Published by on July 03rd 2015

Erik Demczuk is a caterer and extreme swimmer. In 2016, he aims to swim the length of the river Volga – 3,500 km – in 60 days. At the moment, Erik spends his weekdays running the ‘Petit Café’ in Klagenfurt, which he will close down in August to focus 100% on swimming. Before the polish-born Erik realised his dream of owning his own café, he ran a successful construction business for more than 16 years. Now he wants to put his own personal limits to the test.

“Welcome to the most beautiful training sight in the world”. With these words, Erik greets us at a remote shore of the Wörthersee lake in Krumpendorf (Carinthia, Austria). It’s Sunday, 5:15 a.m. He has just parked his small electric car under a maple tree that is illuminated in bright green by the rising morning sun. The well-built man nearing the end of his forties stretches out his hand to us with a smile on his face. His blonde hair is combed to the side and he is wearing jeans, a long-sleeve T-shirt and orange and yellow trainers. After welcoming us, he unpacks his swimming suit from the boot of the car and starts changing, sitting on the car’s tailgate. It takes him three minutes to get the skin-tight swimming suit to sit perfectly. After a short discussion regarding the upcoming photo session, Erik puts his full focus on the lake in front of us. Walking over sharp stones, we enter the water, where the light paints our surroundings a soft blue and purple. The water itself is a pleasant 25 degrees. The café owner with a penchant for the extreme swims a few strokes to warm up, while we try just to get by in the knee-high water.

Erik comes here every morning to train. To get ready for his big project he has already crossed the 4 big lakes in Carinthia, a distance of 32 km, in only one day and has also tested his body’s performance in the 4-degree water of lake Wörthersee in February.

After the photoshoot, we visit his café in Klagenfurt’s inner city and then move on to his private house. Erik lives together with his girlfriend in a small village near Klagenfurt. We park our car at the end of a country road in front of a brown wooden house with light blue windows and wait by the gate while he makes sure that none of his seven dogs run out as we enter. Six rottweilers and a greyhound welcome us with wagging tails to a roaming garden full of luscious, green lawn. Just like family members, the dogs surround the table and chairs and look on at the feast of bread and homegrown vegetables laid before us as a parasol provides shade from the early morning sun. After we have breakfast together, we talk about entrepreneurship, the search for one’s own limits and his motivation for project Volga.


Erik aims to swim through river Volga in 60 days in 2016. (Photograph by Jure Vukadin)

DD: Erik, you hold a degree in textile and graphic design, but your first company was a construction company. How come?

ED: I grew up in Łódź (Poland), where I studied textile and graphic design but emigrated to Germany when I was 24, largely as my father is German and my grandparents are German and Russian. I immediately searched for a job in Germany and battled my way through from there. I ended up working on a building site where I worked as a carpenter and later even became master carpenter, specialising in wood restoration. Working as a graphic designer would have been financially unthinkable at that time.

DD: Was textile and graphic design the degree you most wanted to study?

ED: Yes.

DD: How did it feel that you couldn’t pursue this as a career afterwards?

ED: I had just finished my dissertation and then found myself on a building site where anyone and everyone told me what to do. Naturally, I asked myself what was I doing! But the exchange rate between the Deutschmark and the Zloty was so poor in the 80’s that I would have done anything. And then destiny waded in and I ended up having a lot of luck in life with many people going out of their way to support me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without these people and have to say, ‘hats off!’ as I’d never imagined it would end up like this. Even now with my swimming, lots of people support me out of friendship and without them this whole thing wouldn’t be possible, financially as well.

DD: So you started working on a construction site but how did you end up founding your own company?

ED: I decided to set up a construction business when I was 26. At that time, I was trying hard to gain German citizenship and the only realistic way for that to happen was to found a company. I specialised in timber restoration and at that time in northern Germany there were many wooden-framed houses. I reconstructed and restored historic buildings, houses and churches, everything that had to do with old wood and structural design. There I could run riot and act out my passion for art, which made me very happy as I was seen as an artist who made artwork out of old building materials and wood. I worked alone in the beginning but after 8 years had more than 25 employees, depending on how many orders I had. In the end, it took me seven years to receive my German citizenship!

DD: Was this a sort of compensation for being able to ply the trade you were trained in?

ED: Definitely. Especially because at that time I had children and started a family, so there wasn’t much time for arts anymore.

DD: You ran your construction business for 16 years then.

