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No weakness in the water

Despite a left leg almost 5 inches shorter than the right, Konrad Euler has known swimming success.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 13, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- ... 382 ... 383 ... 384 (What would dad think?) ... 716 ... 717 ... 718 (This time I make it.) ... 999 ... 1,000 ... one ...

Konrad Euler had been at it how long? Three hours? Six? Ten? Time meant nothing, only the goal. Three times before he had -- well, he hadn't failed, he just came up short. Now it was all coming together. The training. The temperature. The tide.

There are countless things to think about while swimming across Tampa Bay, 24 miles from the Sunshine Skyway to the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Childhood. The clouds. Family. Tomorrow's breakfast. ...

And always the stroke. Every double stroke is a breath; 500 breaths is a mile. Double that, then start over. Do it for 13 hours, 9 minutes, 28 seconds.

Had a 3-year-old playmate -- What was her name? Elfreida? -- not run away with his most treasured possession, had he not fallen and scratched his knee, perhaps Konrad Euler, 63 years later, his left leg about 5 inches shorter than his right, would not have entered the Tampa Bay Marathon and become the oldest competitor to finish it.

* * *

He listened to his father. "He told me, 'You can do anything anybody else can do. It just takes you a little more energy, more exercise and an iron will.' "

By then, Konrad Euler had spent four years hospitalized in a cast from chest to toes, six more propelling himself around hospitals and schools in a cast from hip to left toes and, later, leg braces. All for a misdiagnosed injury.

"I always had with me this little glass green frog with a gold crown, from the fairy tale," Konrad said. "She grabbed it and ran away and banged her garden door. I couldn't open it so I climbed over and fell."

His mother treated the scrape on his left knee with Jod (iodine). Two days later the knee began to swell.

His father, a medical officer in the German army (and later a physician), took him to a children's hospital. The diagnosis: bone tuberculosis, which doctors were only beginning to learn about in 1938. Herbert Euler fought in vain to have them consider alternatives. He did not know what it was but, though he could not prove it, he knew it was not TB.

The boy was encased in a body cast, hands and feet tied to the sides of the bed, the injury periodically cleansed. The idea was to keep him immobile, keep the disease from spreading. He could move only his head. "All I could see was just outside my window, whether it was sunny, raining, snowing ... "

Four years later Herbert was on the Russian front when the hospital notified him it planned to amputate his son's left leg. "He told them, 'He lives with his leg or he dies with his leg,' " Konrad said. Six years later, in 1948, the disease was correctly diagnosed as staphylococcus osteomyelitis -- an infection. Sulfa drugs had been scarce at best during the war. When Herbert Euler opened his practice he got what he needed to treat his son quickly and completely.

But the infection had settled in his femur just above the knee, where children's growth spurts occur. His didn't grow. It left Konrad Euler with a limp, noticeable but not pronounced.

* * *

Like his father, Konrad Euler became a physician. So did Waltraut Krick. Each is 66. They were neighbors from infancy and have been married 38 years. Before retiring six years ago, they were general practitioners in Germany, making what many have forgotten or never knew -- house calls.

They first visited St. Petersburg in 1974, returned annually for a week or two, then bought a home in 1980, using it a month each year. In 1993 they built a house in Kaslo, British Columbia, 60 miles north of Idaho. Since retiring, they spend about six months in each. But they remain German citizens, occasionally returning to Frankfurt where son Herbie practices law.

Euler began swimming in school. Despite relatively useless legs he was among the best, a strong upper body developed when he wore casts and braces. And when, as a young adult, he developed scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, "I thought the best thing to rearrange my bones was to be in water."

It became his passion when Euler took his young son swimming to alleviate the symptoms of spastic bronchitis. When he retired, he joined the St. Pete Masters at North Shore Pool, where he swims about 5,000 yards every morning and some afternoons.

He prefers open water. In 1993 he tore his right Achilles' tendon. "When I push off, my right leg starts to cramp, and my left almost never reaches the wall," he said. "The longer I swim without turning, the better I am."

Two years ago teammate Paul Hutinger, 77, observed his swimming regimen. "Konrad," he said, "I'd bet your handicapped leg is as strong as a good leg on an average person your age."

Euler stood on his left leg and did some kneebends. "I wasn't too amazed," Hutinger said, "It was something I would expect from Konrad."

* * *

Euler began swimming 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) races in 1997. The next year he completed a 121/2-mile swim around Key West. And in 2000 he represented the St. Pete Masters in the World Championships at Munich, finishing third in the 5K open-water race. Saturday he won his age group in 64 minutes, 55 seconds in the Hurricane-Man race off Pass-a-Grille, at 2.4 miles nothing more than a sprint for him.

It was the 1999 Tampa Bay Marathon that intrigued Euler. "I figured I'd probably be able to do it under the right conditions," he said. Not that he knew what the right conditions might be for a 24-miler -- water temperature, prerace nutrition, how fast to start, what pace to set.

Euler started the '99 race accompanied by a motorboat and kayak for safety and supplies. Most swimmers have similar support.

Tampa Bay was 72 degrees. Six miles later Euler was done, the victim of serious cramps in his left leg.

The next year the water was a perfect 78, but after 11 miles an impending storm made the waves and current too much to overcome.

Last year he was a few hours into the race when he swallowed diesel fuel from a boat, was instantly and violently ill, and sank. "With his legs, he can't even tread water very long," said his kayaker, Barry Newell. "I was about to go after him when he came up, white as a sheet." Three starts, no finishes.

"Now I was running out of time," Euler said. "My wife actually did not like the idea anymore. She's a physician, too. She knows a lot of things can happen to people my age. She said, 'This is not working. You must be foolish to do something like this.' I told her I would sign up for a relay this time."

He signed up for the marathon.

* * *

The water temperature was warm, the waves minimal, the current with him most of the time. Stroke after stroke, mile after mile, hour after hour, Euler thought about how much he loved Waltraut, about his mother, about how his father died in 1973, run down by a motorist while crossing the street on a house call, and how proud of him his father would have been, about Herbie's next phone call, ... and always counting the strokes.

"Do it long enough and you find that you're counting automatically, almost in the back of your mind," Euler said. "Sometimes you're almost dreaming, like about school and how the teacher could call on you and ask you a question and you knew you would not know the answer. Then you concentrate again on your swimming. 'Am I still on track with the counting? Is it 500 or 600?'

"When I saw the Gandy Bridge, I thought, 'This is it. Nothing can stop me anymore.' Then the Howard Frankland Bridge. After all that time behind me, the rest of the way was no big deal anymore."

With his leathery skin slathered in sunblock, his lips and nose covered with zinc oxide, Euler stepped out of Tampa Bay barely sunburned -- but bleeding and stinging. "I shaved in the morning," he said, "but after four or five hours your beard feels like a wire brush." With every stroke it scraped across his shoulder and bicep, tearing at the raw skin. With every stroke the saltwater bit into the wounds.

Waltraut was not angry that her husband had entered a fourth marathon. How could she be? She knew he'd try again. When had she figured it out? "When he told me he was going to sign up for the relay," she said, looking at Konrad, a soft, knowing smile spreading under forgiving eyes.

Having achieved his goal of completing the marathon, Euler said he may "put together a relay of real old people next year, kind of a Methuselah relay."

Waltraut knew what was coming next. She rolled her eyes in bemused exasperation.

"And probably, if I am in the same good shape as today, I would like to try it again at 70," he said. "I mean, I did it already, the oldest one. But why not?"

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