Ben Tuff, Ultra Swimmer & Sobriety Champion

In 2023, Ben Tuff’s documentary, Swim Tuff, was released to great acclaim. Tuff, a record-holding ultramarathon swimmer, found recovery from alcohol and mental illness in 2012. Over ten years ago, Ben gave up the bottle, taught himself to swim and took on new challenges in his life one stroke at a time.


Clade: Talk to us about your work with Clean Ocean Access, your record-setting swim to Jamestown, and its connection to sobriety.


Ben: I knew I wanted to raise money, just for the accountability piece, because it keeps me on board and on task. If I have 450 people giving money to my endeavor for something that I believe in and that we all believe in, then I can't back out.





When I first started this with a swim around Jamestown, it didn't even cross my mind that I would do it for something like sobriety, or a center, or rehab, or anything like that. What I did think about is wow, like, if I can show that I appreciate the ability to swim in these waters, by it being clean, and by it being swimmable, then I've kind of made a mark on not only completing the task at hand, but also bringing attentions to the organizations like Clean Ocean Access, who helps preserve those natural resources.


And at the same time, it was a great way to let people know, and say, “listen: we can't take these things for granted. We can't just look at our environment and think that it's these waters are clean, because they haven't always been clean.” Organizations like Save the Bay, like Clean Ocean Access, in particular in our area have done so much to get the water where it is now, and we need to keep it there.


And the place that I didn't quite go until my movie [Swim Tuff] started was how that place and how sobriety, and how clear thinking have helped me and, most likely, others gain a better perspective of where we are and who we are and the role that we play in this world.


C: What impact has this part of your journey had on your family?


B: The best part is that I have been able to bring up my kids my way, not in the way that my family brought me up. Not that they did me wrong, because that's the way that it was always done, for generation upon generation upon generation on this island. It was a rite of passage. And for many people, at least, within my family, for sure, alcohol was at the center of all of it.


And suddenly, 11 and a half years ago, alcohol was no longer at the forefront of my life. And I'm so thankful that my kids were young enough that they don't remember me drinking, they don't remember my crazy days, and my erratic behavior, and now I'm able to bring them up into a hypersensitive culture, of dialogue, of looking at life, looking at habits, looking at healthy habits, looking at outlets, and also appreciating them now.


I used to spend so much time in the past and the future and not in the mindful moment of now. And without getting too spiritual or too religious, it's my swimming and my different adventures, that have forced me to focus on the now, while not forgetting the past, but recognizing it. I often say life is not always peaches and cream, and that we're going to have to go through difficult times. And until we go through those difficult times, we don't have that learned behavior of how to persevere. And my swimming has allowed me to develop that, to a certain extent, and apply it to the rest of my life.


And instead of drinking or using any kind of substance to relieve that like I used to, my kids can now say, wow, that's crazy: he is swimming 24 miles from Providence to Jamestown, instead of saying he's drinking another 12-pack of beer, right? Which it would have been if I had gone down that track, and not gotten the help that I needed.


And, you know, cycles, even the positive ones, are often broken. And, you know, for me to break the cycle in my own family has been so important. A good example of this would be the guy who was coming for the recycling. Over the summer, I was taking my dogs out for a walk. And he looked over at me and he said, man, this house used to have twice the amount of recycling and it was all beer and wine bottles. And now it's all Polar seltzers, what's going on in this house?




C: What are you thinking about when you swim?


B: It's so broken up for me when I'm doing those long swims, so I think from feed to feed. I stop and drink 17 ounces of water or electrolyte water and eat. So, every 30 minutes, I'm stopping. And that's no different than when I'm working out in the pool. I'm doing an hour and a half of swimming, and I'm breaking it up. And there are times where I just totally get lost, and my mind goes elsewhere. But it's almost like for me a dream state. And afterwards you're like, oh, like what was that idea you had? Like, what were you thinking?


But, you know, more than anything. I've learned that one of the major reasons why I continue to do them is because it reminds me of what I'm most thankful for.


And usually, it's the three people who are right next to me, Jake on the paddle board, David, my coach, on the boat, and Gretchen, and of course, my kids going in and out. But it's so important to remember that these journeys we're on aren't lonesome journeys. Even for people that think it is, there are always others that care and are there to shepherd you on your way just like you are for them. When I do these swims, I want it to hurt because it reminds me of what I've been through. And, and it reminds me that I don't want to go there again. And it's kind of like a reality check. Like, man, this is what living is really about. And it's not always gonna be smooth sailing, you know, it's not gonna be like the first six hours of your swim, where it's easy-going fun, joking around, you know, it gets tougher. And, that is for me what life often is.


C: When did you realize you needed that support?


