Just after dawn Saturday, Salvatore Cimmino plunged into the cold waters off of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, cutting a solitary figure through the fog and silent depths.
When he arrived at Charlestown Navy Yard eight hours later, Cimmino hopped on the deck and smiled in the bright sunlight, greeted by a chorus of “Bravo!”
Cimmino, a 48-year-old Italian whose leg was amputated, is a marathon swimmer who seeks to highlight the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities worldwide. In recent years, he has swum marathon distances around the world, including the English Channel and Cook Strait in New Zealand.
Saturday, he took to Boston Harbor.
“The first time he told us, I said, ‘You’re crazy!’” said Stefania Gradozzi, Cimmino’s longtime partner, through a translator. “I didn’t think he’d be able to do it. I worried.”
Now, she said, Cimmino is a seasoned veteran at swimming seemingly interminable distances.
Boston is the seventh stop on Cimmino’s international tour, “Swimming in the Seas of the Globe.” Prior to cutting his way through the surf around the Harbor Islands, Cimmino swam long distances in Israel, Italy, Slovenia, Argentina, Canada, New Zealand, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Cimmino, who lives in Rome, trains three hours per day in a pool, in addition to working full time as an accountant. He became an amputee at 15, when he was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors removed his right leg above the knee to save his life.
He came to Boston a year ago to visit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s prosthetics lab and was inspired by the extent of the city’s amenities for disabled people. He vowed to return to swim around Boston Harbor to honor local efforts to improve access for people with disabilities.
Just before 2 p.m. Saturday, several dozen friends and supporters gathered at the dock of the Charlestown Navy Yard, many armed with binoculars and cameras, and erupted into cheers as they spotted Cimmino and his steady front stroke, alongside a kayak and a vessel carrying a support crew.
He reached the dock shivering, the hood of his wetsuit leaving a swollen oval imprint, slightly purple, around his eyes. But he waved and clapped his hands, squinting into the bright light and grinning. “We are building a new bridge!” he proclaimed, speaking of his goal to bridge disabled and able-bodied communities, before taking a seat in a chair to chug some sweetened hot tea.
At 61 degrees, the waters were among the coldest Cimmino has ever been in, he said. But the seas were smooth, which allowed him to make steady progress, he said.
He wore a custom-made wetsuit to protect him from the elements. About every 20 minutes, he stopped to gulp warm water and electrolytes passed to him by his support crew.
Cimmino’s coach in Italy, Filippo Tassara, said he had hoped the athlete’s diligent training schedule — he swims 9 to 10 kilometers every day of the week — would help him conquer Boston Harbor.
Part of that endurance comes from his strategy: He counts every stroke until he reaches 1,500, takes a short break to refuel, then starts over. (His tally for Saturday’s swim: About 20,600 total strokes.) While he counts, he said, he dreams.
Cimmino said he never doubted he would finish.
“For me, this is not just a swim — this is a battle,” said Cimmino through a translator. “When you’re fighting in battle, you can never be afraid.”
Gradozzi said she was pleased that he achieved his goal safely — and he looked like he had fun.
“I’m happy because he is happy,” she said.
Others, however, were more impressed with Cimmino’s feat.
“He radiates positivity and confidence and refuses to recognize obstacles,” said Ken Goldman of MIT, who first met Cimmino on his visit to Cambridge last year.
As Cimmino sat on the chair and recovered, a Boston Harbor cruise ship approached to allow passengers to disembark. Tourists leaned over the side of the vessel, staring at the man with one leg.
When the cruise’s announcer explained Cimmino’s feat, they burst into applause.
“Excuse me, sir!” called one man on the second deck, wearing an Oxford shirt and a Boston Red Sox cap. He pulled a silver dollar out of his pocket and held it in the air. “This is my lucky coin!”
The man said his name was Mark and that he had had the coin for 20 years. He flicked the coin in the air. Cimmino caught it with ease. He flashed a grin and promised he would keep it forever, always remembering who it came from.
“My name is Salvatore,” he shouted up. “I see you next time!”