ED: Yes, in this time, a reconstruction for a German travel agency led me to Austria, where I started managing a hotel parallel to running my construction business. I was working for the travel agency in Carinthia and found living here in summer so stunning that I worked in the hotel business in Austria for two years. Then, when the travel operator went back to Germany, I stayed in Austria. And, as a dream of mine has always been to run a café, I founded the ‘Petit Café’ in Klagenfurt 6 years ago.

Erik Demczuk Petite Cafe Klagenfurt

Erik in his “Petit Café” in Klagenfurt. (Photograph by Jure Vukadin)

“Yeah, I was that kind of person – see and be seen, VIP-tickets, the lot. Then there was this moment, where I recognised that I didn’t need any of this.”

DD: What led you to finally pursue that dream?

ED: At the age of 40, for the first time I had the feeling that I didn’t want to go on living the way I had been. I was a successful entrepreneur but the whole hustle and bustle of it all as well as the money! The whole thing was a long-term development for me, which reached its peak when I turned 40 and told myself: I don’t want to give everything just to have a bigger house and a better car. Yeah, I was that kind of person – see and be seen, VIP-tickets, the lot. Then there was this moment, where I recognised that I didn’t need any of this. I was in a hotel room in New York, on the 90th floor, looking down on 5th avenue and I recognised that this wasn’t my world. After three days I cancelled my trip and felt that it was time for change. The first step was to minimise my material possessions – things I once thought of as really important.

DD: Did you develop this consciousness in that moment in New York or was it a longer process?

ED: No, It was as if I had been struck by lightning.

DD: Why were you in New York at the time?

ED: I was there because I wanted to start a company in New York. And then all of a sudden I was at a point where I really listened to myself closely and to what I actually wanted. I lived in the suburbs of Hamburg at the time, which has always been a symbol of ‘being a part of it all’; New York, Hamburg, Berlin, Barcelona, it’s always been important to me to be part of the right circles and then from one moment to the next it just wasn’t like that anymore. Today I feel lucky that it happened. I didn’t know then that I would ever swim again. That happened purely by chance.

DD: How did you start out with the café then?

ED: The first step was to make it a café for non-smokers, two years later we decided to run it as an organic café and another two years later we went vegetarian, as I’m vegetarian with the intention to go vegan. The café mirrors my personality, you could say.

DD: Why are you now quitting this dream come true?

ED: I’ve had enough. I can’t learn anything new in this area. The job is done. Now I want to know where my limits are. It all started with an article about Martin Strel, the Slovenian ‘Big-River-Man’ who holds numerous world records in long-distance swimming and who swam the Danube and the Amazon, to name just a couple. That article raised the question in me: What are my personal limitations and what is possible inside of them? That happened two years ago.

DD: In which way did this story inspire you?

ED: I looked at the way he suffered. I wanted to know what that feels like. Not the success – the pain. That’s why I don’t do any competitions. I’m more interested in how you train and do hard work without the reward of being good or even the best at something. I want to swim only for myself, that’s what fuels my motivation.

 DD: Why swimming?

ED: I was a good swimmer as a child and also played water polo. While working in the café, I suffered from a sign of aging – back pain. That’s when I decided to start swimming again, just to ease the pain. And swimming is just like riding a bike, once you learn, you never forget. Half a year later, I’m like a shark who’s tasted blood. First forty minutes, then an hour, then longer and longer.


Erik swimming in Wörthersee, Carinthia, Austria. (Photograph by Jure Vukadin)

DD: How did you come up with the idea of swimming down the river Volga?

ED: When I read the article about Martin Strel, I knew on the one hand that I wanted to prove myself in swimming but at the same time I knew I didn’t want to copy what he had already done. Strel has achieved world records, swam the Danube and the Mississippi – I don’t want to compare myself to him. He is a very strong personality for me but I want to go my own way. My Grandfather is from Russia, that’s where my affinity for the east comes from. And when you watch movies and reports about the Volga, you recognise instantly that it’s a beautiful river. I then said to myself, ‘that would be a start’. Swimming a thousand kilometres is something I can do. More than three thousand kilometres, however, now that’s a challenge. It would be a kind of defeat to not make it, though it wouldn’t be the end of the world for me. At the moment, I have the feeling that I’m going to make it.

DD: What drives you to do all of this?

ED: The fear of failing. That’s probably the reason. I’ve actually accomplished all the goals I’ve set in my life – family, kids, a house. Of course there were times when not everything was going so well, for example the café, which wasn’t going well for almost two years! That’s a test of your endurance. But I still had some success; I implemented my vision of establishing a new kind of café in a small town like Klagenfurt. I do see this as a success. With swimming it’s different. I don’t want to earn my money like that anymore, day to day. When I’m swimming, I’m free. In the water I’m a free man.

