Franco Prezioso

Franco Prezioso at the Arena Club. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / August 9, 2013)

This guy's a beast.”

“We often wonder if he has gills.”

Shana Hersh and Brian Walker are quick to praise their friend Franco Prezioso, a long-distance open-water swimmer from Bel Air.

Of course, Prezioso is rarely around to hear it, as the 47-year-old Towson grad is often found doing 10-kilometer workouts in Bel Air's Arena Club pool.

“That's ridiculous,” Walker said of Prezioso's routines. “I don't know how he does it.”

And on the heels of finishing his longest race, the Extreme North Dakota Watersports Endurance Test, or END-WET, a 27-mile jaunt down the Red River on July 13, Prezioso is chest-deep in preparations for his next swim campaign: the Cape Circumnavigation Challenge, a 15.1-mile course around Cape May, N.J.

“I love getting out there; I love swimming,” he said. “It's extremely therapeutic.”

Getting started

Before 2008, Prezioso spent his weekends on the links. A hobby he dropped long ago, golf led Prezioso into the water.

Walker, a longtime friend who met Prezioso playing rugby at Towson, is also an accomplished triathlete. After listening on greens and tee boxes at Maryland Golf and Country Club to Walker's experiences and fielding some requests to swim triathlon legs, Prezioso decided swimming would be better for him.

“Once you're training for distance, you're training for distance,” Prezioso said. “So it was just a matter of how much.”

Though he hadn't swum seriously since lessons and recreational teams as an adolescent, Prezioso plunged headfirst into his inaugural season, finishing the 4.4-mile Chesapeake Bay Swim in Annapolis and the 3-mile Nanticoke River Swim in Bivalve, outside Salisbury.

“It was tough,” Walker said of Prezioso's transition and his swim at Nanticoke. “He came out of the water and I think he was a little bummed because he thought he'd do a little better. … He was like, ‘If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it right.'”

Prezioso, a father of two who works at a mortgage firm in Glen Burnie, soon realized that he could do more. But he didn't know how to mold his life to accommodate professional-level training.

“You don't really feel like going home and mowing the lawn after workouts like these,” Prezioso said.

After his first season, he found triathlon long-distance swim coach Kevin Joubert of Merritt Athletic Club in Towson. Joubert helped Prezioso develop a training regimen consisting of workouts five days a week.

“I'm not motivated by someone standing over me,” Prezioso said. “I like to set goals and maintain them.”

On weekdays, Prezioso arrives at the Arena Club about 7 a.m. and spends up to an hour and a half swimming. On weekends, when he isn't open-water practicing in Gunpowder Falls State Park, Prezioso is doing workouts of up to five hours. And he's in bed by 7 p.m.

“What Franco has in spades is consistency,” Joubert said. “Some athletes you put the schedule on for Tuesday and it gets done on Monday or Wednesday. Sometimes it gets skipped. With Franco, if it goes on the schedule, it gets done.”

Soon the Chesapeake Bay Swim, once the longest swim Prezioso had ever done, was the shortest race of his season.

“As a triathlete, when he started doing 3-mile swims, you know in the back of your mind, ‘I can do that,'” Walker said. “Once he gets up to ‘Hey, by the way, I'm doing a 27-mile swim,' you completely put it out of your mind. … That's just ridiculous. You weed out the folks who think they can.”

'Unflappable'

Prezioso didn't feel nervous as he began the longest swim of his life in North Dakota in July.

In his fourth season and after more than 25 races of 3 or more miles, he has moved beyond comparing himself to others or being afraid of not finishing, as he's dropped out of only one race.

“If I fall short because I gave it all I have, I have no problem with that. I'm out here to have fun,” Prezioso said. “But if I fall short because I was goofing off, then I have to blame myself.”

Soon into END-WET, Prezioso's kayaker, responsible for carrying his food and keeping an eye on him, capsized. About an hour later, the inexperienced paddler returned. And he flipped again.

Prezioso went about four hours through the race without eating, a requirement in open-water swimming. He was planning on eating about twice an hour. He finished after just less than nine hours.

“A lot of us, if we lost our kayakers, it would have been like losing our pacifiers as a baby,” Joubert said.

Prezioso, who has no plans to stop, says his broad shoulders help him stay on course in open-water currents — such as off Cape May, where he was one of just four finishers in a 10-kilometer swim in July 2012. But it isn't just Prezioso's physical stability; he's also mentally grounded.

“He's just unflappable,” Joubert said. “He just keeps going. He's not the fastest guy out there, but he's not going to stop.”

dappenfeller@baltsun.com

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Prezioso's next race

Cape Circumnavigation Challenge

Cape May, N.J.

Distance: 15.1 miles

When: Sept. 14