Victoria man, 75, still paddling strong in Texas Water Safari (video)

Keldy  Ortiz

June 7, 2013 at 1:07 a.m.
Updated June 8, 2013 at 1:08 a.m.

Roger Zimmerman, 75, of Victoria sits with the canoe he will be paddling in the 51st Texas Water Safari this weekend. Zimmerman has participated in the annual 260-mile race several times since it began in 1963.

Roger Zimmerman, 75, of Victoria sits with the canoe he will be paddling in the 51st Texas Water Safari this weekend. Zimmerman has participated in the annual 260-mile race several times since it began in 1963.

Roger Zimmerman remembers participating in his first Texas Water Safari competition in 1963 like it was yesterday.

The problem, however, is that he didn't finish.

"It left a bad taste in my mouth," recalled Zimmerman, now 75. "It's not how fresh you are, it's how well you paddle when you're exhausted."

Paddling over a period of time is not easy, he said. But that has not stopped Zimmerman from participating, as he gets set to compete in the Texas Water Safari again Saturday.

The goal, he said, for the 260-mile course is not to win. Instead, it's to finish.

Zimmerman has not participated in all the safari races, but has always tried to stay involved with those competing.

"He knows everybody, and everybody knows him," said Zoltan Mraz, 73, who is competing this weekend and is a friend of Zimmerman. "This is where I find people that do the same thing. It's like collecting stamps, not everyone likes it."

Zimmerman competed in the safari in 1963 after he heard about competition through - where else? - the newspaper.

Zimmerman recalled former Victoria Advocate outdoors writer Fred Strong wrote about how two men travelled from San Marcos to Corpus Christi before the event became an official race.

It was at that point that the Victoria resident decided to embark on the journey. Unfortunately, the race, which was 100 miles longer then, was more than he could handle.

"Most people paddled during the day," said Zimmerman. "It's dangerous in that you have to paddle at night."

After the first safari, Zimmerman didn't participate again for 30 years. The reason was because he travelled and lived in places such as Puerto Rico and West Virginia.

But in 1992, he got closer to competing. Zimmerman and a few friends travelled to Big Bend National Park. They traveled in two man canoes down river for 65 miles. It was a chance for his friends to see the wilderness.

"Near the end (of the trip), I heard two guys say, 'This is the biggest physical challenge ever,'" Zimmerman said. "I laughed at them. I told them this was a pleasure trip."

In 1993, on the recommendation from a friend, Zimmerman competed in the safari with another person. He normally paddles by himself, mostly because likes the challenge. They quit the race after their canoe was pinned against a tree. Zimmerman was 55.

He competed again in 1994 and won first novice classification, reaching Seadrift in 59 hours.

"I was shock to learn I was the oldest person to win that race," Zimmerman said, who was 56 at the time.

For Zimmerman to compete in the event at his age is not unfamiliar.

Allen Spelce, president of the Texas Water Safari, said 15 people over the age of 60 will participate this weekend. He added that the older competitors can provide valuable information to newer racers.

"The older paddlers have been around a while. They have a lot of good advice," Spelce said. "A lot of racers that are starting out now are looking up to them. Roger is an excellent example."

Since 1995, Zimmerman has competed in the race 14 times, but has finished four times. The last race he finished, he was 65 years old.

Competing, however, doesn't come without its setbacks.

"All that training is not fun," said Zimmerman, who has had back surgery.

He has trained a lot for this weekend's event. The training regimen includes paddling 40 miles a week since January to build strength.

"My wife (Fain) thinks I'm crazy," said Zimmerman, who has been married for 37 years. "She goes out paddling with me and gets tired."

Zimmerman said he is unsure when he will retire from competing in the safari. He recently cut his thumb while sharpening the pocket knife he is packing.

But if you think that's going to slow him down, think again.

"The odds are against me," he said. "All I can do is go out and do my best."

NOTE: Catch live updates from our reporters covering the event in our live chat here. Use the hashtag #twsafari to join the conversation.



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