Just a few years ago, Dan Simonelli was about 40 pounds overweight and not happy about it.
“I was not particularly unhealthy per se — I don’t smoke or drink — but I wasn’t that active,” Simonelli recalls.
It was a big change from his teens and 20s, when he’d been a swimmer, served in the Marine Corps and was an Oceanside lifeguard. He also did some marathons and triathlons.
But in his 30s and early 40s, his fitness slipped away. Exercise became an afterthought over 15 years working at San Diego State and then co-owning a small marketing company. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had busy lives, with work and their two young daughters.
Then, six years ago, his oldest daughter started the Junior Lifeguard program, and he would sometimes watch.
“It would bring back all these memories of my lifeguarding days and being active in the water,” he says.
So, one day, he got into the water at Mission Beach and swam out to a buoy. Over the next few weeks, he did it several times, swimming longer distances. When he struck up a conversation with a neighbor, who happened to be a member of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club, the neighbor invited him to be part of a five-swimmer team for a 10-mile relay.
“I thought, ‘Wow, 2 miles. I don’t know if I can hang with that,’ ” he says. “But it gave me some motivation.”
That was in 2009. In the years since, Simonelli’s life has changed because he dived back into the water. He rarely misses a day, is a member of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club, and is a long-distance swimmer. This Saturday (Aug. 22), in fact, he’ll attempt his longest swim, a solo crossing of the Catalina Channel (nearly 21 miles). He’s down to a trim 180 pounds and loves the endorphin surge he gets every time he slips into the ocean.
“Sometimes I come out, not feeling it. But once I get in — this is kind of cliché — but you get in and then you forget. You get out and you think, ‘My God, how could I have ever thought I wouldn’t have done it,’ ” he says, smiling. “I’ve never gotten out thinking I wished I hadn’t gotten in.”
A new course
Swimming has been a life-changer in multiple ways. About three years ago, he stepped away from his marketing business (“I realized it’s not really what I wanted to do,” he says) and became an open-water swim coach. Now he spends his days at La Jolla Cove helping people get better or overcome their fear of ocean swimming. “I pinch myself,” he says of his new career path.
After that first 10-mile relay, he started training with long-distance swimmers. That stretched his limits, but he vowed to take things slow to avoid injury. Then in 2011, he was asked to join a relay team to circumnavigate Catalina Island. It turned out to be a 27-hour swim, with Simonelli doing five, one-hour legs.
He calls that his turning point. He got hooked on long swims.
He’s continued to push his limits. He’s done several relays, and this year finished 12th overall (20 hours, 7 minutes) in the S.C.A.R. Swim Arizona Challenge, an approximately 41-mile open-water swim over four days on four lakes (Saguaro, Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt).
He swims most every day and averages between 20 and 30 miles per week, depending on his schedule and upcoming challenges. He staggers his training, alternating between speed, distance and recovery. Once a week he swims in a pool and receives coaching.
At first, he swam to feel good again. Then it morphed into a challenge of, “How far can I go? How far can I push myself?”
He says his weight didn’t really drop until he changed his eating habits. In 2012, he and other swimmers went to a presentation by Dr. Peter Attia called “Praise the Lard.” Attia, also a marathon swimmer, preached the benefits of a low-carb, high-fat diet.
As Simonelli learned more about it, it seemed right for him because he has an “insulin-sensitive metabolism.”
Now he tries to avoid carbohydrates and sugars and embraces meat, fats and dairy.
He also uses a complex carbohydrate sports energy nutrition product for training that his body doesn’t turn into fat.
Favorite swim spot
He loves La Jolla Cove, but will swim elsewhere, including Mission Beach. Often, he has no set route. “It’s just so nice to put your head down and just swim,” he says. “Get into a rhythm and get into a flow.”
He says people starting up any activity should start slow and make it enjoyable.
“Another thing is, don’t beat yourself up for missing a day or relapsing,” he says. “Have the confidence that all you’ve got to do is start slow again…just start the process again.”
Ice cream. “I think, ‘Hey, it’s high in fat!’ But it’s high in sugar, too. So, it’s for a rare treat or reward.”
San Diego Union Tribune