B: For me, since I went through what I went through, and I totally relinquished control over my life, that direction of it, and I was forced to look upon both myself and the others around me as to who my true support network is, you know, overnight. When I made the decision to go and get help, I went from 20 to 25, friends down to five, overnight, and that was because the only thing that tied me together with those other people was the habit of drinking. We use it as a bonding cry, I guess, so that we could all pretend, in this false world, that we were actually making social connections, when it was all fake.


And once I gave up on that idea, I was very, very low, and just needed to be lifted up. And I saw the people that actually lifted me up, I realized who my true friends were. And so when I'm swimming and doing these things, it's, yeah, it's the people who are rallying around me and, you know, sending me letters and making donations to Clean Ocean Access and the costs. But more than anything, it's the team of buddies around me that I'm like, okay, I can't let these guys down. I gotta do it for them.


C: So that you feel a responsibility toward the team, their support?


B: Yes, 100 percent. I don't want to say I've ever come close to quitting; maybe I have in my head, but not outwardly. But I don't think they'd let me get close to quitting, you know, they figure out a way to buoy me up, because I know physically, I can do it. And they know, and David knows, that I can do it.


But what they don't know is how exactly to get me over that hump when things are really tough. But they got me over the hump of finding sobriety. And, that was 10 times harder. I'm sure.


C: Tell me about the idea of being selfish in order to take care of yourself.



B: In order for us to move forward, we have to be selfish. And they always say that addiction is a selfish disease because you end up making so many sacrifices in your own life to continue down that path. And in order for sobriety to be effective, you as well have to be selfish. And I remember I had this guilt right after I got out of rehab. Every morning I would go to a seven o'clock AA meeting, and then from there I would hop into the pool, where I learned how to swim. I would go for an hour to an hour and a half. And I felt guilty in the beginning. I'm like, oh, I should go home and be with the family. But then my sponsor said, no, you're doing this for your family. Yeah. Because you have to learn to be selfish, to do the things that you need to do in your own life, to go home and be the best person that you can be when you're present with them.


And I often use the analogy when talking to sponsees or people seeking my help: when you're on an airplane, they say you always have put your oxygen mask on yourself first, and then you put it on the next person. That’s what I've learned to do. We have to come to grips with priorities and taking care of ourselves and knowing that, at times, it may feel like selfish behavior. But if you really look at it, it pays off.


C: How did the film change things for you?


B: My brother, Chris, approached the director of my film, Matt Corliss, and said, do you ever do documentaries? And he was like, well, yeah, he had just done Social Dilemma and other big movies. Chris said, let me tell you about my brother. And, and he never mentioned anything about sobriety.  When Matt and I talked a couple days later, he was like, okay, so Chris was kind of wrong. This isn't a film about adventure, this is a film about recovery. I said, I think you're right. And it was at that point that I thought: I am going to be putting this out to the world. I was already pretty open about it. But I wasn't like, open, open about it.


C: What’s a day in the life for you, these days?


B: Oh, man. So, I get up at 5:30. And then I usually help students from China - interview skills, reading skills, writing skills, writing applications for schools, that sort of thing. At eight o'clock, I will usually roll down to Starbucks, do work until lunchtime, and then go for a swim. And then do work until my daughter’s out of school or out of sports, and then take her home. Things are gonna get different in the winter because I'm going to be a volunteer ski instructor for kids with disabilities.


C: What’s that like?


B: I told the director, you can give me the most difficult kid possible. Give me the most oppositional, defiant kid; give me the most ADHD; I can take them and we'll have a fun time. And she was like, you were the first person to ever request that in my 23 years. That's, you know, that's how I roll. So that will be fun. I'll be doing that a few days a week as well. Otherwise, I'm traveling and giving talks about sobriety at schools, fraternities, rehabs.


C: Is there a sweet spot age-wise for helping people?


B: Each one is its own. You know, for middle schoolers, it's: this is what's ahead, so get ready for it. high school, it's: you're going through this life you have to really start being careful and, let me tell you about my experience, and sobriety is actually fun, it's not boring. And then college is like, oh my god, like you guys are all a mess; let's start figuring out your life a little bit, and figuring out whether what you're experiencing right now is addiction, or is it just partying hard, you know, there's a very thin line. I've had five kids from fraternities come to me looking for help with various things, some from opiates, and some from alcohol. So, obviously, my message is getting through to some of them.


I’ve noticed that a lot of the other people doing talks about their sobriety journeys are talking about things like playing for the NBA, overdosing, losing everything and having to start all over again. When I talk to the students, I tell them, I was just partying hard. And then it tipped over to hiding it. And it being something scary, especially the mental health piece of bipolar, of getting through these troughs and drifting through these manic episodes. And I found they can relate to me much easier. And the counselors that I'm dealing with, they're like, Ben, I'll be honest with you, you're the only person that leaves their cell phone number with every single kid. And they take advantage of it.


C: What’s your greatest ambition?


B: My greatest ambition is to have the ability to just go and do my talks and not have to worry about money.




Ben Tuff, Ultra Swimmer & Sobriety Champion