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‘Something always pulls me to the water’

Limited vision doesn’t sink man’s passion for swimming

A few months ago, the best swimmers in the world won their medals in the Olympic Games held in Rio de Janeiro. If gold medals were given for attitude and inspiration, then George Bruns, who turns 80 this month, would be awarded one for swimming hundreds of miles each summer in a Minnesota lake despite diminished eyesight and living with the challenges of glaucoma for nearly 50 years.

George Bruns looks out at French Lake near Faribault,. Bruns swims across the lake every summer and takes a daily swim (or two) just about every day. Photo by Steve Palmer

George Bruns looks out at French Lake near Faribault,. Bruns swims across the lake every summer and takes a daily swim (or two) just about every day. Photo by Steve Palmer

At French Lake, near the tiny hamlet of Shieldsville located a few miles west of Faribault, the active, dark-tanned Bruns has become well known for his swimming exploits.

However, Bruns traveled a long way through the adventures of life before arriving on the shores of French Lake.

Born and raised on a farm in northwest Germany, the 9-year-old Bruns recalled hearing the WW II air raid sirens and watching allied bombers fly missions high over the city of Hamburg.

He would wait with other students in a ditch for the all-clear signal and then go back to the classroom. He remembers feeling the distant thunder of bombs being dropped on the city and ground shaking vibration from explosions.

“Because we lived in the country I really didn’t realize how bad the war was going in 1944-45 for Germany,” George stated. “My cousin worked as a cook on a river boat, and sometimes I’d go along and get off the ship, and I’d head for town. I’d walk for a couple of miles, and everything was rubble, nothing standing from the bombs.”

Later, he immigrated to America at age 17 with his family, landing by ship in New York in 1954 and traveling by train to Iowa to live with his uncle who was their sponsor.

The family hired out for farm jobs and learned how to speak a new language. “None of us knew English or how to drive a tractor,” he said. In 1955 George’s dad sold the farm in Germany, and he bought their own place in Minnesota, a 320-acre farm near Ostrander or about 40 miles south of Rochester.

George married his wife Patricia in 1964 and did carpentry work and farmed with his dad until 1970. His battle with glaucoma, already starting at about age 32, didn’t prevent him from buying the farm from his dad, and he continued to operate it until 2004.

“My glaucoma came on fast, and I was already legally blind when it was discovered,” he said. He didn’t realize he had the disease until the time of a farm mishap when a lime hose used to clean and disinfect chicken barns broke and burned his eyes.

“They found I had glaucoma that was so bad I could have gone stone blind at any moment,” George recalled. He had surgery at the University of Minnesota to lower pressure in his eyes and has had five or six more eye surgeries over the years.

But that didn’t slow him down.

“As time went along I found ways to compensate for my poor vision,” he said. “I couldn’t see the field marker at the end of the corn planter anymore, but I rigged it to drop foam every 10 feet so I knew where the line was to drive straight and plant seed,” he explained.

His introduction to French Lake began when he and Patricia would vacation at a resort on the lake every summer, and George learned how to swim. When the resort closed they bought a cabin to use for several years before selling the farm and deciding to build a house on the lake in 2008.

“But my wife died in 2009 so she got to live here only one year. She was so proud of this place,” George noted.

George Bruns on another one of his daily swims in French Lake. Photo by Steve Palmer

George Bruns on another one of his daily swims in French Lake. Photo by Steve Palmer

And so George started swimming in French Lake more than ever before. It was therapeutic, George said, as he began a daily regimen of swimming two thirds of a mile out and back no matter the weather conditions or water temperature for almost 100 days of the season.

In the spring he uses a wet suit because of the frigid water, and last year, George swam as late as Dec. 13. “But that was pretty cold water…I only went out 100 feet, and my legs got pretty numb.” When the lake freezes over George usually heads to his winter place in south Texas where he often goes to South Padre to swim in the Gulf of Mexico. “I go out as far as I can and ride a wave back to the beach,” he grinned.

One day, about eight years ago, he decided to swim the more than a mile distance across the 1,000-acre French Lake without telling anyone. He has done so ever since and sometimes twice a year. “I think the only year I missed is when I fell over a retaining wall and broke my back,” he noted.

Not only does he swim across the lake, but he does it alone, without a life jacket and no nearby boat for support if he ran into trouble. However, he tows a diving buoy with him just to let people know his location as he’s crossing the lake. “Sometimes a jet skier will come by to see if I’m okay, or a boater will check on me.”

Although he describes his style of swimming as that of an old battleship on a mission, Bruns is at ease as he glides fearlessly through the water. His best time for crossing the lake has been two hours. “If I get tired, I just float on my back, rest awhile, and then go forward.”

George stated he first started his daily swims with a flotation device and only went 100 feet out but then he eventually went further and further. “Now I usually swim every morning and sometimes twice a day. If by chance I’m not out swimming my neighbors are checking in on me to see if I’m feeling okay…everyone just expects to see me out there in the water.”

Despite his limited vision, George takes a daily hike down to the water’s edge from his hillside home and still loves to water ski. “I love it, but I can’t see the boat so I just stay in the wake and go where the rope goes,” he explained. Of all places, George learned to water ski while visiting a cousin in Anchorage, Alaska.

One evening he went around French Lake three times on water skis despite spending all day working on building his house. When he’s not in the water his other hobbies include being a ham radio operator and working in his woodworking shop set up in his garage.

“I have to keep my tools in the right place or it sometimes gets frustrating trying to find what I need,” he commented.

Asked why he keeps swimming George cracked a joke and said: “I’m still looking for a mermaid but haven’t found one yet.” Or maybe because he’s never forgotten the unique experience of swimming with the fishes. “One time I found myself swimming with a huge muskie fish in the lake. I looked over, and my fingers were on top of its head, and my thumb was touching along the side… it was cool to think about when I got back to shore.”

George said he’s always had a love for the water. “I’ve dreamed about it, and something always pulls me to the water. I can be feeling lousy, but taking a swim does something for me. I might not be able to see going out on my daily swim, but coming back the water helps clear my eyes, and I can see people on shore. The doctors shake their heads when I tell them about it, and they just say to keep doing whatever it takes if it helps my vision,” he explained.

And so poor vision has not conquered his zest for life.

“I’ve had to overcome, adapt and compensate and do a lot of things by feel,” said George. “But to me not being able to see very well is no tragedy, just an inconvenience. I can’t worry about it because that doesn’t change or solve anything.”

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