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Community Hero: John Heffner keeps La Jolla Cove 10-Mile Relay going swimmingly

La Jolla resident John Heffner is organizer of the annual La Jolla Cove 10-Mile Relay swim.
(Courtesy)

Although the 2020 La Jolla Cove 10-Mile Relay was canceled out of caution due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers of the swim still wanted to raise money for the charities the event supports.

The 10-Mile Relay, dubbed “a celebration of swimming and community giving,” raises money for the American Diabetes Association and the Prevent Drowning Foundation of San Diego by hosting teams of no more than five who swim one mile at a time in relay, entering and exiting La Jolla Cove. Since its inception in 2000, the event has raised more than $150,000.

Those who would have participated in the 2020 swim in September were encouraged to donate to the beneficiaries, and about $3,000 was raised.

At the helm of all this for more than a decade has been La Jolla resident John Heffner.

“I have witnessed some of the countless hours of hard work that John puts into the organization of this event,” said Manuel Adum, who nominated Heffner for the La Jolla Light’s Community Heroes series. “Not everything is easy: dealing with the San Diego city offices or requesting support and sponsorship from local businesses. John has to recruit, motivate and manage a small army of volunteers. It is inspiring to see John do all this and much more with a smile and without any expectation of personal profit or recognition at all.”

La Jollan Bill Robbins, who swims regularly at La Jolla Cove and helps with several of the annual events in Scripps Park, said the 10-Mile Relay is run “like a symphony.”

“They accumulate volunteers that want to work together. Everyone works together so well, we don’t dread this event, we look forward to it,” Robbins said. “John is kind to work with and he’s never too serious. He’s just fun.”

Swimmers gather for a past La Jolla Cove 10-Mile Relay.
Swimmers gather for a past La Jolla Cove 10-Mile Relay.
(Courtesy)

The event was originally started by two other swimmers — one of whom had a son with diabetes — and invited swimmers to participate in a relay with proceeds going just to the American Diabetes Association. But around 2009, the original organizers could no longer devote sufficient time to the event.

“I’m an active swimmer — more back then than now — but I would participate all the time. So in 2009, when it looked like the event was slowing down, some friends of mine and I decided to keep it going on our own,” Heffner said. “We were approached and asked if myself and Tom Hecker wanted to run the event going forward, so [in 2010] we gave it a shot.”

The Prevent Drowning Foundation of San Diego was added as a beneficiary soon after.

Since then, there have been some choppy waters. In addition to the recent cancellation, the event had to move to La Jolla Shores a few times at the last minute due to poor water quality and construction of the lifeguard tower at La Jolla Cove.

But Heffner calls it “a labor of love.”

“We see it as a celebration of swimming and community giving,” he said. “We downplay that it’s a race, because people get competitive, but there are divisions and teams. It’s a fun event that people get to do. Because there is a lot of downtime on the beach while the team members are waiting for their turn to swim, there is a lot of people talking and building camaraderie.”

Heffner, originally from the East Coast, came to San Diego 22 years ago and took to ocean swimming early on. “It’s a fun little occasion of swimming in the ocean, but I don’t rank myself up there with people that do it all time,” he said. “I stop in the winter because it gets too cold.”

Of his nomination for Community Hero recognition, he said with a chuckle: “I don’t see myself at that level either. I’ve read the other [Community Hero] stories and they do amazing things. But I’m thankful and flattered my friends nominated me. I just love living in La Jolla and being active here and that I get to put on this event that draws swimmers from Texas and Mexico all the way up to the Bay Area. And we have had past Olympians. So we are proud of what we do and have a good time doing it.”

This year’s 10-Mile Relay is tentatively set for Sept. 26. But, Heffner said, “it’s a large group of people who are not masked, who travel in for the event, so it’s very up in the air. I’m 66 and not excited about hanging out with hundreds of people I don’t know. We’ll see where we are this summer.”

Community Heroes logo
(Daniel K. Lew)

The La Jolla Light’s Community Heroes series for the holiday period highlights people who aren’t often in the news but make a difference in the lives of others. Nominations for this holiday season have closed.