DD: You’ve said, ‘swimming makes me forget the world around me’.

ED: Yeah, definitely. It takes two to three hours, then I’m gone. I don’t perceive my environment anymore. When you swim over long distances, you have a companion with you and you’re only focused on that person, he or she is your signpost. But when you’re swimming alone you only look up quickly to take a breath and you focus on a house or a mountain and totally forget about yourself.

DD: Was this also a reason for your reflection on life – to get away from ‘status’ and more towards things you really feel?

ED: Definitely. That’s also the reason I don’t take part in any competitions, at least not officially. I’m swimming two competitions this year, but I will use a false name. That way, I go into the competition as a stranger, swim and go home again without any photoshoots or media fuss. Doing so, I can compare my performance with other athletes without becoming a part of their system of competition and rivalry. Last year I did a competition where athletes were better than me. That’s life. They really were top athletes. I don’t aim for acceptance from outside; rather I want to be satisfied with my performance without needing to be a part of a group or team. This is how I try to tread new paths and give my individual thoughts and dreams space to develop. Only the acknowledgement of my individual performance makes me happy and gives me the feeling of having actually achieved something valuable. Inside, I feel this as pure happiness and especially the specific, silent moments give me a huge satisfaction and never get lost. This year, I want to, as well as other things, swim 100 km between 35 and 44 hours. My performance in this will set my standard.

DD: What is your specific plan for Project Volga?

ED: River Volga. 3,520 kilometres. Target time: 2 months. I want to be in the water for ten to twelve hours a day. For that, I need two companions in the water. I swim around 3.5 km/h, so 35 kilometres a day with an additional six to eight kilometres added by the current. That adds up to 50 to 60 kilometres as a daily average, all at normal swimming tempo. There are some people who can manage a higher tempo but for me that would be impossible over a longer course of time. I’m fundamentally less afraid of the physical part than I am of the mental. The thought of swimming the same distance every day.

DD: Why 60 days?

ED: It need not be 60 days. If it takes me 65 days but I have the chance to visit some cities and local people and can have a good time with them, I will definitely do that. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t want to set a world record. I also don’t want to send out any message, such as ‘If you really want it, you can do this too!’ For me it’s a project; one that not many people have reached out for until now. And that’s how I see it, as a challenge. Of course, just walking 3,500 km is already quite a lot, but swimming is something else. Just think: One arm stroke is roughly a meter. That means I am going to swim 35,000 arm strokes!

DD: How do you mentally prepare for your project?

ED: At the moment not at all, I’m feeling strong.

DD: Will you mentally prepare before the project starts?

ED: No, actually. Just serious physical training. I’m closing down the café in August and then starting with six hours of training per day. That means swimming will become my job. I will start training in October and will start swimming the Volga in summer 2016. In the preparation phase I will set myself specific goals. Not long ago, I tried to swim in lake Wörthersee for 24 hours and my goal was to reach 70 kilometres. Unfortunately I didn’t make it, I had to to accept defeat. After 20 hours and 51 kilometres I had to stop because of issues with my stomach. In the near future, I will try to swim 170 km in three days in the river Drau under the Motto „Schwimmen mit dem Strom“ (Swimming with the current). After that, I’m planning one further project in September, which will be more about stamina. Then the season is over and I start with the physical preparations for project Volga. Fitness and running. At the moment, I’m only swimming but I need coordination, and power. I will cycle a lot. At the moment, I feel that my legs are too weak, for example. That’s one thing I will specifically work on.

DD: This year, you have already swum through the four big lakes in Carinthia. How did that go?

ED: I see it as a training session. Over the winter, I swam four times a week for between three and four hours in the indoor pool with an average speed of 3.7 to 4 km/h, that’s a daily average of around 14 kilometres. Swimming 32 kilometres didn’t make a huge difference.

Erik Demczuk Project Volga Extreme Swimmer

Erik swimming through Wörthersee, Carinthia, Austria. (Photograph by Jure Vukadin)

DD: On top of that, you also swam in lake Wörthersee with a water temperature of only 4 degrees. Does this prepare you for possible extreme situations?

ED: In February, I swam 3.9 km in one hour. That was a good time. The aim was to find out how I feel and if it’s really cold. After 20 minutes I recognised for the first time just how cold it really was. After half an hour I lost sense in my arms and legs and everything started to burn. That’s the reason why water rescue is part of these kinds of sessions. I’d never do anything like that alone, as anything can happen and it’s too far away from the shore. This way, I have a certain feeling of security and I can swim in a more relaxed way and not cramp up. It’s important to say that I find this sort of thing great fun, it really is cool. I know I’m doing it for the feeling of having accomplished it. That feeling will come as soon as I’ve swum the Volga.

