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TWS: 76-year-old Victorian aims to break safari record

By Julie Garcia
June 12, 2014 at 1:12 a.m.

Team captain James Coleman, left, watches as Roger Zimmerman, center, and John Valdivia try out their sleeping slings on their Texas Water Safari boat on Wednesday evening in Victoria. Zimmerman hopes that the four-man paddling team will help him break the record for the oldest person to ever finish the safari. He is 76-years-old.

Victoria native Roger Zimmerman has been an adventure seeker all his life.

In 1963, Zimmerman was a part of the inaugural Texas Water Safari roster with a 10-foot kayak and zero training.

"It sounded like an adventure," Zimmerman, who was 25 that first time, said.

He came within 3 miles of the finish line in Corpus Christi before being disqualified.

"Back then, it was a 10-day race to Corpus. On the ninth day, there was a big storm off Rockport with major waves," Zimmerman remembered. "Only 15 boats out of 56 were left, and all but four of them sunk in the bay and were saved by the Coast Guard. Only two teams finished that first race."

Since then, Zimmerman, now 76, has completed the 262-mile course (which now ends in Seadrift) four times, including two solo trips.

He won the novice class on his third safari but is looking to make a bigger mark in safari history.

On Saturday, Zimmerman will embark on the adventure for a 15th time. It's his second attempt at breaking the record for oldest Texas Water Safari finisher.

At 72, Zoltan Mraz is the current record holder as he finished the race as a solo competitor in 2011. It took the Sugar Land resident nearly 94 hours to finish.

Zimmerman attempted to break the record last year but was unsuccessful.

This year, he will be competing on a four-man team with three other Victorians: Kennith Startz, Santiago Marroquin and John Valdivia. The team captains are James Coleman and Tim O'Neill.

All of the men are Water Safari veterans, with Zimmerman and Startz having the most experience on the river. Startz has finished eight times out of 11 attempts.

This is Zimmerman's first attempt with more than a two-man team, he said.

The key to keep paddling is all about diet, Zimmerman said.

"If you fuel your muscles and your body right, it's a fine balance using more calories than you're taking in - you have to know how your body reacts to food," Zimmerman said.

For years, safari participants had to carry everything they would need on their boat and were not allowed to accept anything from bystanders or team captains.

With the rule changes applied last year, team captains can give racers food and water at various checkpoints.

Less food on the boat means it weighs less, but Zimmerman still has a "must-have" list, which includes personal medications, back support, a cooling bandanna, bug spray and gloves.

All together, his gear weighs 8 pounds.

While trying to make his own mark, Startz is excited to help Zimmerman break the record.

Two years ago, it was Startz who suggested the idea to Zimmerman.

"I want it to be a challenge," Startz said. "I thought it would be great for him to get in the record book. He's got stamina and will, and I don't think he'll have any problems finishing."

With a 100-hour cutoff time, the Victoria group is aiming to finish within 72 hours and hit Seadrift in time for the awards ceremony Tuesday

At the pace of 51/2 miles per hour, the team plans to paddle straight through at 50 to 60 strokes a minute.

"We'll get there quicker with more guys," Zimmerman said. "It's amazing how (you keep) a slow, steady pace and then you pass a boat of really fast guys - it's classic tortoise and the hare."

Valdivia, who is attempting his third safari, said there is no good answer for when people ask why you keep doing it.

"The Texas Water Safari gets under your skin," Valdivia said. "Everything's so modernized in life; this is a relatively inexpensive adventure in your own backyard."

The people you meet on the safari are unlike any other people, Valdivia said.

"They're just as crazy as you are," Valdivia said. "From the misery to the fun to the friends, this is something I always look forward to."

Zimmerman doesn't know if this will be his final attempt at breaking the record.

But he does know that he wants to make it a challenge for the next person to take his spot.

"We have to make it hard for the guys coming up to break," Zimmerman said.

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