Over the last six months, John Morillo has received free drinks in local pubs, been asked for his autograph and has even been called “Aquaman.”
But the Windsor, Ont., resident, who prompted an international rescue operation after swimming across the Detroit River to the U.S. earlier this year, doesn’t want anyone to follow his lead.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time but I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it,” he told The Canadian Press. “You start to realize there could have been some serious consequences.”
One of those consequences could have been being mowed down by a large ship that cut right into Morillo’s swim path mere moments after he had been picked up by authorities.
“I could have been killed for sure. I wouldn’t have seen it,” said the father of two. “I wasn’t even thinking about that.”
At the time though, Morillo had no doubt he would be able to make it across the river and back.
“I thought of it as exercise, not a daredevil feat. I knew I could do it,” he said. “I was going to swim there and back and walk home and nobody would have been any the wiser.”
The 47-year-old said his experience biking long distances — he cycled from Windsor to Sudbury twice and often bikes to Toronto — and his love of swimming had prepared him for the feat which he’d thought about for a long time.
“I’ve been telling people I was going to swim across the river for 25-30 years and they all laughed at me,” he said. “One night the water was smooth as glass, and I told my neighbour I’m going to go swim across the river.”
While that neighbour was initially amused at Morillo’s enthusiasm, she panicked after he disappeared in the distance and called 911.
Meanwhile, Morillo — oblivious that helicopters and boats had been called into service to search for him — had reached the U.S., clambered up a ladder to the shore and posed for pictures with bystanders who were amazed at his crossing.
“They started taking pictures with me and then a helicopter flew by, and I said ‘ok I’ve got to go’ and I jumped back in the water,” Morillo recalled.
“On the way back I kept diving underwater when the helicopters went over. I was trying to hide. But finally I got almost to the shore and the spotlight from the helicopter was right on me and I said ‘Oh that’s it.’”
After being hauled into a police boat, handcuffed and brought to land, Morillo saw the ship that could have run into him — a sight that reinforced the dangers associated with his swim. Authorities also warned those who heard his story of the river’s strong current.
Morillo was fined by the City of Windsor for public intoxication and given a stern talking to by the harbour master — who warned him about hefty fines for crossing international shipping lanes, although he hasn’t had to pay any so far.
Morillo also had to withstand the wrath of his mother, who wasn’t impressed at his actions.
He insists, however, that he wasn’t drunk when he decided to take the plunge.
“I definitely wasn’t intoxicated, especially after swimming for two hours,” he said.
The swim, which made headlines on both sides of the border, turned the Windsor millwright into something of a celebrity. People offered to buy him drinks, strangers drew him into conversations and a Windsor strip club, which Morillo said he’s never been to, even used his name and photograph in their advertising.
“I hope the notoriety has passed,” he said of his story. “I kind of feel like an idiot.”
While he regrets the problems he caused for authorities, Morillo said he plans to keep swimming long distances, but will attempt long hauls in a more official capacity the next time by using an observer boat and avoiding international shipping lanes.
“I’m going to figure out a way, if I’m going to do it, to maybe raise money for charity,” he said. “I’d make it worthwhile.”