UPDATE: The long-distance swimmer believed drowned during the next-to-last-leg of a 120-mile marathon was an internationally-recognized AIDS researcher, activist and former professor at the University of North Carolina.
A spotter saw Charles Van der Horst, 67, of Chapel Hill go under and not reappear near the foot of the "Little Red Lighthouse" at Fort Washington Park near the George Washington Bridge just after 3 p.m. Friday, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
Van der Horst, a native of the upstate New York town of Olean, was participating in a 15.7-mile leg of the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim from the Tappan Zee Bridge to the GWB.
Billed as “the longest marathon swim in the world,” the competition was to cover 120 miles over seven days, beginning June 8 at the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, which spans the river between Hudson and Catskill.
Organizers canceled Saturday's final leg from the GWB to the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge between Staten Island and Brooklyn while a search for Van der Horst continued.
“The family of Charles Van der Horst of Chapel Hill, NC, is deeply saddened to confirm the loss of our beloved Charlie,” loved ones said in a statement.
“Charlie exemplified living life to its fullest,” the family said. “He put all of his passion and zest into everything he did, from his love of his family, friends and community, to his swimming to his work on social justice and in the medical field.”
At this time we ask that you respect our wishes for privacy as we mourn this tragic loss.”
An experienced swimmer, the UNC professor of medicine emeritus most recently worked as a consultant in clinical trials training and global health – including advising on implementing HIV prevention and treatment programs in 17 countries.
“Dr. Charles Van der Horst was a passionate and dedicated researcher, clinician and colleague during his many years at UNC,” The UNC School of Medicine said in a statement. “He was recognized as a leader in the research and treatment of HIV/AIDS, in North Carolina and worldwide.
“He was an incredible force for good, and led by his example of dedication to science and service.”
Van der Horst retired in 2015 after 17 years as a UNC professor.
“Prior to my retirement,” he wrote in his online resume, “I spent 25% of my time training infectious diseases fellows and teaching medical students, undergraduates and graduate students, 25% on patient care, both inpatient and outpatient and 50% on research focused in Malawi and South Africa ion prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV.
“I consult on global health and HIV research and program implementation, and help develop programs and write grants to fund them. Most recently, I helped UNICEF obtain $45 million/5 year from UNITAID to establish demonstration projects adolescent Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP in Brazil, South Africa, and Thailand.”
When he wasn’t traveling, Van Der Horst volunteered at a walk-in clinic for patients not covered by private or public health insurance.
He also became active in the weekly Moral Monday demonstrations, which began after state lawmakers banned transgender people from using their public restrooms of choice.
Van der Horst was among more than 900 protestors arrested and charged with trespassing in 2013, angered over lawmakers’ refusal to expand Medicaid.
“My heart is so heavy,” the Rev. Dr. William Barber, who founded Moral Mondays, tweeted. “Dr Van der Horst is among my deepest friends. I’m praying & crying for his family & so hoping there is a chance he is still with us.”
Van der Horst “was both a passionate clinician, researcher, and advocate,” University of Minnesota professor David Boulware posted on Facebook. “He saw firsthand how policy impacted people’s lives and didn’t stand by on the sidelines watching people die.”
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