DD: What happens if you swim at 4 degrees water temperature and suddenly you feel that your body isn’t playing along?

ED: After 40 minutes it was extremely cold, but you try to always do more. After an hour it was so cold that I felt dizzy and lost orientation. That was the point where I knew I needed to stop.

DD: This could happen at any time, especially in the northern part of Volga?

ED: That might be. That’s why it’s important that I have a companion with me who can say, ‘OK. Get out of the water. Now.’

DD: Will you measure your body values at regular intervals?

ED: Yeah, that’s also done by the people who are accompanying me. My data will be transmitted via an app. Also, eye contact is extremely important. They will track my arm movements and measure whether my pace is constant. Through this they can understand if I can go on or if it’s time to stop.

DD: How many people will be with you?

ED: It depends on how much sponsorship I can raise. The best-case scenario would be two people who are always around me and a third person who follows us in the caravan. When we get out of the water, we’ll sleep in the caravan and then swim on the next day. That’s the best case. Four people, food, everything with us. One person does the 3,500 kilometres with a paddleboat, the other one with a motorboat – a small electronic motorboat for safety reasons.

DD: Where do you get the knowledge for training like this?

ED: The Internet makes it possible. I sometimes get people to film me so I can optimize my technical skills. Videos like this show your mistakes quite well. Apart from this my body is my most important coach, and I listen to what he has to say. I get a pretty good feeling of how I move in the water and of my stroke. I see this whole thing less as a challenge and more as an adventure. Maybe the infamous mid-life-crisis also plays a part! When you look at the scene today, endurance athletes are mostly around 40, long-distance athletes mostly over 45. Two years ago, Diana Nyad, a 64-year old American swam from Cuba to Florida.

DD: Do you actively follow stories like Diana’s?

ED: Yes, of course. Not so much in the past, but as I’m now very focused on swimming, especially as it’s not a very popular sport, I feel you need to search for stories. And then you get linked from one story to the next.

If I don’t manage to raise enough money through sponsorship, I’ll buy a boat, make myself suspenders and schlepp the boat behind me.

DD: What’s the specific plan for your project now?

ED: I will complete the project, no matter if I raise sponsorship or not. If I manage to raise some money, I’ll take people with me and will finish more quickly but if not, I will do it on my own. In that case I’ll buy a boat, make myself suspenders and schlepp the boat behind me. It will just take longer! Also there’s no way back with this option. I hope that I can gain some publicity through the media and be able to entice some specific companies to come aboard as sponsors. I also want to do a livestream, so people can follow me along the way, but not at any cost. In the end, it’s a sales deal, and for me there are clear limits.

Erik Demczuk Project Volga

Erik surrounded by 5 of his rottweilers. (Photograph by Jure Vukadin)

DD: That means you want to do it with as few compromises as possible? What would be a compromise for you?

ED: I don’t need to talk about compromise in a swimming project, as it’s only me who swims and I do everything the way I do it. When it comes to the media, I ask myself who do I want to work with. And then I have to make certain compromises with the companies that want to work with me. If, for example, a meat company came along, as a future vegan I wouldn’t even need to think about it as it’s clearly against my ethics. But if there’s a company that produces good products for dogs, that could be a match. Of course with my body I’m selling a product as well, but I would like to remain the centre of my own project.

DD: Do you have any aims for after Project Volga?

ED: No! This is a two-year project, so I’m not thinking about what will happen in the third year! But if everything works out well, I can imagine to take on some more challenges like this.

DD: Thank you for the interview, Erik.

More Information:

Official Facebook-Page
Special Thanks to Jure Vukadin Photography.

 ERIK_DEMCZUK_PROJECT_VOLGA_by_JURE_VUKADIN Erik_Reportage_Jure_Vukadin_web-16 Erik_Reportage_Jure_Vukadin_web-21 Erik_Reportage_Jure_Vukadin_web-24 Erik_Reportage_Jure_Vukadin_web-40  Erik_Reportage_Jure_Vukadin_web-74

Erik Demczuk Project Volga Extreme Swimmer

Erik Demczuk (Photograph by Jure Vukadin)



Contributed by

Manuel is an entrepreneur and journalist from Vienna, Austria and the CEO of DREAMA.TV. Besides he is running an online video agency and loves stories about inspiring people, projects and products.
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