Swimmer makes it a river of Ambrosia


With a Bronx flag rippling in the wind and chants of his name thundering across the Soundview Lagoon, Baron Ambrosia became the first person to officially swim the entirety of the mainland borough Saturday as his fingers clasped a rocky outcropping along the Bronx River.

“The swim is completed.  The Bronx is on top,” the Baron declared after exchanging congratulatory hugs and handshakes with the 100 people gathered at a beach near Harding Park. “The river is beautiful today and I encourage anyone to check it out because it is one of our resources here in the king of boroughs.”

Justin Fornal — who is better known for portraying his vibrant alter ego Baron Ambrosia on BronxNet and the Cooking Channel — decided to swim the seven-and-a-half mile stretch when he learned the Bronx County Historical Society had no record of anyone doing so. He took the trek to highlight the renaissance of a river once overrun with junk and to promote getting active and embarking on adventures.

Bronx borough historian Lloyd Ultan said it was a swim for the record – albeit with an asterisk. Back in the 18th century, Mr. Ultan said a January thaw and severe storms flooded the river, carrying slaves down stream, though they weren’t swimming the stretch by choice.

Mr. Fornal, 35, spent weeks training. The former Riverdale resident traded in moonlight dips into the river near Gun Hill Road for daily laps at the Riverdale YM-YWHA. Fitness classes, weight lifting and running were part of Mr. Fornal’s regimen.

He recently received hepatitis A and tetanus shots. He also fortified himself with cola nut powder, cayenne pepper tonic and other supplements from Baba Rahsan Abdul Hakim, who sells traditional Jamaican herbs and health remedies in a Boston Road shop. 

He said the only thing to do before he stepped into the stream near Nereid Avenue on the Yonkers line at noon was to slather coconut oil and shea butter on his skin to seal his pores off from contaminants.

“I’m strengthening my body with the exposure, as opposed to weakening it,” Mr. Fornal said. “I’m more worried about people who sit on their butt and watch TV all day and never get to experience life.”

Mr. Fornal strode through the shallow water at the northern end of the borough in water shoes, navigating around rocks, trash and stray tires. He found a turtle near Gun Hill Road, which spent the rest of the trip in one of the three boats trailing him.

Mr. Fornal and a support team paddling alongside him in two canoes and a kayak climbed out of the water and walked around waterfalls and dams. After a grueling portage near the New York Botanical Garden, Mr. Fornal floated atop a deeper river. By the time he glided into Starlight Park, near Claremont Village, only his purple swim cap was visible.

Downstream, Mr. Fornal barreled over the boom by Concrete Park and climbed out. He lumbered around, explaining that he’d grown stiff and “had sea legs.” 

Tiesha Branch, 32, couldn’t believe a Bronxite was swimming down the river and stopped to snap photos with him after getting his autograph. 

A few yards away, a family cheered Mr. Fornal on as he dove off a boardwalk overlooking the river and swam onward.

He touched shore by about 7 p.m., with Michael Max Knobbe, executive director of BronxNet, vigorously waving a flag imprinted with the Bronx seal and “Ne cede malis” motto, which means “yield not to evil,” from a canoe.

Mr. Fornal brought a kickboard, which he planned to use to keep his face out of the water when he encountered patches of garbage. However, he said he didn’t need it.

“Twelve years ago, I didn’t even know what the Bronx River was. I remember going over the Bruckner every day and seeing the old cement factory and it was a very curious place to me,” Mr. Fornal said, describing the slow recovery the river experienced after decades of people dumping sewage, cars and other waste into it. “To see what the Bronx River Alliance has done is unbelievable. They have completely transformed it.”

Still, Mr. Fornal’s uncle, a SWAT-trained paramedic who paddled alongside him, sprayed Mr. Fornal’s body with hydrogen peroxide and instructed him to rinse his mouth out with Listerine when they stopped.

At Starlight Park, where the Bronx River Alliance held a community canoeing event, a few people worried young children might be inspired to jump into unsanitary water. 

Damian Griffin, the organization’s educational director, said the river’s bacteria content ranged from five to 10 times the level at which officials close public beaches. He said sewage seeps into the water from illegal drainage pipes in Westchester, making swimming hazardous.

But at Harding Park, where the Bronx and East rivers converge, residents of the surrounding Little Puerto Rico community shared Mr. Fornal’s enthusiasm for the river’s recovery and greeted him with a deejay, drinks and glee. 

They emphasized their hard work and dedication to cleaning up the now pristine coastline in their area. With pride, they invited onlookers to return to the beach.