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Underwater walker surfaces with record; Man travels 241.5 feet on a single breath

In the next update of Guinness World Records, the abbreviated account of the longest walk underwater with one breath should read something like this:

Joe Wilkie. United States. Aug. 5, 2011.

Wilkie, a 21-year-old resident of the Town of Tonawanda, smashed the existing record of 50 meters (a shade more than 164 feet) with an official trek of 73.6 meters (about 241.5 feet) Friday afternoon on the bottom of the pool at the town's Aquatic and Fitness Center.

"I went farther than I thought I would," said Wilkie, who remained in the pool while answering journalists' questions. The 25-pound weight he had carried to keep himself submerged during the walk rested at the bottom.

Someone asked, how does it feel?

"You accomplish something no one else has done, it feels good," Wilkie replied.

Employees of the town's Youth, Parks & Recreation Department used lasers to calculate exactly how far he walked. Their measurements, and a video recording made underwater, will be part of the evidence sent to London for verification.

Verification takes up to six weeks, according to the Guinness website; if the results are satisfactory, Wilkie will receive a certificate to mark his achievement.

The record-breaking feat for Wilkie, a veteran lifeguard who is the pool supervisor and a fitness trainer, began about a year ago, as rehabilitation after an injury.

"I swam on a regular basis, but I pulled a lower abdominal muscle and I couldn't swim anymore," Wilkie said in an interview hours earlier. "I get antsy sitting around. It was a pretty good workout."

He initially held 10-pound diving bricks -- used in lifeguard training -- in each hand to keep him on the pool's bottom. Then he started using a single, 25-pound weight from the fitness center.

"I could handle that much easier than two weights," Wilkie said.

A frequent visitor to the Aquatic and Fitness Center took notice of Wilkie's workout.

"I was actually walking under him that day. He stopped me," Wilkie said. They got talking and that's when the seed of pursuing a world record was planted.

Wilkie said he applied to Guinness and learned the record was 50 meters; he doesn't know where it was attained, by whom or when.

The length of the pool at the Aquatic and Fitness Center is 52 meters. "I've been doing that pretty consistently," Wilkie said.

His personal best -- before Friday afternoon -- was 65 meters.

His workouts had been done mostly without an audience -- not the crowd that attended Friday's event.

"That's what I'm very nervous about," he said Friday morning. "It's a completely different thing when you have people around, watching."

In the minutes before Wilkie's attempt, his parents, Eric and Judy, greeted well-wishers. Wilkie hadn't anticipated the attention the event generated, his mother said. "He's not a show guy. He's a 'Just get the job done' " guy, she said.

Dozens of people lined the edge of the pool in the E. William Miller Natatorium. Six banners, bearing handwritten messages of support, were affixed to a wall. A celebratory sheet cake awaited Wilkie afterward.

Wilkie began his walk at the deep end of the pool, gliding along the bottom with the weight clutched to his chest. After he touched the wall at the shallow end and turned around, anticipation grew about how far he could go.

The crowd broke into applause as Wilkie surfaced. "He even broke his own record," his father beamed.

Wilkie is a graduate of Cardinal O'Hara High School, where he played six sports his senior year. He's entering his senior year at Canisius College, where he's majoring in physical education and health education.

There'll be no victory visit to Disney World for this elite athlete. And his pool bottom-walking days are over.

"Come school time, I've got to focus on school," Wilkie said. "I've got a lot on my plate."

email: jhabuda@buffnews.com