-star-sounding name, magnetic personality and large wave tattoo on his right bicep, he's hard to miss.
Chase has more swimming-related ventures — from training local lifeguards and organizing swimming clubs here to boosting swimming safety in American Samoa (yes, Samoa) and developing open-water swimming programs for intellectually disabled people for the Special Olympics International — than seems humanly possible.
In the decades after he was saved from drowning, Chase, who grew up in Memphis, TN, was drawn to endurance sports — Ironman trialthlons, etc. Swimming was always his weakest leg, but, eventually, it became something else, too: A way for his body to bounce back from grueling miles on his feet.
“When I was recovering from a 100-mile run in Vermont, I got back in the water,” Chase said. After he moved to California in 2000 and began training in Monterey Bay, Chase noticed his body responds well in relatively cold water that might hinder others.
Out of sheer will — and in hours of training — Chase's fear of swimming turned to a drive to conquer.
“It used to be, 'It's cold, dark, there's kelp and wildlife, and I'm terrified. How close can I stay to the beach and still consider it swimming?' ” Chase said. “The experience changed from a little fearful to respectful to comfortable in the water.”
With the support of his wife, Michelle, in August 2010, Chase became only the second person to swim 25 jellyfish-thick miles across Monterey Bay. The 14-hour crossing was especially noteworthy because jellyfish had forced Chase to abort an attempt in 2009.
Chase's success drew widespread media attention and also notice by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation — the organization partnered with Chase to conduct a swimming missionary trip to American Samoa, the southernmost U.S. territory, last spring.
Three days after the Monterey Bay swim, Chase said, “I looked at my wife and said, 'I don't think our life will ever be the same.' ”
By January, Chase had decided to walk – actually swim – away from his corporate career and follow his dream of passing on his passion for swimming and oceans to as many people as he could reach.
“My mission statement is to positively impact how we feel, think and act towards our oceans,” he said.
Chase said he and Michelle fell in love with American Samoa in the South Pacific when they went there in May. Bruckner Chase swam a nine-mile swim to raise awareness for National Marine Sanctuary causes and to promote water safety in the tropical culture, where few native people know how to swim.
“No one had ever done it before,” Chase said. “They were afraid I was going to die. There is a lot of concern about sharks.”
The governor honored him as a hero and bestowed upon him the title of ceremonial island chief with the name Uila O Le Sami — which Chase said means “electricity in the ocean.”
In addition to being nominated for WOWSA's Man of the Year, Chase recently learned the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation awarded a $10,000 grant to his non-profit organization, Bruckner Chase Ocean Positive, to help support his new baby: 2 Samoas/1 Ocean.
Under 2 Samoas/1 Ocean, Chase next year will conduct ocean swimming clinics and give presentations to youth, businesses and community groups in Independent and American Samoas to inspire others to discover their personal connection to the ocean.
Practically, Chase hopes to boost water safety in American Samoa, a chain of islands, perhaps even by forming a lifeguard agency where one does not exist now.
“When I've visited there, I have been so struck by the the culture, community and history,” Chase said. “There's this incredible respect for family, village, church and the environment they're in.”
The island chain's inhabitants also face challenges — 32 percent of the population is under 18 and 50 percent lives below the poverty level, Chase said. Classrooms have a typical ratio of 30 students to one teacher.
Chase also plans two more long-distance solo ocean swims in the Samoas over a three-day period to connect various islands in the region. His project will be filmed for a documentary to be launched at the BLUE International Film Festival and Conservation Summit.
All this is pretty remarkable for a near-drowning victim who just over a year ago was a corporate marketing executive. These days, swimming and promoting his causes is a full-time job.
“That's a long way for a guy from Memphis, TN,” Chase marveled. “My college admissions counselor never told me about this.”
Most mornings this time of year, you can find Chase in the jellyfish-free, temperature-controlled pool at the Ocean City Aquatics and Fitness Center. He swims an hour to an hour and a half each day from September to January, often with a regular group of other swimmers. During the peak season, he swims 50 miles a week, mostly in the ocean.
Despite his international aspirations, Chase vows to maintain strong ties to Ocean City. He and Michelle, who grew up outside of Philadelphia and vacationed here all her life, moved back from California to be closer to her siblings, nieces and nephews.
The couple founded the Ocean City Swim Club, organized open-water swimming for adults, which starts in May in Longport and has drawn up to 40 participants on Sundays in-season.
“We're expecting to offer more coached and guarded opportunities,” Chase said.
Conquering fear, building familiarity and appreciation — that's what it's all about.
“I feel this is as important as what we do in American Samoa,” he said. “My community is in Ocean City. I feel drawn to do this.”