James Jonsson grew up on the shores of Hawaii, where he fell in love with long distance swimming during ocean workouts.
When a job change brought him to Utah 17 years ago, he kept his passion for marathon swimming alive in the state's lakes and creeks.
The 48-year-old South Jordan man's competitive drive led him to tackle a 19-mile swim across Bear Lake last summer, when he set a new record of 8 hours 53 minutes the fastest time known for crossing the lake's aquamarine waters.
Now, Jonsson has his sights set on another swim: a 21-mile trek across Lake Tahoe next summer. Only 17 people have managed the feat, which is especially challenging because of Lake Tahoe's altitude and cool waters.
This time, Jonsson wants to do the swim for charity.
He'll be swimming the length of Lake Tahoe to promote organ donation, a cause close to his heart for two reasons.
His father received a life-saving kidney transplant in the mid-1980s. And in 2003, he watched his 8-year-old son's organs save the lives of several people, after the boy choked to death as a result of a birth defect that created problems with his esophagus.
Despite the grief over losing his son, Jonsson saw other parents' prayers answered when the boy's organs were donated.
"When the question came up in the hospital, would you be willing to have his organs donated, the answer was yes," Jonsson said. "What we saw was just amazing. His liver saved the life of a 6-month-old girl. His heart saved the life of a 10-year-old girl. His kidneys helped two people enjoy their lives again. The corneas from his eyes helped someone to see again."
He approached Intermountain Donor Services, a Salt Lake City-based organ recovery organization, to talk about using his upcoming swim to encourage people to sign up as organ donors.
The non-profit accepted Jonsson's offer and is extending its support.
"It means a lot to me. This is saying to people, 'If I can break the record, will you be an organ donor?' " Jonsson said.
Dixie Madsen, public education coordinator for Intermountain Donor Services in Utah, praised Jonsson's efforts to bring awareness to the importance of signing up to be an organ donor.
Nationally, there are 109, 930 people waiting for an organ transplant as of December 2010, Madsen said, citing statistics from the United Network for Organ Sharing. In Utah, that number is 430 people, she said.
Fewer than 50 percent of licensed drivers across the country are organ donors, but in Utah the number is more than 70 percent, Jonsson said. He'd like to see that number climb even higher and hopes his swim might help to accomplish that.
Jonsson will seek to break a Lake Tahoe record set by Dave Canyon in 1987, according to Open Water Source, a Web site that chronicles the efforts of marathon swimmers. Canyon crossed the 21 miles between Camp Richardson on the lake's south shore to Hyatt Beach on the north shore in 9 hours and 20 minutes.
Jonsson's goal: 9 hours and 15 minutes.
To reach his goal time, he'll need to "swim a perfect course" by keeping pace and stopping every hour for four-minute nutrition breaks, where he'll down gel packs, protein shakes and Gatorade with honey. A navigation team will travel with him in a boat, but Jonsson won't be allowed to hang on to the side of the vessel, in accordance with rules he must stick to in order to have his swim go down in the record books.
Jonsson currently trains at West Jordan's Gene Fullmer Recreation Center, where he swims about two hours or about five miles six days a week.
Whatever the outcome of his attempt at swimming Lake Tahoe, Jonsson knows he'll win in the end if more people elect to become organ donors, he said.
"It's a big challenge, it's a reach, but it's not impossible," he said.
O To learn more about organ donation, visit http://www.yesutah.org.
Follow James Jonsson's journey online
O James Jonsson blogged about his record-breaking 19-mile swim across Bear Lake last summer. An account of the swim is available at http://www.utahopenwater.com/2010/07/james-jonssons-account-of-his-bear-lake.html. He plans to write about his trip across Lake Tahoe tentatively planned for Aug. 11, 2011 after he completes the swim.