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Stand-up paddleboarder finds salvation in water
Paddleboarder finds salvation in water
Will Schmidt had a bottle of pills, and a bottle of whiskey to wash it down.
He called in sick to work that day, and his plan was to never go back, or to never wake up again for that matter.
But then the phone rang. On the other end of the line was his mother, who sensed the desperation in her son's voice.
"Why don't you go for a paddle," she told him. "Do something fun, go enjoy the ocean."
So he set aside his plan to take his life, and instead hit the Dana Point harbor on one of those calm days, when slight overcast skies kept it cool but the sun peeked out. There was no wind, no breeze, and since it was mid-week, no crowds. It was just the calmness of the ocean water and him.
"Paddling, I believe, saved my life," said the 32-year-old from Laguna Niguel.
AN INTERNAL INJURY
Schmidt has dealt with depression his whole life. He believes it's genetic, but being in the military for five years during his younger years as a Stinger missile gunner with the Marine Corps, and a short stint deployed in Kosovo in 1999, brought the illness to the surface.
Through the years, he's seen friends and comrades come home after war, living in the shadows of post-traumatic stress as they try to cope with their lives back at home.
"It's one of the things that isn't being addressed," he said. "Many people have physical conditions, loss of limbs or burns. But they also have a lot of psychological issues that aren't being addressed. A lot of these guys have really suffered and have not gotten the proper treatment. Not all wounds show on the outside."
The military mentality can often call those who speak out about post-traumatic stress or depression weak, Schmidt said.
"A lot of these military members who deal with this aren't brave enough to say they are dealing with it," he said. "They need to know they aren't being weak, that it's an injury. It's not one of flesh and bone."
PADDLE FOR A CAUSE
Schmidt started paddling when the sport first hit the scene about 2007, with the longest distance he's done alone about 25 miles.
He wanted to do something that would prove a point, do something that would get people's attention. It was about a year ago – only six months after he was intent on taking his life – that he decided to do a solo paddle from Catalina to Dana Point, an accomplishment few people have done.
He decided on a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress. He hit local coffee shops to put up fliers and "bugged the heck out of everyone I knew to get the word out for the fundraising," he said.
"If I could even help one person," he said. "That would be awesome."
On April 6, he hit the water about 7:45 a.m. from Catalina, a chase boat with friends following him into the open ocean.
The first half of the race went smoothly, but it was about mile 20 when he hit a wall. He realized he was overfeeding himself. So he cut down on the carbs, and he fueled mostly on shots of honey every 15 minutes and drank warm water instead of cold.
He chuckles when he says he had to go to the bathroom quite a bit during the 10-hour, 15-minute journey. "What do you do?" he said. "I just go."
About mile 28, the fog got so thick the GPS stopped working and the chase boat had to race ahead to get a better grasp on their location. Schmidt said he's accustomed to the fog while paddling along the coastline – but it was unnerving when he couldn't see land anywhere while out in the open ocean.
Then the chase boat couldn't find him on the way back.
"I paddled for about an hour by myself," he said. "That was a little interesting."
Fortunately, the chase boat eventually re-located him. Along the way, sea lions were everywhere, and a big sun fish the size of a hood of a car floated by. As they got about 2-3 miles from shore, a pod of dolphins came out to play, swimming under his board and the chase boat.
As they got closer to Dana Point, jellyfish were everywhere. He had been on the water so long, he wondered if what he was seeing was real.
As he came into the break wall in Dana Point, the sun was starting to set. As he approached the channel, people cheered for him. According to his GPS, the last mile stretch was the fastest he did all day.
"I put the pedal to the medal and just went for it," he said.
After soaking in the big accomplishment, he is blown away by the outpouring of well wishes from his friends and supporters.
From his research, he believes it is one of the longest single-day, non-stop paddles done on the West Coast. A few years ago, Orange County paddler Jodie Nelson completed the same trek from Catalina to Dana Point, but clocked about 40 miles because winds were calmer. Schmidt's paddle came in at 45.2 miles because he had to zigzag with the winds.
So far, he's raised about $2,800, still shy of his $10,000 goal. He has extended his efforts until May 1. He hopes to continue fundraising for the cause, perhaps setting up a recurring nonprofit event and inviting military families to participate.
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