‘Swim Tuff: How I Swam My Way Out of the Bottle’ | All Sober Movie Night

Coming out of severe alcohol addiction, Ben Tuff barely knew how to swim. Ten years later, he makes a bold attempt to traverse the Narragansett Bay, taking on 24 miles of ocean in one day

November 19, 2023
Swim Tuff movie poster

Swim Tuff: How I Swam My Way Out of the Bottle | 47 minutes | Directed by Matt Corliss; available on Prime Video and Vimeo On Demand | 2023

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Near the beginning of the new documentary “Swim Tuff,” we see Ben Tuff in his kitchen in the middle of the night. A wall clock reads 3:08 a.m. Tuff eats two Eggo waffles, takes a pill and begins smearing on sunscreen.

Now, that may sound like the picture of a man deeply discombobulated by addiction, but it’s quite the opposite: Ben Tuff is preparing for what will be a very big day of his life in recovery. At dawn, he will jump into the Narragansett Bay from a dock in Providence, Rhode Island, to spend the next 13 hours attempting to swim 24 miles down the bay to Jamestown.

This feat, of course, would be an extreme achievement of strength and endurance for anyone, recovering from addiction or not. But as Tuff makes clear, marathon swims are not a strain on his 10-year recovery — they sustain him. “That’s why I swim. I spend so much time in my head when I swim, and I’m working through what I need to work through,” he explains.

“Swim Tuff” tracks two stories of struggle and triumph in parallel. One is the day of July 22, 2022, as Tuff battles unfavorable tides, shoulder pain and the myriad other physical challenges of swimming a full day in the ocean, sunup to dusk. (That early a.m. pill is an ingestible microchip that transmits Tuff’s vital signs to his support crew boating beside him. A swim of this intensity can be dangerous.)

The other story is one that’ll be familiar to viewers in recovery: that of a life nearly undone by alcohol addiction, followed by the yearslong path to overcoming it. In treatment, we learn, Tuff vowed to make himself “a better husband, a better parent, a better friend and better brother.” Soon, he connected with a sponsor who did triathlons, and despite his then-limited swimming abilities, he was off to the races. “You have to find something else to fill the void, I think, that you were trying to fill with alcohol,” says Ben’s wife, Gretchen. “And swimming, clearly, is his way.”

Ten years later, Tuff is notching remarkable swims year after year, but the true victory of his recovery is plain throughout the day of the swim and throughout the film. It’s his sisters, brothers, parents, peers, childhood friends, coach and wife riding beside him and cheering him on from the docks.

“When you do something like that,” reflects Tuff, “you realize that all these people are there for you.”

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